Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Celebrity chefs are at the helm of an avant-garde restaurant on top of Selfridges department store.
There’s far more to managing food waste than eating ugly vegetables, says Dan Barber. The chef, who launched New York’s much-praised Blue Hill restaurant in 2000, arrived in London last week to start a discussion about just where the growing interest in minimizing food waste
The pop-up, which runs until April 2, tries to reuse as many materials as possible: Tables are made from crushed fabric remnants, almost as hard as wood; chairs are constructed from bio-resin and artichoke thistle; the food is a riot of ingenuity.
The lunch, tea, and dinner menus at WastED London—which run about £35 per person—are packed with resourceful offerings that might seem outré now, but could possibly become templates for future trends. Barber and his team collected fresh vegetable pulp from local juice bars, for example, to create a kind of meatless, char-grilled burger with a reddish, beet-filled heart that gives the impression of rareness. The kitchen is also extracting juice from sugar beets (a common crop in Britain) and turning the remains into Swiss-style Röstis brushed with fat extracted from the discarded caviar sacs that hold sturgeon eggs. Instead of coffee, the restaurant is serving light but deliciously floral cascara, an infusion made from coffee bean husks. Discarded in bulk as a coffee-industry waste product, these husks risk acidifying rivers near coffee-growing regions.
The avant-garde menus are created by Barber with a team of top chefs including Alain Ducasse, Gordon Ramsay, and Yotam Ottolenghi. These chefs are part of a wave of food professionals and organizations reaching beyond the niche of high gastronomy to encourage the industry to be less profligate with resources, and inspiring consumers to think a little less wastefully. Whether it’s Anthony Bourdain’s upcoming documentary on food waste, or Massimo Bottura’s pop-up project repurposing Olympics leftovers to Rio’s favelas, chefs have been key figures in the food waste conversation.
Meanwhile, more grassroots schemes such as Britain’s Real Junk Food Project have connected consumers with perfectly good, cost-free produce that would otherwise be left to rot. If Barber’s opinions are anything to go by, however, this wave of waste-busting may soon take a different tack.
That’s because to change our imperfect food system, Barber tells CityLab, we can’t just reroute unused produce: We need to rethink production. “We should not just be thinking about ugly fruit and vegetables and expired dairy products. That stuff is low-hanging fruit,” Barber says. “It's important because there's a lot there, but it pales in comparison to our everyday food habits.”
In addition to thinking about how to manage neglected scraps, Barber adds, diners need to think more broadly about diet. “A centre-cut steak—or just any seven-ounce piece of protein—that's the westernized expectation for a plate of food, but no one says it's wasteful,” Barber says. “In America, we have 120 million acres of corn and soy, but 80 percent of that goes to feed animals. That level of waste buries our problem with so-called ugly fruit.”
This, Barber says, requires correction on the most basic level in ordinary kitchens—in restaurants and in homes. ”If you're dispirited by the level of waste, the best thing you can do in your own home is cook,” he adds. “That makes you by definition less wasteful. If you want to go the extra mile, don't cook a protein-centered plate of food, but let grains and vegetables take center stage. That doesn't necessarily mean vegetarian: I eat plenty of meat, I just want to do it in proportion to what the landscape can provide.”
Rather than eating a center-cut steak, for instance, a cook could use a meat classically considered a trimming, such as oxtail, to add flavor to a dish otherwise comprised of vegetables, legumes, and grains.
A high-end restaurant might not be the most obvious place to start a revolutionary rethink of these issues, but Barber points out that blazing a trail at the upper end of the market can clear a route for others to follow. When Barber ran WastED’s first incarnation, running for three weeks in March 2015 at Blue Hill in New York, his team struggled to persuade a vegetable wholesaler to sell them the cut produce they were discarding simply because a sorting machine deemed it the wrong shape. “We had to move mountains to get the company to capture, create codes for, and package those vegetables—they ended up being more expensive than buying their regular produce, but we did it to prove a point,” Barber says. “Once they’d gone through the machinations, the wholesaler realized they had a business on their hands. That business is now thriving and many chefs are using their product, called SparCs, because it’s now half the normal price.”
In London, Barber is finding that things are a little different. In some ways, Barber says, British approaches to waste are already more evolved. “In America, we’re just waking up to the waste issue, but Britain offers more ways for engagement that are tethered to its culture,” he says. He points to a set of British dishes (many with counterparts elsewhere in Europe) that center on using scraps deliciously: bubble and squeak, made with leftover roast vegetables; shepherd’s pie, with leftover lamb; haggis, containing sheep offal; and Marmite, a salty spread derived from leftover brewer’s yeast.
Still, these thrifty food traditions haven’t prevented Britons being all-but waist-high in waste themselves. Just like America, Barber says, Britain needs to rethink aspects of food production and consumption. Barber cites the dairy industry, which shoots most male calves at birth. “Veal has to become part of the sustainable diet here,” he says. “If you took all the male dairy calves around the U.K. alone, you could create a fast food joint. And you could be doing it basically for free.” Veal nuggets—bite-sized cuts of breaded meat that resemble the chicken bites at McDonald’s—are on the menu at WastED London.
Apart from breaded veal bites, coffee husk tea, and pulp burgers, what might the less-wasteful foods of the future look like? Barber is optimistic about whole-grain porridges—the freshly milled type, not the currently available shelf-stable kind that’s been stripped of all its flavor.