By Susan Low
Before the launch of wastEDLondon, I met with Dan, who lives in New York, where he runs two of the US’s most influential restaurants: Blue Hill (in Manhattan) and Blue Hill at Stone Barn, in upstate New York, which is a working farm as well as an educational centre.
As well as a chef, Dan is an outspoken advocate what might be thought of as the veg version of ‘nose-to-tail’ eating. His book The Third Plate: Field Notes in the Future of Food, outlines a way to integrate agriculture and the food chain in a way that’s less wasteful and more respectful to the environment – truly ‘sustainable’.
Following the success of wastED in NYC, London was the logical progression. “While American experience is based on abundance, English food is a lot about thrift,” he explained. “In many ways I’m not teaching anything, I’m learning and re-inventing old ideas interpreted in a modern context with modern food trends, shedding light on things, which I think it’s the role of the restaurant to shed light on.”
There’s a certain irony to watching people willingly devour the likes of cauliflower leaf ribs, courgette ends and potato peelings – the sort of stuff that’s ordinarily consigned to the bin – and being confronted with a whole cod’s head, which fishmongers routinely chuck away (even though they harbour some of the beast’s tastiest morsels).
While I was prepared to like the food, I was surprised at just how much I really enjoyed it, how amazing it all tasted. The dishes that I liked best were the simplest: broccoli stems served with a whey béchamel and a savoury ‘crumble’ made of the dried bits of aged beef (I said yes to the optional dried pig’s blood, grated over the top), and cauliflower leaf ‘ribs’ served with a chive-flecked sauce made from the drippings of jamon.
Other high points were the epic fish and chips, which included deep-fried bladder wrack seaweed, fish heads and salmon skin and salmon head kedgeree, for which the massive cod’s head is served up at the table, with a delicate bowl of kedgeree made with broken rice, crunchy spelt bran and ‘trial rye’.
What looked a lot like McNuggets but were made from the meat of veal calves. Wait staff patiently explained how veal calves, surplus to requirements in the dairy industry, are usually shot at birth, but that by collaborating with the farmer, these calves’ lives were extended, not wasted.
There’s of course a very serious side to wastED. Food waste is something that no food lover with a conscience can continue to ignore. Dan Barber’s genius approach makes the unsavoury bits truly savoury, truly delicious. And it makes you think – and may just change the way you eat (I vowed never to chuck away broccoli stems or cauliflower ribs ever again).
And, as good as this food is, surely that’s the best part?