5 -min. read

Farm-to-table, nose-to-tail, or trash-to-treasure? Whatever you call it, a new vanguard of chefs are educating diners about the provenance of their plates by upcycling waste into wonder. Blue Hill head chef and wastED co-founder Dan Barber tells Olivia Squire why mindful dining will disrupt the future of travel.

This year’s most innovative food and beverage ‘trend’ isn’t actually new at all; in fact, it’s about the oldest way of eating there is. However, in a world of eternal summertime and abundance, where being in season is more likely to signal following the latest foodie fad than living off the land, we’ve simply forgotten about it. And Dan Barber is on a mission to erase our collective amnesia.

Anyone who’s avidly watched the Netflix documentary Chef’s Table might recognise Barber as the progressive voice behind Blue Hill, a New York City restaurant that had its moment of reckoning back in 2000 in the form of several surplus crates of asparagus. Incited to fury by the potential wastage, Barber decreed that every item on the menu that night would contain the vegetable, even down to the ice cream; lo and behold, following a fortuitous visit by critic Jonathan Gold, he was heralded as the leader of the new ‘farm-to-table’ movement. The opening of companion restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns in 2004, a farm 30 miles north of the city, consolidated Barber and co.’s reputation for cooking with a conscience.

Dan Barber

Back to the present day, and ‘farm-to-table’ has become such an ingrained part of food culture that it’s even passed into parody (see sketch show Portlandia’s sublime satire of a hipster’s journey to the cult-like Aliki Farms as evidence). However, in his continued ascendance to ethical eating guru, Barber is pushing the philosophy to new levels by embracing the concept of transforming ‘waste’ products into high end (and high price, with small plates starting at £15) dishes fit for Michelin-star menus.

Initially conceived as a pop-up in New York City in 2015, wastED (the ‘ED’ stands for ‘education’) is a “community of chefs, farmers, fishermen, distributors, processors, designers and retailers…creating something delicious out of the ignored or un-coveted and inspiring new applications in our food system”. In February of this year, it moved to the rooftop at London’s Selfridges for its first transatlantic outing, inviting chefs including Alain Ducasse, Raymond Blanc, Jason Atherton and Gordon Ramsay into the kitchen alongside Barber.

The kitchen at the wastED pop-up in London Selfridges [credit: Gareth Davies (top) and Richard Boll (bottom)]
Scanning the menu, we were greeted with a litany of decidedly un-chef-y descriptions: rejected, pockmarked, broken, forgotten, stale, ugly, failed. However, the genius of wastED lies in its ability to elevate such ingredients to the status of table heroes, each announced with reverence by servers – and each unfailingly delicious. We feasted on thought-provoking reinventions of fish and chips (fish bones and skin), cheeseburgers (juice pulp patties with bacon runoff ketchup) and kedgeree (an entire cod’s head accompanied by broken rice, spelt bran and trial rye).

Barber is adamant that, as we did, people react with curiosity and then delight to this initially confronting terminology and technique. “Our concept of luxury is shifting,” he asserts. “It’s indicative of a changing food culture, where there’s an appetite not just for new ingredients, but also for the stories behind them.”

Indeed, wastED is part of an accelerating global shift towards the repurposing of waste ingredients in food and beverage, with Barber emphasising “Cooking with the whole animal isn’t a new idea, of course. At wastED, we partnered with over 20 guest chefs, and they’re doing this kind of work every day.” From the aquaponic greenhouse used by San Francisco’s The Perennial to Oslo’s HIMKOK concept bar, which grows cocktail ingredients in hydroponic turbines; from star bartender Ryan Chetiyawardana’s ‘closed-loop cocktails’ in London to the revolutionary The Silo in Brighton, described by Barber as “an experiment station for zero-waste cooking”: chefs worldwide are responding to consumer demand for guilt-free, conversation-starting cooking that places value on impact as well as taste.

This reinvention of the role of chefs from back-of-house artists to front-of-stage activists is an accidental rebellion, arising from the creative challenges presented by this new way of thinking. Barber explains, “The world’s best chefs aren’t glorifying steak and foie gras on their menus anymore, in part because those things just aren’t that interesting to cook. Instead, they’re exploring the diversity of vegetables and grains and celebrating ingredients that are unique to their place. That’s really opened the door for conversations like this.”

In an article for The Guardian, food critic Jay Rayner asks, “Why should we now be so fascinated by the lives of cooks? Partly it’s because, in an increasingly urbanised age, they are our last genuine artisans. They take raw materials and manipulate them directly for us, which almost nobody else does.” The work of Barber and his counterparts can be seen within this context, whereby modern luxury has come to represent the handmade, creative and, ultimately, meaningful. As Barber remarks, “Chefs have the power and the platform to innovate in ways that are often adopted by other cooks and eaters…it’s impossible to separate the education from the experience of eating. It’s a lot easier to win minds and effect change in the context of a delicious plate of food.”

On the floor at wastED London [credit: Richard Boll (top) and Gareth Davis (bottom)]
This attitude, marrying the traditional hedonism and pleasure inherent in the act of eating with our contemporary preoccupation with mindful business, resonates with the current definition of luxury – wouldn’t it be wonderful to imagine that by adopting more sustainable agricultural and dining habits, we could both enjoy food that tastes better, and reverse climate change? With current agricultural processes accounting for up to 50% of greenhouse gas emissions, this isn’t just a far-flung dream: Barber explains that to reach this goal, “We’re going to have to draw on culinary traditions and classic techniques, but in a thoroughly modern context. That’s true in both the kitchen and the field.”

Achieving such grand ambitions requires the high degree of determination common among all rebels; indeed, when questioned about what being a rebel means to him, Barber is quick to assert, “Courage and self-sufficiency.” One also suspects that a certain degree of humility and self-sacrifice is involved; rather unusually, when it comes to the future, Barber hopes that his concept won’t exist. That’s because if all goes according to plan, it won’t have to: “I have no idea what comes next. If we do our jobs right, there won’t be any need for wastED; these ingredients will just be expected parts of our everyday eating.” So forget trends: Barber is looking to transcend them altogether. If your ultimate goal is to make the avant-garde mainstream, maybe being forgotten is the ultimate reward.

Dan Barber in the kitchen at wastED London [credit: Richard Boll]

Tim Snell

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