For the final two weeks of March, chef Dan Barber has transformed his family's Greenwich Village restaurant Blue Hill into wastED, a pop-up whose guest chefs—including Mission Chinese's Danny Bowien, Alinea's Grant Achatz, and The Spotted Pig's April Bloomfield—will create dishes from ingredients that ordinarily end up in the garbage can. Here, Barber speaks with MUNCHIES about the genesis of wastED, and why in the world's great cuisines, there's really no such thing as wasted food.
The experience with wastED came out of my book The Third Plate. The farm-to-table movement is a social movement that's happening around the country and even around the world, connecting people with where their food comes from and who is growing what. But for all the movement's success and excitement, it isn't really working: in the last ten years, as this movement continues to gather steam, it is not changing farmland and it's not reshaping landscapes in the way that it promised to. And one of the problems with it is that we don't eat the whole farm; we eat the coveted parts. We pick and we choose, we go to the farmers market and we cherry-pick ingredients: eggplant, the perfect tomato, fall squash. That's all good and important, but really, we're skimming the cream from the top of the farm, instead of looking at the entirety of the farm. The entirety of the farm gives a value to what the farmer needs to grow to continue to make the land productive and useful.
It's the point of all great cuisines, which are all about vacuuming up the entire landscape and inculcating it into a pattern of eating. Through the research for the book, I realized that these cuisines that we consider iconic—because they've been around for several thousands of years—are truly sustainable. What better definition of sustainability than something that has been around for thousands of years? All of these cuisines have incorporated waste into their everyday diets, but they don't call it waste. For example, a rooster is a tough bird that's almost impossible to roast. In our country, we make dog food out of it. But in France, you braise it in wine and tenderize it for several hours, and you make coq au vin, an iconic dish for what it means to be French.
In creating the menu for wastED, I was reminded of this principle at every turn. Every time I thought I had a good idea, I relearned, or learned for the first time, that another culture or cuisine had already thought of it. The other night, I was with Danny Bowien, and I was super excited about one of the remaining things on the menu that I thought was the most creative, or the most unique. It's skate bones, or actually the cartilage of skate that's left over after you filet the skate meat. We've been manicuring these bones and cutting them to look like french fries, and we fry them. They're super delicious, they're really crispy, and we serve them with mayonnaise made from infusing smoked fish heads into grapeseed oil.
Anyway, I was pumped about the dish because there is a lot of skate in the world and we don't eat any of the bones, so I thought I had really created something here. But Danny just looked at it and was like, "Oh yeah, I know that dish," and said it's part of Cantonese cuisine and we just don't know about it here. And it's fucking frying skate wings? It's so funny.
Taking a loin of pig or a sirloin of beef and roasting it in a pan? That's not cooking. Taking something that would otherwise go in the garbage and making it delicious? That's transformative.
Here's another example: The other day we were making burgers from leftover pulp from Liquiteria juice. We were really struggling with a bun—what do you do for a bun that is waste-oriented? It took a while, but then Paula Oland, the baker at Balthazar Bakery, one of our favorite bakeries, she created this incredible burger bun from leftover stale bread that she rehydrated with water. She makes a new bun from this this mash, and it's really great. She has a lot of leftover bread that doesn't get sold. So that was brilliant, and I was explaining it to Dominique Ansel, the Cronut guy. And before I could finish the sentence, he was like, "My grandmother used to make this mash for me every morning for breakfast. She would add milk." It's funny that these ideas are already out there. What's new about what we're doing is that we're calling it what it is: We're wearing it on our sleeves that it's waste. But in those cuisines you never called it waste, because it just became a dish.
Chefs in restaurants with white tablecloths get lampooned for being precious and elitist in a growing world where a billion people are hungry. Well, the opposite is actually true.
I would argue that all chefs do this, they just don't wear it on their sleeves. You know, they make a lasagna from leftover meat from the day before and sell it as a special for 17 bucks: that's waste. It's what chefs do, it's our craft, it's our MO, it's what cooking is. Taking a loin of pig or a sirloin of beef and roasting it in a pan? That's not cooking. You're not transforming anything. Taking something that would otherwise go in the garbage and making it delicious? That's transformative. So in many ways, three quarters of this is old news. It's reminding us of what the world already knows.
Contemporary America, unfortunately, does not know it. We've never had a cuisine; we weren't built on food traditions that involve utilizing waste because we never had to worry about waste. Our land was so productive and so ridiculously fertile that we never had to think about it. Part of the problem with American food culture is that we have no culture related to the experience of all these peasants from different countries who had to eke out what the land could produce, and that meant being very creative because they were forced into it. But we never worked. So here we are today forcing the deck a little bit, and doing it in a way that nods to age-old cuisines. This is a chefs' project, an industry project. It's what all chefs do every day, and we should advertise it. Chefs in restaurants with white tablecloths get lampooned for being precious and elitist in a growing world where a billion people are hungry. Well, the opposite is actually true.
As for the waste ingredients we're using, we were definitely selective, because everything on the menu has to be delicious. The worst thing for this would be someone who eats here and says, "You know, for waste food it wasn't bad." I don't want that—it's got to be, like, delicious.
And so there are a lot of challenges. Right now I'm trying to deal with cucumber vines that somebody grew for us. I was trying to peel the vines and cook them, but this farmer grew a variety that I don't like and I've got a million pounds of cucumber vines I don't know what to do with. A lot of these products came from processors, because the waste isn't in the restaurant, it's really in the processing. There's a pickle processor that cuts off the end of cucumbers. They call them cucumber butts, so we made a whole salad of cucumber butts as a garnish. So we're doing something kind of tongue-in-cheek or fun or whatever, but hopefully it creates a kind of awareness about a huge waste. There's a lot of pickle butts out there.
We've been steeping cocoa beans into a chocolate sorbet, and we're baking bread using spent grain mash left over from the beer-making process. We've also been marinating monkfish in leftover olive brine, giving it like an olive cure. It's all delicious.
I think my ambitions for the pop-up are less grand than people have made them out to be. It would be nice if a conversation started—not necessarily about waste, but, like, thinking that some of these things like cocoa bean shells are cool and really delicious. That helps create demand in the marketplace, which goes back to my original point about the whole farm. We could be paying cocoa growers for the entirety of the bean instead of just stripping off what we use for chocolate, and therefore creating yet another economic driver for farmers. That's a nice way to think about all of these things, including the skate wing—paying not just for the wing but for the cartilage, as well. Add all these things up, and they become culturally significant.
As told to Lauren Rothman