Whether by coincidence or by fate, both my personal and professional life revolve around food. Whilst you might be already familiar with my foodie predilections, less known perhaps is that as an economic consultant I mostly work on projects aimed at improving agricultural productivity and practices.
So you can imagine my profound delight at having experienced WastED London this weekend, the much awaited pop-up from Chef Dan Barber. Dinner here was as sensational an affair as it was eye-opening, radically transforming my conceptualisation of the culinary food chain…
The hint is in the name, with the “ED” suffix laying emphasis on the educational aspect of Barber’s approach which champions all sorts of wasted ingredients – from byproducts to leftovers and seemingly imperfect produce, which would otherwise be binned.
Originally a three-week pop-up at his restaurant Blue Hill in Greenwich Village in 2015, this is the first time that the revelatory concept has crossed shores. The destination: the rooftop at Selfridges, which has fittingly metamorphosed to echo the ideals of the food waste movement.
Softly illuminated by lamps made from mushroom mycelium and plant fibre, the tables are styled from artichoke thistles and resin, while bar surfaces sport salvaged wood.
All the elements in fact showcase recycled or up-cycled materials, from the ceramic paint festooning Kristie van Noort’s Cornwall plates, to the dinner napkins which have been cut from the bolts donated from Rogers and Goffigon’s discontinued line of decorated textiles. Once used, these napkins will be further recycled into furniture.
Created in collaboration with local producers (including farmers and fishermen) and purveyors, the menu shines a spotlight on byproducts from every link in the food chain, which are often overlooked, forgotten about and/or simply discarded.
These key ingredients range from whey (the leftover liquid after milk has been curdled and strained), to juice pulp (and more). Collected in-store and from around the area, this leftover pulp from the cold-pressed juicing industry is fashioned into an astonishingly succulent patty, sandwiched between repurposed bread (made using a mash of other stale bread) and served with a ketchup based on the runoff collected from cooking and processing beetroot.
The imaginative dishes similarly find a delicious use for the cylindrical cores of spiralised veggies (these are dressed using the liquid from canned chickpeas, whipped into a creamy meringue-like texture); cauliflower ribs; outer leaves of cos lettuce (which are transformed into a sprightly guacamole); spinach stalks and broccoli stems. Even the pea skin is saved – ground into a flour, and turned into a Scandinavian hard bread and presented alongside with whey ricotta.
Rescued veal (the male offspring of cows which are often shot at birth) and cod cheeks are on the menu, as are fish and chips like you’ve never had before (they involve skin and bones, not to mention waste potatoes).
Barber’s epicurious insights thus also challenge our perception of “imperfect” produce and plants. Each table is presented with a wilted kale tree (left behind after in the fields) and pair of scissors, with diners encouraged to snip off the leaves to try (they have a remarkably tasty bite to them). Veggies and potatoes which don’t quite meet supermarkets’ exacting specifications are cooked into a classic bubble and squeak. Compressed caviar from the bottom of caviar trees is served too, their taste intact despite the less-than-perfect structure.
As for the flavours, they sing with a natural simplicity which is only enhanced by a skilful seasoning showing off under-utilised condiments. These include mango scraps, phytoplankton (an algae that forms the very basis of the food chain) and even bone charcoal – carbonised animal bones which add flavour during the grilling process.
That Barber’s Blue Hill restaurant at Stone Barns in upstate New York is number 48 on the World’s 50 Best List, reflects in the exceptional execution of each dish. Even the vegetable tempura wowed – upon my prodding, it was revealed that the batter is mixed in small batches (so that the soda water remains bubbly) and is maintained at a cold temperature, thus explosively reacting with the hot oil to yield an impossibly light coating on the vegetables.
Another draw at WastED London is the rota of eminent guest chefs who will make an appearance each night with their unique waste-food special (and chosen soundtrack). Alain Ducasse headlined the opening night, whilst my visit introduced me to Doug McMaster – the head chef at Silo Brighton, a zero-waste restaurant leading the sustainable food movement in the U.K. His dish on the evening was deceivingly simple, involving just three simple elements – carrots, milk and lemon.
I say deceivingly, as the fermented carrots had been cooked in a compost suffused with the pulp of lemons (intercepted just before they were about to be thrown away). The sweetness of the sand carrots in particular permeated beautifully, while a tangy – lemony – touch was added by a cheese curd made from whey .
The bottom line of zero waste manifests in the desserts too – from the dehydrated cupcake crumbs rescued from Lola’s in the Selfridges Foodhall (they added a scrummy crunch to the ice cream float) to the “waffle scraps” (discarded trimmings from a waffle biscuit producer) which lent a unique twist to a classic treacle tart.
And it turns out that wasted ingredients are rather drinkable as well, with whey offering a frothy substitute to egg whites in a Deez Beez Sour (a twist on the Whisky Sour, also involving lime husk citrus and smoked water).
Whilst the wine list is marshalled by wastED Chances. Sort of like a wine lottery, you take your chance with a “wasted” bottle of wine (not deemed as sellable). If you’re lucky, you might land up with a vintage reserve which could otherwise have set you back hundreds of pounds… and if not, you can send it back to the bar, where it will be turned into vermouth.
We took a chance and found ourselves sipping a classic claret.
Having recently re-watched Chef’s Table Season 1 on Netflix, Dan Barber’s thought-provoking words couldn’t help but flood back into my stream of consciousness much later that night.
The highest level of humaneness pushes the best flavour.
Serving a much broader purpose than just the memorable enjoyment of that singular evening, the holistic idea of the meal definitely resonated with me with long after the dinner.
Dates: 24th February until 2nd April 2017
WastED London, Selfridges, 400 Oxford Street London W1A 1AB
To join the waiting list, you could visit their website here, or check for cancellations by calling 020 7788 6210.
I sampled the chef’s tasting menu on the evening, but was not a guest of Selfridges or WastED London.
All picture are my own, so please provide due photo-credits if you would like to reuse them.