American chef Dan Barber recently ran his pop-up WastED at Selfridges in London, a restaurant where all the dishes that were prepared and served to guests were made using food that would have otherwise been thrown away.
A chef on a mission
Dan Barber is leading a culinary revolution in a way that no other chef has done since Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal wowed the world with a scientific reframing of what a dining experience could be.
Since then, it is not hard to find triple cooked chips, emulsions, gels, sous-vide loins and liquid nitrogen ice cream in variously successful forms in many new UK restaurants chasing the Michelin starred dream.
WastED stands for ‘waste education'. It is an event that Barber first started in 2015 in New York City which he has reprised this year in London. Barber is shining a light on the culture that surrounds food production and waste. Showing that with incredible skill and technique, waste products can be transformed into impressive plates of food.
Food sustainability is not a new idea. Bouillabaisse, coq au vin, black pudding, bubble and squeak – these are all dishes initially conceived of as a way of using up leftovers, before we had the abundance of wealth and choice at our fingertips and on our screens we have today.
Chefs have also taken up the fight. Jamie Oliver persuaded Asda to start doing ‘wonky fruit and veg’ boxes in 2016, winning a ‘Product Innovation of the Year’ award and selling over 120,000 boxes in its first year.
Similarly, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall took a petition with over 870,000 signatures to Brussels, which later led to European politicians voting to change fishing practices to end discarded catches.
But Barber is different. Barber is not just challenging people to just get better at using up the broccoli stalk in a stir fry, or save our chicken bones for a stock. Barber is fundamentally challenging the culture that surrounds food creation and disposal, considering all the resources used in the production and the origins of the ingredients.
Barber wants to provoke and inspire people to follow a new kind of food culture. This new food culture is one that values all the resources that go into that final product. That includes the animal feed for rearing livestock, the energy needed to process raw materials, and even how much water is needed to grow fruit and vegetables.
Creating dishes that symbolise the issue
When Barber was thinking about how to make a statement with WastED in London, he needed a dish that would symbolize what he was trying to do. The answer lay in ‘Veal McNuggets’.
Months before the launch of the restaurant, Barber asked a dairy farmer to take six male veal calves that would normally have been shot and thrown away a day after birth and instead rear them on their mother’s milk and in the fields to later be used for this dish.
They are called ‘McNuggets’, not just because they are deep fried morsels of deliciousness, but the name is meant to tell the world that these too could be readily available if we started to think differently about our food systems.
Whilst in London, Barber walked past a trendy juice bar and asked them what happened to the pulp that comes from all that juicing. The answer – it gets thrown in the bin. Barber took the leftover veg pulp back to the restaurant and designed a dish for his menu – a veg pulp cheeseburger.
Why is this important for brands?
Barber is driven by the fundamental belief that the current food system is not sustainable and we need a radical transformation around how we think about food for the sake of our health and the environment. He is telling that story through incredible statement dishes such as the Veal McNuggets and Cod Head Kedgeree.
Many brands talk about sustainability, but too often they get it wrong. The sustainability narrative from brands is usually something tagged on at the end by the marketing department who were told that they have to demonstrate that they have something interesting to contribute to the company’s CSR programme.
Why should sustainability be something that brands tackle at the end? Why do brands hide their sustainability message behind their advertising and primary media?
There is a big opportunity for brands to learn from chef Barber. Barber has shown that by bringing together people from all aspects of the supply chain and applying creativity, they are able to not just produce a product that is acceptable, but one that people are willing to pay Michelin star money for the privilege of trying.
To make a difference it will take bravery from brand owners, supermarket buyers, supply chain managers and raw material providers. It might even cost a bit more money to save waste than to get rid of it.
Companies have come to accept that reducing waste is the only sustainable way forward. What it needed now is a brand to stand up, step forward and say that zero-waste is what it is going to stand for.
Strategist at eatbigfish with a full-time interest in the Arsenal and gastronomy. Ben was part of Marketing Academy's Alumni 2015.