Before last week, I would have easily said that the best meal of my life happened two years ago at Chef Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns, a farm-to-table restaurant in Westchester, NY, that focuses on local food, some of which comes straight from the farm it’s located on. If you’ve ever had the opportunity to dine there, you know what I’m talking about.
But now I think I’ve changed my mind—the best meal I have ever had was absolutely, hands down, the meal I ate at the original Blue Hill restaurant in Greenwich Village. You got it: same chef, same concept. But this time, I ate food waste.
So, first thing’s first—who is Dan Barber? The Beyoncé of the food industry, that’s who. He’s #flawlessly attempting to change our food system in the best way possible. Here are just a couple of things this guy is known for:
Barber is currently the co-owner and chef of Blue Hill New York and Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Simply put, both are well-respected, fine dining establishments that are built upon sourcing locally grown food. In 2009, he won the James Beard award for America’s Outstanding Chef and was named one of Time’s Top 100 most influential people in the world.
Barber is so passionate about what he does that he even wrote a book that calls for a dramatic transformation of the American food system, The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food. To put a face to the name, here’s a picture of Dan Barber, his pastry chef Joel De La Cruz and myself casually laughing together.
So why did he serve me food waste? Because from March 13-31, Blue Hill co-owners Dan, David and Laureen Barber are hosting a pop-up called wastED at the Greenwich Village location. The event is exactly what it sounds like: waste education. The Blue Hill team completely redesigned the restaurant to focus on what most kitchens would consider trash.
Not only did Barber create a menu with $15 plates that highlight food scraps, he also recruited a number of celebrity chefs and mixologists to appear as guests each night, including Dominique Ansel, Mario Batali and Dale DeGroff. They even altered the restaurant’s interior by collaborating with sustainably minded companies like Ecovative.
At first, I was baffled. This high profile chef was shutting down his restaurant for a couple of weeks to serve people what? Luckily I had the opportunity to speak with Dan about the event and he said that the pop-up was actually being very well-received across the board.
“From the beginning, we’ve been struck by how enthusiastic people are about the project—from suppliers who went out of their way to deliver byproducts that we could experiment with, to guest chefs who immediately volunteered to contribute a special to the menu, to diners willing to embrace dishes like ‘Dumpster Dive Salad’ and ‘Dog Food.'”
As different as it sounded, I was sold. The environmentalist foodie in me screamed, “YOU HAVE TO DO THIS.” So I did.
If no one had told me I was eating unfit vegetables (only deemed so because they’re ugly, damaged, or off-grade), repurposed bread, field corn used for animal feed or ethanol production, cocoa pod husks, spent grain from brewing or distilling processes, and dairy cow meat typically processed for dog food, I never would have guessed it was anything but top of the line.
There were obvious standouts, like the Juice Pulp Cheeseburger, which I would have been convinced was real meat if you had blindfolded me. But nope, no meat at all. Just vegetable pulp left over from a cold-pressed juice operation. If all veggie burgers tasted like that, I’d swear off meat forever.
Another winner was the Dog Food, a meatloaf made from “unsellable offal cuts” and a 7-year-old dairy cow from Blue Hill Farm, which are both normally used to make your pet’s daily meals—and frankly, it did kind of look like dog food. Yet the riced unfit potatoes and gravy paired so beautifully with the meat that, within seconds, I forgot I was eating something that I’d feed my dog.
The guest chef of the night was Alex Stupak, an acclaimed pastry chef who threw down his offset spatula to open Mexican restaurants Empellón Taqueria, Empellón Cocina and Empellón Al Pastor. His special dish that night was cured mackerel cut into tiny squares with tepache and cilantro stem salsa verde, topped with tiny slices of jalapeño.
I loathe Mexican food, but I tried it anyway; the presentation was too perfect not to. To my surprise, if I had the choice and a larger appetite, I would have immediately run to one of his restaurants after that meal to try more of his dishes. It was that good.
Now let’s hold up and talk about alcohol for a minute. The guest mixologist of the night was Dale DeGroff, commonly referred to as King Cocktail.
His two specials were a Bitter Orange Sour (LiV Vodka, orange zest syrup, pimento bitters) and Vodka Espresso (LiV Vodka, espresso, spent coffee grounds cordial), a nightcap inspired by Dick Bradsell. If I hadn’t already had a couple glasses of wine, which were also sourced from waste-conscious wineries that made special large format bottles, I would have had ten of each. I wish I was kidding.
So, what’s the big deal? Some might say this is a food event you just can’t miss. Others say that wastED puts the environmental and economic issue of food waste on the map. Either way, Dan Barber is ahead of the game, and that could mean big changes for restaurants and grocery chains alike.
“Bones, offal, vegetable cores—we try to find a place for these things in our cooking because they are part of what our landscape provides. It doesn’t make sense—ecologically or economically—to throw them away. That is the logic behind all of the world’s great peasant cuisines.”
The whole point of wastED was to highlight the increasing problem that celebrity chefs, home cooks and suppliers are facing: what in the world can they do with food waste? But the thing is, even busy, poor college students like us can do this too.
It may seem like an insane prospect to take a concept that was taught to you from day one (certain things are garbage, not dinner) and turn it around to make another meal (garbage = dinner). Chefs like Dan Barber don’t expect you to dumpster dive at the nearest grocery store to make your own Dumpster Dive Salad. He simply suggests opening your mind:
“As soon as we had the idea for wastED we conducted a waste audit, looking at what got thrown away or into compost, both in our own kitchens and throughout our supply chain.
The results became the starting point for our menu: What should we do with vegetable peels? Or fish heads and bones? Or bruised fruit? Those are questions that any eater or home cook can ask. And, more often than not, when you ask those questions you can find delicious answers.”
Until food scrap recipes become more accessible and widespread, Chef Dan believes that college students can still make a positive impact when it comes to food waste.
“In the meantime, we should also be encouraging better on-campus composting systems to absorb students’ post-consumer waste. That way, the waste is still feeding someone: the soil.”
I don’t know about you but, like I said before, I’m sold. I want—no, I demand—that food scraps make it to every one of my favorite restaurants. I need recipes on how to make my own cheeseburger from leftover vegetable juice pulp. So let’s do it; let’s be the ones to make it happen. After all, if it tastes good, does it even matter that I’m sharing a plate with my dog?
“I hope people leave here feeling excited about the ways that we can change our culture of cooking and eating. But mostly, I just want people to say: that was delicious. That’s success.”
This might be more than just a success; it might be the start of the next food revolution.
Ready to dive into the world of food waste? Check out these bad boys: