Imagine a fine-dining restaurant that operates without a single dustbin. Or a Michelin-star worthy tasting menu cooked from leftover food scraps. Both are a glimpse into the world of zero waste cuisine, a burgeoning culinary movement spearheaded by a handful of innovative chefs.
“I think there should be laws in place to stop food that is fit for human consumption being thrown away by businesses,” says Tom Hunt, the UK chef behind Poco – the eco-friendly restaurant that opened last month in London. In a climate where one third of the food produced around the world amounts to 1.3 billion tonnes of waste, Tom is a vehement follower of the zero waste philosophy. Each day, his staff itemise and weigh the scant amount of rubbish they generate in an effort to continuously analyse and decrease any surplus litter.
With France recently passing a law banning supermarkets from destroying unsold food, and other cities across the globe start to sit up and address the issue, Tom’s wish is beginning to come true. San Francisco is ambitiously pushing for zero-waste by 2020 and France aims to halve its food waste by 2025. South Korea on the other hand, has managed to decrease household waste by 30 percent with the introduction of a draconian but effective initiative in 2012 that requires individuals to pay for rubbish disposal by weight. Bins there have in-built scales.
“The zero waste movement is more than just an obsession with reducing physical rubbish. It’s a reactionary backlash to an industrialised system rife with processed food.”
For many chefs championing this ethos, the zero waste movement is more than just an obsession with reducing physical rubbish. It’s a reactionary backlash to an industrialised system rife with processed food. “Zero waste has spurred us on to look back to a pre-industrial food system over 200 years ago when there simply was no waste,” says Douglas McMaster, chef and owner of Silo – the UK’s first zero waste restaurant, which opened in Brighton last September.
Douglas’ restaurant sources food directly from farmers and producers and harks back to age-old food production techniques. Leftover milk from the coffee machine is used to make buttermilk. Flour is milled on-site each day to make bread and beer is brewed in the basement from leftover yeast from the bakery. Thanks to a water electrolysis system that gives tap-water antibacterial properties, even cleaning—from the tables to the toilets—at Silo is chemical free.
It was Joost Bakker, Australia’s evangelist for the zero-waste movement, and Douglas’ former mentor who created the original Silo restaurant (now closed) in Melbourne in 2012. He licensed the Silo brand to Douglas this year. “When I ran Silo in Australia, we operated without a single rubbish bin. We only used package-free ingredients that didn’t generate waste and worked directly with suppliers. Eggs came in the same containers used on farms. Whiskey and vodka came in barrels, cider and milk in kegs. We were the first people to work with a local mineral water to eliminate bottles and serve it on tap – something that is now common in Melbourne,” explains Joost.
“In South Korea people pay for rubbish disposal by weight. Bins there have in-built scales.”
A florist, artist and hospitality guru, Joost has opened numerous temporary and permanent zero waste restaurants across Australia. He practises what he preaches and lives in what he refers to as a recyclable home—every part and element of the house is fully recyclable if it were ever demolished—that he built and designed himself. Projects have included Melbourne’s Brothl (now closed due to a council dispute over the outdoor compost unit), an eaterie that served broth from leftover bones of restaurants and Greenhouse, a pop-up restaurant that was powered by mustard seed oil.
Joost has even harvested customer urine to fertilise fields of mustard seeds. “There are 7 billion people creating the world’s most perfect natural fertilisers loaded with all the minerals plants need!” he says. His approach has piqued the interest of major corporations such as McDonalds and Australia’s national airline Qantas, who have both implemented sustainable practises under his passionate tutelage.
The son of a Dutch tulip farmer, Joost grew up spending many hours in the recycling yard next to his uncle’s farm – a childhood pastime that sparked his passion for rubbish and most importantly, soil. For key figures in the zero waste movement like Joost, Douglas and New York chef Dan Barber, soil is the building block of their cause. “We are wasting food and mining our soil. To get better tasting, nutrient-rich food we have to replenish the soil with nutrients, by turning food waste into compost,” he says. Thanks to Joost, the idea that composting is a social responsibility that should go hand in hand with being a chef is catching on amongst the profession’s elite.
“Joost Bakker has even harvested customer urine to fertilise fields of mustard seeds. ‘There are 7 billion people creating the world’s most perfect natural fertilisers loaded with all the minerals plants need!’ he says.”
René Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen and Alex Atala of DOM in São Paulo have started using a revolutionary new machine called CLO’ey, invented by an Australian firm called Closed Loop. Incorporating microbial technology discovered by a Korean marine biologist in the nineties, the machine reduces organic waste by 90 percent in 24 hours and converts it into an odourless, nutritious compost filled with healthy bacteria to enrich the soil.
“Everything that grows gets all its nutrients from the top 12 inches of the soil. Zero waste is about the whole circle of life. Over time, nutrients will be depleted from the soil, but Closed Loop and composting can put organic matter back into the soil,” Robert Pascoe, Managing Director of Closed Loop, tells Amuse.
In the world of zero waste, everyone’s hero is Dan Barber, the chef behind Greenwich Village’s Blue Hill Farm. He also inspired OzHarvest—Australia’s food rescue organisation—to open a food rescue café in May this year. The eloquent chef can be spotted on stage at TED talks around the globe and made headlines in March this year with his pop-up wastED, which he hosted from Blue Hill in New York. A thought-provoking success, wastED saw a roster of guest chefs create dishes from food cast-offs like smashed pulp, rinds, bones and even the stray noodles that get stuck between pasta rollers.
“It’s not about materials being recyclable, it’s about them being avoided in the first place.”
Dan fervently believes that it’s imperative for people to start understanding what true agricultural sustainability is. Though we may have felt smug about dining anywhere with the farm to table label, Dan argues that farm to table cooking is just a case of impassive consumer behaviour. People overlook the crops that farmers need to cultivate in rotation to replenish their soil and yield high-demand crops like wheat. Consequently, less popular crops go unsold and go to waste. Dan expands, “You have to address our fundamental patterns of food production and consumption. In the US, for instance, farmers grow 90 million acres of corn, yet only a tiny fraction of that goes to feeding people directly. What’s more wasteful than that?”
In a revolutionary move, Dan created an ode to farmers and crop rotation with a dish called “rotation risotto” made from less common grains such as rye, barley, buckwheat and millet. “This dish was the first time I saw a chef who truly understood how food was grown. It pays homage to farmers. Dan knows the value of soil and the importance of replenishing the land,” says Joost admiringly.
Championed by role models such as Joost Bakker and Dan Barber, the idea of zero waste looks to turn the hospitality industry on its head and gain traction as an ideology based on pure common sense. As Dan explains, “To me, zero waste means making the most delicious and ecologically efficient use of our landscape. It means maximising diversity in our diet and incorporating the often overlooked crops and cuts of meat.”
If we want to truly tackle food waste head on, then we need educate ourselves. As Joost neatly sums up zero waste, “It’s not about materials being recyclable, it’s about them being avoided in the first place.”