Journal

Dan Barber’s War Against Waste

30th March 2017

Interview: Killian Fox
Portrait: Dan Dennison

As wastED London draws to a close, the pioneering New York chef talks beetroot burgers, revolutionising restaurants and how he was inspired by Britain’s post-war food culture

Dan Barber, the hugely influential chef behind Blue Hill restaurant in Manhattan and Blue Hill at Stone Barns an hour north in Pocantico Hills, staged the first wastED event in New York in 2015. The idea: to join forces with local farmers, fishermen, suppliers and retailers to “reimagine by-products at every link in the food chain”. Things that are usually left to rot in the field, or are jettisoned at some point in the supply chain, or ignored in the kitchen, are given pride of place in Barber’s radical reimagining of how a restaurant should be.

For wastED London, which opened in February on the roof of Selfridges on Oxford Street and ends this Sunday, Barber has been preparing for a year and a half – seeking out like-minded producers, identifying perfectly good produce going to waste, and gathering other luminaries such as Yotam Ottolenghi and Alain Ducasse to join him on the pass for an evening. We caught up with Barber during the final week of wastED London to find out how it’s gone. (For our interviews with the rest of the wastED team, click here.)

How did wastED come about?

There wasn’t one “aha!” moment. I had been writing a book called The Third Plate over the course of 10 years and one of the themes that I kept coming back to was how all these different cultures around the world and their cuisines dealt with the entirety of what an ecological system could produce. And by entirety, I mean the things that they were forced into growing to enable the crops that they really wanted to grow.

Could you give me an example?

Okay, so Japan is a rice culture. The rotation crop to break up disease cycles and assure a healthy rice crop is buckwheat. Now the Japanese didn’t do what Americans do with buckwheat, which is throw it into dog food or plough it into the ground. The Japanese made it into soba noodles. Without saying anything about it, they made soba iconic and delicious and incorporated it into the traditions of the food culture.

Which is a much better way of dealing with potential waste.

Exactly. I saw the conversation as being sort of guilt ridden. You know, “We’re a wasteful society, one third of what we produce is thrown away, expired dairy isn’t really expired and bruised fruits and vegetables are actually pretty.” These things are important but the way of dealing with them is rooted in guilt. And to a chef, that always seems like an unpromising point of view.

The interesting thing about wastED is that it’s really encouraging you to be greedy. But greedy for the right kinds of things. It’s the kind of message I like to be a part of…

As chefs, we take what is supposedly unusual and uncoveted and we make it into something that’s delicious. Not out of any moral high ground or ethical impulse, but because we’re driven by the economics of a razor-thin margin business that dictates our having to transform these unutilised or undesired cuts and produce into things that people enjoy eating.
And so the other part of launching wastED was to advertise what chefs do every day. I found it interesting that more than half of the guest chefs we’ve had over the last month have cooked dishes that are replicas of what’s on their own menus. We’re not free in our restaurants to call out food waste, because it will supposedly not sell. With wastED, we wanted to wear all this on our sleeve.

So you’re able to talk more frankly with customers about food waste, because they’re already buying into the idea by coming to wastED?

Yes, but there’s a difference I think. In movements that require you to hit a goal, they’re usually asking you to give something up. And the interesting thing about wastED is that it’s really encouraging you to be greedy. But greedy for the right kinds of things. It’s the kind of message I like to be a part of.

fishnchips

Reimagined fish & chips with fried sardine bones, salmon ribs, cod skin and foraged seaweed. Photograph: wastEd London

I was surprised at the humour that runs through the menu. I thought it might have been a little bit preachy or po-faced, but actually it’s a very funny event.

