Pickle butts, leftover juice pulp, and bruised beets sounds like a feast fit for a garbage disposal (or lucky raccoon). But I was about to eat these things in the form of a gourmet burger served by famous New York City chef Dan Barber, along with a “Dumpster Dive” salad of vegetable bits salvaged from a large-scale food processor, an egg laid by a table-scrap-fed hen, and a slice of spent grain bread. And if the menu hadn't deliberately called attention to it, I never would have suspected I was dining on the dregs of our food system.
For the last couple of weeks, Barber’s New York City restaurant, Blue Hill, in Greenwich Village, has been on hiatus while the pop-up wastED stepped in to transform culinary castoffs into mouthwatering meals. The entire restaurant has been given a waste-free makeover: Its walls are draped in row cover, the fabric that farmers tuck over their crops to protect them from damage. In lieu of flowers, the tops of parsnips serve as centerpieces (their “pockmarked” bottoms are pureed in a kale rib stew). Beef tallow candles throw soft light over tables made from mycelium and other compostable materials.
Barber, named one of Time’s most influential people in the world in 2009, is on the cutting edge when it comes to conscious eating. As the farm-to-table movement matures and the challenges of feeding the world in a warming climate build, learning to use every scrap is the next logical step.
The time is ripe—or, perhaps, almost rotten—for the culinary world to address the calamitous problem of food waste. This year, managing food waste made the National Restaurant Association’s annual list of top 10 food trends. “People are really interested in where their food’s coming from, and how sustainably and organically it’s grown,” says Dana Gunders, a staff scientist at NRDC (disclosure) who works on food-waste reduction. “But if it’s not eaten, it’s really a terrible use of our resources—no matter how it’s produced.”
In the United States, 30 percent to 40 percent of the food we grow winds up in landfills, where it decays and releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Meanwhile, one in six Americans struggles to get enough to eat. By 2050, the world will have to feed an additional two billion people. All the while, climate change will be busy screwing with the global food supply.
Those statistics could make even the biggest gluttons feel guilty, and that’s where Barber thinks restaurants like his might be able to help. When reducing waste is framed in the context of a great meal in a joyful environment, he says—not a shame-and-blame game—it may stand a better chance at working its way into popular culture.
WastED is a celebration of all food, not just the choicest cuts, and a showcase for what chefs do best: making something out of the ingredients they have on hand. “Chefs are really good at turning the uncoveted and the undelicious and the unusable into the delicious,” Barber says. “That’s what [wastED] is all about.” On each day of the pop-up, a different guest chef—the roster includes Food Network star Mario Batali and cronut inventor Dominque Ansel—contributes a special dish to the menu.
“The last thing I want someone to say is ‘For wasted trash food, this is OK!’ That’d be terrible,” says Barber. “It’s got to be super delicious.” And everything I tried was. (If you don’t want to take my unrefined palate’s word for it, read foodie author Ruth Reichl’s review.)
The concept of coaxing more life out of ingredients isn’t just for epicures and celebrity chefs—even when served up at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Manhattan. Nor is it anything new. The world’s cuisines each evolved within the limitations of a particular landscape at a time when cooks didn’t have the luxury of letting anything go to waste. In creating his menu, Barber drew inspiration from traditional dishes like pot-au-feu, the quintessential French stew that relies on low-cost cuts of beef.
It’s hard to say whether an event like this will help us waste less food, but getting people to talk about our trashy habits can’t hurt. And neither can seconds of that cocoa pod husk sorbet, right?
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.