Next to the canal in Hackney Wick sits a collection of warehouses and old factories. Before the regeneration of east London and investment from the 2012 Olympics, many of these plots stood empty or were used as factories. Now, they house clubs, theatres, bars and restaurants – soon to include Silo, a zero-waste restaurant from chef Doug McMaster that relocates to the capital from Brighton this week. Although the space is more of a building site when I visit, Silo is well-placed in a recently gentrified area like Hackney, home to large swathes of middle-class, environmentally conscious Londoners.
This is a very different landscape to the one in which Silo first opened in Brighton. The year was 2014: Scotland had voted to remain part of the United Kingdom, Obama was still in power, and front page news stories about the climate crisis or plastic pollution were practically non-existent. Five years earlier, in 2009, McMaster won the BBC Young Chef of the Year Award, and wanted to throw his cooking talent behind something meaningful.
“I won a national cooking competition, and I remember this very unique feeling of emptiness,” McMaster tells me when we meet at the craft brewery below the new Silo site, drinking a passion fruit kombucha. “Everything promises you’ll find something at the top and there's nothing there.”
Opening a sustainable restaurant wasn’t McMaster’s first thought. In fact, he hadn’t even heard of the term. Then he encountered Joost Bakker, an artist who works with waste material, described by the New York Times as the “poster boy for zero-waste living.” Suddenly, turning waste food into creative dishes became a challenge that might help fill the empty void.
“I felt like I could apply my energy to something that meant something to me,” he explains. “I wasn't just cooking.”
And so, McMaster opened Silo Brighton. A fine dining, zero-waste restaurant, its menu was built around the produce available from local farms, prioritising seasonal gluts of vegetables or under-ripe fruit fover exotic ingredients. Meat would be cooked in the nose-to-tail style, finding a use for every possible part of the animal. Flour was made using the inhouse mill that gave the restaurant its name, and turned into bread that was served with hand-churned butter. McMaster’s team also came up with innovative uses for the restaurant’s waste products, including mushrooms grown from coffee grounds, and fermenting or pickling the vegetables that didn’t make it into dishes. Any food that wasn’t eaten was composted in an aerobic digester, which makes up to 60 kilograms of compost in just 24 hours, and returned to the farms. Even Silo’s plates were made from recycled plastic bags, and its crockery from crushed glass bottles.
Despite Brighton being home to the UK’s only Green MP in 2014, the city wasn’t wholly welcoming to McMaster’s radical new restaurant. Residents accused Silo of being overpriced and pretentious, particularly outraged at its use of recycled jam jars as glasses. Further controversy ensued when McMaster claimed, in an interview with Big Hospitality in 2017, that Brighton was “not the right place for Silo” as it lacked a “contemporary food culture”, and that he had to “dumb down” his recipes.
“When you're different, you're a target,” says McMaster. “We probably wouldn't have survived without that publicity, but equally, it brought on a lot of negativity. Because you know what people are like when they read things in the paper or online.”
When McMaster talks about the criticism of Silo Brighton – “You know, ‘Who's this pretentious bullshit hipster talking shit?’" – I get a sense of lingering hurt. He collects himself. “Crying over spilt milk perhaps,” he says. “No big deal. [But the publicity] wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Maybe more of a bad thing.”
After five years of running Silo in Brighton, McMaster’s building lease came up for renewal, and an opportunity presented itself in London. Not only was he now a more experienced restaurateur, but times had changed dramatically. Today, the urgency of the climate crisis has infiltrated the mainstream. Protests like Fridays For Future and Extinction Rebellion’s stunts have drawn the world’s attention to the impending climate crisis, working in tandem with high profile activists like Greta Thunberg. In the last four years, the UK government has banned plastic straws and stirrers and taxed plastic bags, and numerous supermarkets have introduced environmental pacts (some more helpful than others), while over 250 media outlets are publicly committing to covering the climate crisis. I don’t need to tell you that the food industry causes 0.6 million tonnes of food waste a year, or that industrialised farming has surpassed oil in greenhouse gas emissions because you probably already know this. You’re also probably not called a “pretentious bullshit hipster talking shit” for caring about the environment.
So, what changed? “In two words: David Attenborough,” says McMaster. “Or Blue Planet.”
“That was in our third or fourth year [of running Silo Brighton],” he explains. “And I remember we were so busy, and we were like, ‘Why has this surge come?’ We couldn't figure out why – we’d done no press recently, we'd not changed the menu, [but] we'd got so much busier over the last few months. And my colleague was like, ‘I think it's Blue Planet.’”
From there, everything seemed to accelerate with Silo and McMaster’s zero-waste mission. In 2017, he and bartender Ryan Chetiyawardana opened CUB, a London restaurant focused on sustainable food production. A year later, he was invited to do a TEDx talk on food waste, and won the Innovation Award at the Craft Guild of Chefs Awards. “It just went mainstream,” says McMaster. “That’s made life so much easier for me.”
Life may be easier compared to the pre-Blue Planet days, but running a profitable a zero-waste restaurant in a world of industrialised food production is still a challenge. McMaster is keen to emphasise that Silo has not made him rich. Relocating to London has involved a long process of finding new suppliers willing to work with him on the sustainable model he created in Brighton, as well as being close enough to Hackney Wick to ensure minimal food miles. One farm – luckily, a mere 30 minutes away – is willing to source vegetables without with biodegradable packaging and reusable crates, but finding a suitable dairy farm has proved trickier.
“Getting that system in place in hard,” McMaster says. “But you know, the hard work has been done. Once that system's in place, it's easy.”
These difficulties don’t seem to have impacted the menu at the new London Silo, however. Sample dishes include grilled fantail squid, white kimchi and Douglas fir, blue potatoes with barbecued sea kale and caramelised whey, and golden linseed ice-cream with fig leaf oil. If my experience of eating at CUB is anything to go by, then the plates will be carefully presented, and without the restaurant’s highly publicised ‘sustainable’ label, you’d unlikely notice a difference in standard from any other high-end restaurant.
“I create menus from what's happening in the system,” McMaster says. “So the system might be that there are loads of unripe tomatoes, and I’ll do something with that. I kind of react to the supply chain.”
Which shouldn’t be an unusual way to respond to food, really. “It's just reacting to what's happening on farms, and that's the way food systems should work. All around the world. It's the complete opposite [now] and that's the problem. We demand what we want from nature, but that's not what nature does, that's not in the design, and that's what sustainability is.”
McMaster pauses. “Don't get me wrong, it can sound a bit woo-woo,” he says, “because there is a line and what I need to do also is offer something that is desirable to the public. My history is in good restaurants so I’m very inclined to cook nice foods. I’m not gonna just cook whatever and splodge it on a plate. I want it to be delicious and accessible and affordable.”
Silo London opens this week, and the fact that it’s not weird; not crazy hipster bullshit marks an important change in attitudes towards sustainable eating. Perhaps other restaurants will follow suit and more diners will acknowledge the damage caused by excessive food waste. But McMaster isn’t so sure.
“I become obsessed with seeing the bigger picture, and it's not good,” he says. “Just look at the destruction [humans] have created. We've basically wiped out so many species on the planet, we're basically destroying the Earth, and when you see it from that perspective, we are terrible. Absolutely vile. I'm sort of nihilistic in that view.”
This isn’t a call for apathy, says McMaster, but a reality check: “I'm not moody – I'm opening a zero-waste restaurant,” he explains, “but I do have a perspective, and it's not an optimistic one.”