We spoke to chef and food waste campaigner Dan Barber about wastED, his new London pop-up that serves dishes made with produce that would have otherwise been chucked.
The amount of food the world wastes is staggering. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, a third of all food produced gets wasted somewhere within the food system. This ranges from "ugly" veg left to rot in the fields to offcuts lost in processing, fruit chucked by supermarkets, and leftovers left that fester at the back of our fridges.
But what if the solution to our global food waste problem could be found on the roof of a London department store?
Well, that's exactly what wastED, a pop-up food waste restaurant that launches tomorrow at Selfridges on Oxford Street, hopes to do. But as I make my way through groups of tourists milling around beauty counters and up the escalators to find out more, I'm not totally convinced.
The month-long project is being spearheaded by New York-based chef and food waste campaigner Dan Barber of Blue Hill restaurants. Barber hosted a wastED pop-up in New York in 2015 to great acclaim, collaborating with the big names of the city's food scene. His stint in London will be no different, with the UK's top chefs, including Isaac McHale, Gordon Ramsay, and Fergus Henderson, all set to cook alongside Barber throughout the month.
"The reason for doing the project is to expand the definition of waste," says Barber as we sit in Selfridges' airy rooftop space. "It would be very easy and unproductive to come over here and talk about a bruised fruit, an ugly vegetable, or an expired dairy product, and wagging our fingers. We're much more interested in the dietary patterns and modern food culture traditions that, because of their popularity, force a waste on the food system."
In the last few years, a flurry of food waste restaurants have opened across the UK. Their work in using produce that might otherwise have been thrown away should not be undervalued, but Barber wants to take things further. The core ethos of wastED is that at some point in every cuisine's history, everyone was a food waste chef and a lot of restaurants are already food waste restaurants.
"Every peasant in one point in the history of any country's culture was confronted with, for a long period of time, trying to eke out what the land can produce and make it delicious," explains Barber. "You weren't allowed to waste. There wasn't food waste because you couldn't afford food waste."
He continues: "This morning we were talking about French cuisine and bouillabaisse. The stew used fish that farmers couldn't sell or damaged fish that came off the dock. The fishermen's wives would create a magical fish stew. They didn't call it wasted, they called it bouillabaisse."
And, he argues, it's in any chef's DNA to take what's considered unusable or unwanted and make it delicious.
"On the menu tonight at my restaurant Blue Hill in New York, we have a lamb and winter vegetable ravioli," says Barber. "Well, the braised lamb is leftover from last night's lamb shoulder that didn't sell and the vegetables are the off cuts of another dish. I didn't call it wasted ravioli, but here we're calling it what it is."
While encouraging people to rediscover a nose-to-tail and root-to-stalk creativity in the kitchen is part of wastED's message, Barber also hopes that the London pop-up will prompt people to question their day-to-day food choices.
"If you're a person who is concerned about food waste and then eat a meat-centric plate of food, twice a day, seven days a week, that diet is creating a tremendous amount of waste," he says. "It's truly inefficient to grow acres of wheat and then feed 80 percent of it to animals."
He continues with another example: "At wastED, we're repurposing leftover bread from e5 Bakehouse in Hackney, but what I'm really interested in is the bran that's wasted from people who want white bread and not whole wheat bread. When you want white bread, which I think accounts for 95 percent of the English bread market and 99 percent of the American bread market, you're essentially throwing away the best part of the wheat seed."
"We can talk all we want about sustainability but we need to start with our own diets. Everyone eats three times a day so you're voting three times a day. I think wastED is one way to start activating this idea."
After speaking with British farmers, producers, processors, and distributors, Barber was able to write a menu that pertains specifically to this country's food waste problems.
"Let's take the trend for juicing. What happens to all the pulp that's leftover in the juice-making process? It gets thrown away," says Barber. "So we've taken it and repurposed it into a vegetable burger—a juice pulp cheeseburger in fact. The buns are old, stale hamburger buns that we've mixed with milk and water to make new buns. The cheese is off-grade cheese that a cheesemonger doesn't sell and we're using it for melted cheese."
Barber picks up the printed menu in front of him and says: "Let me pick out another evocative example for you."
He continues: "OK, here's one. There's a big sugar beet industry here in England but when you press them for the liquid which is reduced to sugar, you're left with pulp similar to the juice pulp. So, we've shredded it and making a sort of potato galette but instead of potatoes, we're using sugar beet pulp."
"And it's all delicious. We're not interested in presenting an idea if it's not delicious."
It's almost time to let Barber get back to the kitchen, but I'm interested to know whether he ever feels as if he's preaching to the converted. You would imagine that the diners at an upmarket restaurant like Blue Hill and indeed anyone who can afford to eat at one of London's swankiest department stores would be well-versed in the problem of food waste.
"I'm a big believer in preaching to the converted because they'll sing a little louder," Barber says diplomatically. "And the people who can afford to come to this pop-up, even though we've tried to make it as democratic as possible, are generally the people who are utilising most of the world's resources and need that message more than most."
Working my way back down the floors of Selfridges, dodging the perfume counter for a second time, a comment Barber made earlier plays on my mind: "Like the fashion showcased in Selfridges, good ideas with food start up high—in this case, up on a rooftop. Then they work their way down into the mainstream and bleed into the culture."
I had initially dismissed it as a cheesy soundbite but on reflection, maybe he has a point. The Selfridges wastED pop-up might be gone in a month but the ideas Barber plants on people's plates and in their minds should stay with them at least until they descend the stairs and back out onto the streets of London.
Maybe they'll even swap the weekly white loaf for brown.