For the better part of the last month, Blue Hill's Dan Barber temporarily shuttered the doors to his famed Manhattan farm-to-table restaurant and replaced it with an upscale pop-up restaurant experiment called wastED. The premise was simple, and also complicated: gather the best chefs in New York City to launch a menu entirely devoted to showcasing "the ignored or un-coveted;" change the way we think about food forever. It would be hard to reel off a more famous roster of participants: April Bloomfield, Dominique Ansel, Bill Yosses, Enrique Olvera, and Dan Kluger all contributed daily specials.
If you didn’t make it to wastED yourself, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone else serving a "burger" made from pulp salvaged from Liquiteria juice presses. There were fried monkfish wings (actually bones from the monkfish's head) from Pierless Fish — currently a wastED original, though Blue Hill's culinary director Adam Kaye told Edible Manhattan there have been requests. There were plates of pasta bits salvaged from Raffetto’s and cookies made from the dust that's leftover when you press nuts for their oil. The bloodlines of salmon were repurposed as (grayer) salmon carpaccio and seasoned with refuse from Black Seed Bagels's bins. "Dumpster dive vegetable salad" featured the greens from Baldor Specialty Foods that didn’t make the market cut. New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells, for his part, was "particularly fond of the sable spine with carrot tops."
"I wasn’t sure of the overall scope of it until I got into it," Dan Kluger, former executive chef of ABC Kitchen and ABC Cocina explains when we debrief by phone. Every restaurant kitchen, after all, is focused on finding ways to repurpose waste (environmental concerns aside, waste affects the bottom line). But this, he says, went beyond the usual use-the-whole-buffalo, save-your-kale-stems philosophy and went "right to another level of the food chain." By developing relationships with unexpected vendors, the Blue Hill team sourced scraps, creating a use — and a market — for the bits otherwise destined for the trash, or maybe the compost, "if we're really lucky."
About his own contribution, Kluger seems somewhat wistful. "I did a crispy pigs head that was basically a pig terrine, breaded and fried, and then I did a carrot romesco"— pigs heads tend to be unpopular for obvious reasons; the carrots were leftover from a university breeding study. But having agreed to the project early on, he hadn’t realized "the spectrum of some of these other ingredients, the spent grains, or the mash from the nut oil." Kluger talks about the spent grains — in this case, grains fermented by KelSo Beer, then dried and reground into flour — and the nut mash a lot. With his own new restaurant slated to open in fall 2015, the grains and the nut mash are among the ingredients he’s been inspired to start sourcing himself.
And therein lies the real lesson of wastED, at least as Kluger sees it. Reducing waste on a mass, non-pop-up scale has less to do with redeeming any specific ingredients ("I don’t see myself going to Liquiteria and getting the vegetable pulp, not that there's anything wrong with that") than it does with reworking the chain of food production. "I have farmers that I work with now," he muses, "where I could pull them together and say, 'I'd like you to give your cover crop to me to use'" — a crop grown not for its own merits, but for its ability to enrich the soil to grow more valuable stuff — "and then whatever mash I’m making that's left over, I'd like you to feed that to the pigs." The mash-fed pigs also end up at the restaurant. It is not a perfect circle, but it's close.
When the waste revolution comes, it will be led by restaurants. Most of us, Kluger points out, are not cultivating relationships with farmers and brewers and fishmongers. Most of us are also not going through so many cucumbers that their wasted butts are a significant problem to be solved with ingenuity. Amassing enough kale stems for stew is going to take you a while.
So what can the vendorless home cook do? Make stock, probably. (Kluger is particularly enthusiastic about sucking more life out of corncobs this way, though he’s quick to acknowledge it is “another step.”) Also, adjust your attitude. WastED’s basic question — “how do you stretch something just a little bit further without it being just for the sake of it and not being good?” — still applies, though at home, the answer is likely not monkfish wings. Instead, skip packages of chicken breasts and buy the whole bird, he advises. “I butcher it, use it for two days' meals, I put the bones in the freezer, those bones become stock later on that I’ll make a soup with or something like that.” Same goes for other meats: buy bigger cuts, use the bone, use the trim. Then, there’s the constant war against waste-by-spoilage. "I'm guilty of it, too,” he says. "You constantly have stuff in your fridge that you think you’re gonna use up and you don’t use up, and it goes in the garbage." Planning ahead helps, though that, he admits, is "easier said than done." So does creativity. (Would that recipe not benefit from some fresh cilantro that's on its last legs?.)?
But one of the biggest changes you can make as a home cook/person-at-large is not in the way you cook, but the way you order. For scraps to go mainstream, restaurants need to convince people that they want, say, sable spines for dinner, and that they want to pay for it. "It's a catch-22," Kluger muses. The only way to convince diners they want something they've never heard of is to offer it to them — a risky proposition. "It’s a slow process," though hardly an impossible one. (Skate and monkfish are both success stories.) It's up to restaurants to offer this stuff, to show it off, to make it a star dish. Our job, perhaps, is to give up our perfectly filleted dreams and order it.