British chef stirs up food waste kitchen revolution

A young cook working in a high-end restaurant, Douglas McMaster once saw hundreds of gem lettuces peeled into the bin and thrown out with only their root served as garnish.

As a young cook working in a high-end restaurant, Douglas McMaster once saw hundreds of gem lettuces peeled directly into the bin and thrown out with only their root served — as garnish.

That was one of the experiences that drove McMaster to open Britain’s first zero-waste restaurant, one of a rising number of eateries on a drive to cut food waste as millions of people in a growing global population struggle to get enough to eat.

“We like to think of zero waste as not having a bin,” said McMaster, a talkative 31-year-old with long hair and hipster beard, who won the young chef of the year award from the BBC in 2009.

British chef stirs up food waste kitchen revolution

Chef Douglas McMaster prepares food in the kitchen of Silo, a zero waste restaurant in UK.

Food waste is increasingly viewed as unethical in a world of rising hunger and environmentally destructive, dumped in landfills where it rots, releasing greenhouse gases, while fuel, water and energy needed to grow, store and carry it is wasted. Globally, one third of all food produced — worth nearly US$1 trillion — is binned every year, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Saving a fraction of that would be enough to feed the 815 million people that go to bed hungry every night and could help meet the needs of a growing global population, set to reach 9.8 billion by 2050 from the current 7.6 billion, UN agencies say.

Chefs stand accused of being wasteful in their kitchens with the hospitality sector accounting for almost 10 percent of the food thrown out by shops and consumers in Britain each year. But growing numbers are joining the ranks of entrepreneurs and innovators working to tackle the issue, backed by socially-conscious consumers who support a United Nations target to halve food waste at consumer level by 2030.

Some chefs like Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall have used their celebrity status to raise awareness or campaign for new regulations. 

Others have launched concept restaurants, soup kitchens and social enterprises that turn waste into meals.

McMaster opened his restaurant, Silo, in Brighton in 2014, sourcing from local farmers, avoiding packaging and trying to put everything into a dish, including by-products. Whey left from making cheese transforms into sauce for potatoes, while bread crusts become miso soup, McMaster said.

Remains and indelible parts, such as egg shells and bones, are turned into compost and handed back to farmers.

“Every natural thing has a purpose, you just got to find out what that purpose is,” said McMaster, sipping a cup of coffee in an office which uses disposed materials like industrial floor tiles and cabinet frames as furniture.

McMaster acknowledges his restaurant has little impact in the global fight against waste but he hopes it can set an example. Restaurants, hotels and catering services are increasingly trying to reduce what they bin, many of whom due to the awareness that cutting waste is also good for business, said Liz Goodwin of the think tank World Resources Institute.

A 2017 study found cutting food waste boosts income and lowers costs, and several big chains, including KFC and Nando's, have committed to reduce their output in coming years.

But Goodwin said while businesses were cutting waste, families were slow to do so despite producing more than 70 percent of all post-harvest waste. 

“If the chef says it is really important not to waste food, that is a message costumers will take home,” she said.

In June last year, Michelin-starred chef Massimo Bottura of Italy opened a new restaurant in central London, the Refettorio Felix, which doesn’t welcome wealthy diners but caters for the poor cooking meals from supermarket scraps.

Unlike soup kitchens, guests don’t queue but are served at the table surrounded by the work of artists and designers. Bottura and more than 50 other famous chefs have cooked at the restaurant, with recipes and tips compiled into a cookbook aiming to teach people how to reduce waste at home.

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