Life's fuck-ups and fails are great catalysts of ingenuity in the kitchen.
It happens when you least expect it. When you have a broken fridge full of elderflower that accidentally ferments and causes an explosion with delicious nuclear-style goo leaking on the floor. When you realize that blended fermented parsley stems have an intense seaweed flavor that invigorates a piece of marsh lamb.
This way of working has become second nature to us in the kitchen at Amass. Sourcing potential in stems, leftover coffee grinds, day-old bread, and surplus milk is the driving force behind what we do, and it requires as much skills, attention, and ingenuity as any premium piece of meat.
And it is a way of cooking that requires more respect.
Trash cooking and the idea of turning waste into wonders have become recurring themes in the culinary world, but there is something jarring about the way these two terms—waste and trash—are bandied about.
Because if you really look at it, we are not cooking with garbage or trash or waste anymore. We no longer perceive stems, trims, and wet grinds as being trash; it's produce. For us it is about being responsible and I think the constant reference to trash and waste is painting us in a category that we are so badly trying to redefine.
If we are going to make an impact, then we need to start speaking a new language, and if we constantly refer to trash and waste cooking, then that's all these products are ever going to be. And they are so much more.
Take the coffee grinds, which is what really kickstarted things in our restaurant.
When you stare at all those wet grinds at the end of the night, you realize that you have an abundance of potential still full of flavor. These grinds are not dead. When you look at that over and over again, you feel like an idiot for not doing anything about it.
We decided to turn the coffee grinds into a crisp for next day's coffee service (dried the grinds, cooked them, spread them out and baked in the oven). We've served the crackers with roasted beet pulp from juicing and caramel made with a reduction of yesterday's coffee.
Once you ignite that kind of thinking, it takes over. Now it controls everything we do.
It's like learning to forage. As a kid, you walk around the forest all the time and don't see anything. As soon as you start to learn about edible plants and find out what they look like, you are not looking up anymore when you are out walking. You are looking down. Looking for things that are edible.
Once you see an idea working, it sparks your interest and you become hypersensitive to everything that's being thrown out. If you see some young chef chopping herbs and leaving a small pile of trim that's not the right size for the dish, then you instantly stop and challenge that person.
If you throw away a bunch of parsley stems in our kitchen, you are in for a bollocking.
To the customer, we don't preach about this way of cooking. I don't want the dining experience to be defined by how sustainable we are or how much discarded produce we use, because that takes away from the eating experience. On a skin deep level, that's not the guest's concern. Obviously, some guests will be really interested, but people don't come here because we cook like that.
I know larger kitchens with hundreds of covers each day who will say that this approach is not feasible, but I call bullshit on them. Yes, it takes a lot of work, but it's question of your priorities. Here, it dictates and shapes the menu; eight out of 11 courses on the menu contain some ingredients which are byproducts or recycled from another process or dish.
The crisp on which we serve raw scallops is made from sourdough bread from the previous day's service; we soak the bread, blend it, and make a puree which we mix with tapioca and dried vinegar, and deep fry it until it puffs up like a crispy pillow. We used the same technique when we had lots of leftover pig's blood, which we cooked with spices. The fried cracker tasted like black pudding.
There are multiple uses for the coffee grinds. We roast beetroot in the grinds and dry them until they are rock hard. Then we juice some other beets (saving the pulp for kombucha) and reduce this with used tea leaves from the restaurant service. We rehydrate the dried coffee grind-roasted beets in the beet and tea reduction and they end up having a wonderful toffee texture.
And then there was the fermented elderflower fail.
We preserved elderflowers in sugar syrup and left them to chill in plastic bags in a three-door fridge which had been given to me by a friend. During the weekend while we were away, the fridge broke down and sun was blazing through the windows, heating up the room temperature to 100 degrees. The flowers fermented, the bags burst, and it blew open the doors to the fridge.
I came in on Tuesday morning to find this great pool of yellow, sticky sugar syrup all over the floor. It's the last thing you want to see on a busy Tuesday morning. I was cursing as I got down on the floor and stuck my finger into this yellow slob. I tasted this sour fermented sugary elderflower and it was amazing. So now we bag all the elderflower in sugar syrup and ferment it, but obviously under much more controlled circumstances.
I'm grateful that my curiosity got that better of me and I dipped by finger into that yellow filth, but that's the beauty of a fail turning into a success. Some of our coolest stuff has happened through failures. And with the produce you least expected to excel. There is nothing trashy about that.
As told to Lars Hinnerskov Eriksen.
Matt Orlando is the chef and owner of restaurant Amass in Copenhagen.