In the UK food industry, food waste is estimated to cost a staggering £5 billion per year. While some chefs may have a cavalier attitude to organic waste, Douglas McMaster, a chef with 12 years experience in international kitchens such as St. John, Greenhouse by Joost in Melbourne, and Quay in Sydney, has returned to the UK to open the first zero-waste restaurant in a monochromatic warehouse in Brighton.
Silo, set to open in September, will seat 50 people and work in what McMaster describes as a "Pre-industrial Food System," dealing with the sources of the (strictly seasonal) produce it uses, completely cutting out the middle man. Silo will make its own yogurt, ferment its own vinegars, mill flour, grow mushrooms, create chocolate from bean to bar, and will essentially work back-to-front, always with the bin in mind. This means no plastic packets, no shop-bought cleaning products, and certainly no food scraps sitting in stinky bins—a £22,000 compost machine, the first of its kind in the UK, will see to that. We sat down for a chat with the man who thinks "waste is a failure of the imagination."
Munchies: Hi Douglas. How was the idea for Silo was born? Douglas McMaster: When I lived in Melbourne I worked with the Dutch-born artist Joost Bakker. He's a fifth-generation grower (naturally, being Dutch) and is completely connected to nature. Silo is the restaurant concept we created together in Melbourne—he would farm all the produce using compost we created from our food waste. He's the biggest inspiration in my life and comes up with the most innovative ways of using waste. He even creates artwork out of waste materials.
OK. Why create Silo in the UK now? Joost and I created Silo in Melbourne two years ago and I was running it for a year there. The momentum and growth of the concept was intoxicating but, while I had to return to the UK for family reasons, and in spite of my rich career elsewhere, I didn't have much of a reputation in the UK. It was going to be a real challenge for me. I was walking by Brighton University one day and by chance came across this stunning warehouse. I knocked on the door and spoke to the owner of the building, asking if I could rent it. He asked me what I was going to do with it and was so taken by the idea of Silo that he's been involved ever since.
You must have seen some shocking food wastage over the years? Oh, absolutely. In a (very famous) restaurant in Sydney they made something called "pig gel" which was made by reducing huge quantities of pig cheeks down to a marble-sized gel. The process involved masses of plastic which couldn't be re-used for anything. It was shocking. Another place used only the core of a lettuce, meaning we threw away all the leaves.
Blimey. Have you had to adapt your cooking style to create the Silo menu? Not at all. I used to work at St. John, which was a real game changer for me. No matter which Michelin star kitchen I was working in afterwards, I retained their core values of respecting nature and its ingredients. It's a way of life for me. When you cook for so long, and are so connected to your art form, it becomes intuitive when an idea—or way of doing things—is right or wrong.
Right. My philosophy on food is just to let nature dictate what we cook. The food system of today is completely the opposite, though. We force and manipulate nature to suit our needs. I mean, why do we have pineapples on the wrong side of the planet and why do we still eat tomatoes in January? It's one of our biggest mistakes and is causing an ecological meltdown on the planet. Whatever is naturally created at any one time dictates what we serve. On our first autumn lunch menu we'll be serving dishes like roast chicken with walnut pesto, buckwheat and turnip tops, or brown rice risotto with oyster mushrooms and sheep's milk curd.
Do you have a good relationship with your suppliers? Well, that's one of the tricky points. I need to establish the legitimacy of the restaurant and my intentions before I can go and ask people to change how they work. I want to completely cut out the middleman and go directly to the suppliers, only buying what is naturally in season.
Fair enough. What about this £22,000 composting machine I've read about—are you funding this all yourself? Thankfully, no. Joost is an ambassador of the recycling company Closed Loop. They supplied the compost machine to Silo in Melbourne and the popularity of the concept in Australia has meant over a hundred have been sold to the top chefs there. I have the smallest and only one in the UK. 60kg of compost can be created overnight, though I'll only make that much in a week. Hopefully, like in Australia, it will filter into the mainstream for the better. I'm going to put the compost we create in a box labelled 'Free Compost', because that's what it's all about, promoting the recycling of waste by as many people as possible.
But it's not just food waste you have to think about, surely? No, of course not. That's where Jesus Water comes in.
Pardon? (Laughs) That's our nickname for Eowater. It's electrolysed, oxidised water which was originally created in Japan for cleaning open wounds.
OK. And this fits into a new restaurant how? It's three times more hygienic than actual soap! It means we're creating all our cleaning products on site and therefore eliminating the waste generated by the packaging of soaps, sanitizers and cleaning products. It's a pure, simple bit of science that supports our principles. It's a £30,000 bit of kit, but we're promoting their system which is relatively unknown.
How aware do you think we really are of food waste generally? The way we treat food has gone from bad to terrible. The control we try to have over food has denatured it—just look at the massive increase in food intolerances! We are organic beings. Why does it not make sense to feed ourselves with organic food? Fermentation, for example, and the controlled promotion of bacteria, is really symbolic of what Silo is and what the food industry isn't. We'll be fermenting vinegar and milling our own flour.
Really? Yeah, it's delicious and nutritious and won't have been denatured to dust with a shelf life.
If you could describe the food industry right now in one word, what would it be? Sterilisation.
And can you give a name to this new system you're going to implement at Silo? I call it a Pre-industrial Food System. It's a way of producing, sourcing, and respecting food like we did 100 years ago.