Yeah we were trying to stay away from that. It’s just too easy to be preachy and the effect of it ends up lasting about as long as this conversation – and there are a lot of other things to be preachy about in the world right now.
So that would be the ultimate goal of wastED: if we’re really successful, these ideas become attractive in a way that supersedes a food waste event. The goal of wastED is that there should be no more wastEDs – that these ideas will just bleed into the everyday food culture. Take coq au vin as an example. You have a rooster that’s dry and tastes like leather. In America we feed it to fish, but the French figured out that with oxidized wine, at a very slow gentle braise, you could turn a throw-away chicken into an iconic dish. Same with bouillabaisse. Fishermen’s wives in Marseille would make a big soup out of all the trash fish, but they didn’t call it trash fish soup, they called it bouillabaisse. And it lives to this day as one of the great food inventions of the world. That’s just true of every culture. And it’s actually true of British cuisine too.

The goal of wastED is that there should be no more wastEDs – that these ideas will just bleed into the everyday food culture

Yeah I was going to ask, what have you learned from putting this event on in London?

Number one, we learned that the Brits are a thrifty culture – and it extends to food, especially after the world wars. Dishes like bubble & squeak, bangers & mash, faggots, and marmite even, these are all waste inventions that weren’t called waste. And so we’ve reintroduced some of those onto the menu.
Then we’ve looked a little bit at the current state of agriculture. I discovered there are 2 million hectares of wheat grown in the UK, with about 60–65% going to animal feed. That’s just the very definition of inefficiency. It’s one thing getting better with ugly fruits and vegetables. The harder question is, why are we feeding wheat to animals? And furthermore, why does Western culture need a 7oz piece of protein to centre the plate twice a day, seven days a week? It’s an exhaustive amount of resources. So at wastED, we don’t have a piece of protein on the menu that centres the plate. We have meat all over the place, but it’s done in conjunction with grains and vegetables in a way that’s more representative of the British landscape.
And I think that’s ultimately the most important point about wastED: we really need to try a little harder here. Not throwing away our leftovers is good, but compared to the amount of wheat we’re wasting, that’s nothing. That to me is a longer-term deal and the harder one to talk about.

We reduce that juice and because of the natural pectin in the beet, we get a thickened ketchup, which is really stunningly delicious

Could you nonetheless pick out a couple satisfying little interventions that you made for the London menu?

Since I’ve been on the phone with you, I’ve passed four or five juice shops. The juice craze is about as big here as in New York. And that struck me as really interesting. Now everybody needs to have their morning juices. But what happens to the leftover pulp in the juicing machine? So we went around and asked all these juicers, and they said here, take it. So we got this enormous quantity of beautiful fibre and flavour and we fashioned it into a hamburger. And it really does look like a hamburger because we grill the beet pulp over charcoal and it takes on the associative greatness of a grilled hamburger. We serve it on repurposed buns – old hamburger buns soaked in milk and yeast and remixed – and a ketchup made from Tesco’s leftover beet juice (and they had so much leftover beet juice). We reduce that juice and because of the natural pectin in the beet, we get a thickened ketchup, which is really stunningly delicious. Question A: should we really be drinking this much juice? And B: how can we be talking about food waste on one side of our mouth when we’re dripping fruit and vegetable juice from the other side? It makes no sense. So without pointing the finger again, because I don’t want to be like that, it really does call into question some of the high ideals if we’re not looking at it with a stringent eye.

What have you learned in the last month? Was there anything about food waste that you hadn’t clocked before? And did working with all these different chefs give you any new insights?

I’ve learned from everyone. With the guest chefs, I cannot emphasise enough how amazing it was to hear them list stuff from their own menu and describe it in waste terms. It’s just fascinating and super-inspiring and underscores why we did the project in the first place.
And from the chefs who’ve been here throughout, just to have a collection of energetic, young, super-driven people around you is the biggest lesson I’ve learned. This is the kind of environment that everyone should be working in. Being around these people just puts you on a whole another level. So really I won’t forget that for the rest of my life.

wastED London runs until Sunday 4 April 2017. More info at www.wastedlondon.com

The wastED team on their most mindblowing moments

Posted 30th March 2017

In Journal

 

Interview: Killian Fox
Portrait: Dan Dennison

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