Some cooks are into looks. They want produce pretty enough to win pageants.
But the kitchen at Spisehuset Rub & Stub doesn't mind when ingredients are ugly, as long as they taste good. Rub & Stub works with the crumbs of the food industry, crafting its menu out of "surplus food" that would have otherwise been thrown out.
The European Commission estimates that Europe throws out 100 million tons of food each year. That whopping number doesn't even include fish discards or agricultural food waste. Food becomes surplus for reasons as varied as standardized sizes, overproduction, lack of warehouse space, inadequate packaging or, simply, bad looks.
Rub & Stub co-founder Sophie Sales decided to find a way to address the issue and began brainstorming solutions with a friend. "We agreed that this food waste problem would be pretty cool to work with, and came up with an idea for a catering kitchen," Sales tells me. They partnered up with RETRO, a non-profit organization in Copenhagen that runs a chain of cafes and donates the proceeds to education projects in Sierra Leone.
Sales still needed a kitchen, so she checked out Denmark's largest and oldest cultural center. "I knew that they had a kitchen in the basement that we could borrow, maybe. Then they invited us up to the first floor, where they have this restaurant, totally empty. They told us, 'If you can just change this from a catering business to a restaurant with 120 guests, you can be here. You have to do it within three months.'" With just a bit more than 1,000 euro, they opened Rub & Stub in September 2013.
Currently, 40 percent of the ingredients used at the restaurant are donated; they buy the rest. At the beginning only 25 percent was donated, but their goal is to reach 60 percent.
"There are huge amounts of surplus food that we never see because it doesn't even reach the stores. And that's normally what we serve. It's what we call all the 'freak fruits' and the 'freaky vegetables,'" Sales laughs. "Everything that has different sizes—maybe too-big potatoes or weird-colored carrots."
Apart from two chefs and a project manager, the restaurant is powered by more than 100 volunteers who cook, run the bar, canvas for new suppliers, pick up donations, and take orders.
That people run the restaurant as a hobby and not a livelihood gives the project its character and energy, but it also makes it unpredictable. "It might happen that people don't show up," Sales tells me. "It's very seldom, but we're not allowed to call and say, 'Come in or you're fired.'"
Because of their location, Rub & Stub attracts people who are already in the building, perhaps for a film or music gig on a different floor. "Maybe they smell the food in the stairway and drop by. Some of them get surprised when the dish is served and see that the portions are quite small [to limit food waste]," Sales says. "The atmosphere gets a bit tense until we explain that we want them to eat it all, and if they want more they can get a free refill."
Unpredictability plays a major role. The name of the restaurant means, roughly, "lock, stock and barrel" in Danish, which is to say everything or anything. The menu might include chili con carne or moules marinières one day, and blueberry ice cream and meat casseroles the next.
The reaction to the project has been enormously positive. "We weren't ready," Sales chuckles.
But that success also means that Rub & Stub has simply gotten too big to remain in its current location. "We're getting a divorce," Sales tells me about their relationship with RETRO. She has recently launched Help Us Not Get Wasted, a fundraising campaign to buy Rub & Stub (and its kitchen equipment) out from RETRO.
"We are on our own now. We're looking for new partners. It's the same people, the same volunteers doing what we always do, but now all of the bank accounts have to be in our own names," Sales says.
Even though Rub & Stub has attracted press from Iceland to Thailand, its concept isn't new at all. "This is what human beings have been doing forever, until maybe the 60s and then we forgot."
"We dig into old recipes from World War II. There's a lot of good tips from back then," Sales says. "We have this World War II cake—a potato cake, from one chef's grandmother. She used potatoes instead of marzipan. And it's amazing! I wouldn't have guessed if I wasn't told."
One of the restaurant's chefs, Søren Grimstup, is working on a cookbook based on leftovers, a sort of manual of how to use up ingredients. Potatoes are destined to make many appearances.
Their donations have now become more regular. "People heard of us and wanted to support us, but they were kind of afraid. 'Is this even legal? And is it dangerous?' They didn't want to sign up and have their name anywhere." But now they have regular donors, such as Fødevarebanken, Copenhagen's Food Bank, Emmery's bakery, a local food collective, farmers, and supermarkets.
No ingredients can be expired, and ingredients in their last days have to be used right away or frozen.
That makes for challenging menu-planning. "If you say potatoes, they almost run out of the kitchen right away," Sales says of her chefs. "Because you get half a ton sometimes, and we just have to use them—otherwise, we would ruin our own concept. If you have to use 500 kilos of potatoes in a restaurant with a lot of regulars, you have to be very creative to not scare them away."
"We also got a lot of fish donated, which I didn't expect," Sales recalls. "We had a weird fish, an invasive species that is new in Denmark: sortmundet kutling [round goby]. They eat all the shrimp. There was this bureau that tried to open Danish people's minds to eating it. It was very small and full of bones and it tasted good, but you have 16 kilos of a tiny fish that looks so ugly and you have to use it right away. That was a hard one, but we figured out that we could deep-fry the fish whole. You can eat all of it, with the head."
Although Rub & Stub touches on food politics, it isn't interested in abstract debates. "We're focused on not pointing fingers. Everyone knows that we have to change stuff, but we want to talk about the small details that you as an individual can begin with."
Like eating ugly potatoes and opening people's minds to even uglier fish.