Why One of the World’s Top Chefs Is Putting Food Scraps on the Menu
A friend of mine is a cook at what is widely considered one of the best restaurants in the country—three Michelin stars, a reservation book that’s packed six months out, dinners that run $300 a head. On his first day working there, he was given a box of arugula and told to pick out all of the leaves that were exactly two inches long and evenly shaped. The lengthy, irregularly shaped greens just wouldn’t pass muster in such an exacting kitchen.
I’ve thought a lot about that kitchen task since first hearing about it a few years ago. There’s something beautiful about the aesthetic it indicatees—exactitude and precision. The individual sorting of arugula leaves is in a way symbolic of fine-dining cuisine on the whole. It’s that kind of attention to detail—which most diners will never notice—that gives a great meal that ineffable quality that goes beyond flavor.
At the same time, I couldn’t help what wonder what happened to the rest of the arugula. Maybe it was eaten by the staff, donated to a food bank, or composted. But if only two-inch-long leaves of arugula could be served, a lot could be going to waste. Add it to the truckload of food thrown away at dining establishments. According to a 2005 study conducted by researchers at the University of Arizona, full-service restaurants dump nearly 50 million pounds of food a day. Across the food chain, from field to fridge, $165 billion of food goes uneaten in the United States every year.
Now, Blue Hill chef Dan Barber is putting the food waste issue front and center. On Friday, the Manhattan restaurant starts a two-week-long dinner series called wastED. Alongside kale ribs and pockmarked potatoes, there will be cucumber shoots and unlaid chicken eggs on the menu, signs that Barber is pushing beyond the popular understanding of the problem.
“To say, ‘We waste so much food, we’re such a wasteful society!’ That doesn’t do anything,” Barber told me on the phone Friday, the din of a busy kitchen audible in the background.
He said people have made one of two assumptions about the project. The first is that it’s all about using the “ugly” or misshapen fruits and vegetables that often get culled in kitchens and groceries stores. “The other assumption is that this sheds light on the exaggerated consumption of what it means to eat in America, and the exaggerated waste” that’s wrapped up with our consumer culture.
Coming from Barber, who has become a public intellectual on all things food over the years, that way of thinking is too compartmentalized. This is a person, after all, who wrote a nearly 500-page book that’s ultimately (and thrillingly) about soil fertility.
“The menu I guess sheds light on both of those things a little bit,” Barber said. “There are some past-their-prime vegetables and fruits, and the portion sizes are a little bit smaller than what [customers] might expect. In that sense it’s more in keeping with the theme of waste. But the real idea is to look at foods that we don’t covet, or don’t think are edible, and use the chef’s craft or creativity to make the inedible and uncoveted delicious and coveted.”
Case in point: cucumber shoots and squash leaves. Before today, I would never have considered either as something to eat, but rather a means to an agricultural end (i.e., photosynthesis). But after talking with Michael Mazourek, an assistant professor and plant breeder at Cornell University, I’m dying to try both.
“I’m not shocked when Dan asks for things anymore,” said Mazourek, one of two plant breeders Barber is collaborating with (along with chefs and others) on the wastED dinners. He’s supplying the kitchen with the harvests of crop varieties that are still being developed at the Cornell vegetable breeding program—food that would otherwise be composted. Mazourek said Barber is helping him and others expand our idea of what can be considered food—of what the ultimate point of growing a given fruit or vegetable is.
“We have some greenhouse cucumbers that we are growing and evaluating, and as you’re growing these cucumbers trellised up in a greenhouse, one thing you have to do is go and trim out all of the sideshoots,” Mazourek explained. At wastED, diners won’t be eating those experimental cucumber varieties, but rather the pruned shoots.
It’s a kind of thrifty, holistic approach that Mazourek says is both popular and necessary in the developing world. After a farmer plants his seeds, “You don’t know if there’s going to be some instability and you have to leave before the crop ripens” in a country like Kenya, for which he’s developing a squash variety that not only produces fruit but has less-spiny leaves to make them good for eating.
“The leaves have very different flavors” depending on the type of squash, Mazourek said. “Some have an incredible peanut-y aroma.”
In 2013, U.S. farms grew 630 million pounds of winter squash, according to USDA figures. A significant amount of that was likely never eaten for one reason or another—but very little of the leaves from those squash plants, if any at all, were consumed.
Barber said that many of the dishes that will be served at wastED are rooted in the cooking and agricultural traditions of other countries—although not always intentionally.
“Every time I turn around and think I was coming up with something creative or new or different, there would be an equivalent in a traditional cuisine,” he said. The deep-fried skate-wing cartilage on the menu—“the new chicken wing,” as the chef proclaimed on Twitter—has a centuries-long tradition in China, for example. The same goes for a pasta dish Barber initially believed was originally developed in his kitchen.
“We’re taking the off-cuts of the pasta—the pasta that doesn’t cut well, the pasta that falls off of the machine” at Raffetto’s, a pasta shop that opened in New York’s East Village in 1906. “They’re these little scrappy pieces that we’re making into a pasta dish with monkfish stomach—and it turns out that this very dish has a name.”
Discovering the history behind the ideas he thought he had innovated is humbling, Barber said. “It’s also really instructive: Cuisines are based on peasantry, and peasant cooking was about capturing waste.” At some point, some enterprising cook in the French countryside figured the old rooster that had recently been dispatched might not be too tough and stringy if it was simmered with red wine and cured pork on the just-warm hearth for a good part of the day. Today, coq au vin, Barber noted, is part of the French national identity.
For a generation of chefs who largely came up cooking in the French and Italian culinary traditions, the lessons of coq au vin are well understood. So much so that Barber says he and the other chefs involved in the project are making the most of ingredients, right down the ribs pulled out of leaves of kale, on a daily basis.
“We make it into ravioli and sell it for $17. That’s the way we utilize waste,” he said. The scraps go into stock, into braises—tucked into the menu here and there, out of the diner’s sight. The difference with wastED is that “We’re calling it out instead of burying it, calling it a vegetable broth or stew, where we don’t mention the kale ribs. I think that’s a big difference.”
The fine-dining focus on the issues of food waste is certainly appreciated by the likes of Dana Gunders, a project scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council and author of the forthcoming Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook. “It’s fantastic to see someone like Barber, with his reach, expertise, and knowledge of the food system, exposing how much food is going to waste, and how creative cooking can help address the problem,” she wrote in an email. “Each and every one of us can learn from this. There are tons of easy steps we can all take in our own lives, today, to reduce the amount of food going to waste.”
Barber’s hopes are ultimately much the same. As he argued in his book The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, the influence of high-end restaurants on the broader food culture should be leveraged to disseminate ideas that are good for the environment and good for people as well as delicious.
“Not that long ago, sushi was [considered] like eating insects,” he noted in our interview. “Before that, lobster was fed to prisoners, and there was a law against feeding it to the poor more than once a week. These cultural shifts in food happen very quickly in America.”
“Does this project start traditions like coq au vin? Eh, I doubt it,” Barber continued. “But the peasants had thousands of years to do it, so maybe this can kick-start something that lives on for a long time.”