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Q&A: Dan Barber

Categories: Features

Dan Barber, one of America’s most influential chefs, has landed in London to run a pop-up restaurant designed to expand our understanding of the problem of food waste and the huge cultural shifts required to fight against it

Interview: Mark Riddaway
Portrait: Daniel Krieger

Dan Barber is a chef whose interests and ambitions go far beyond the presentation of dishes on a restaurant pass. His Blue Hill restaurant, which opened in New York in 2000, became famous for its ‘farm-to-table’ approach, which puts ingredients and the stories behind their production at the heart of the dining experience.

The link between producer and diner is even more explicit at his second restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, which is located on a non-profit farm. At the heart of everything he does—as a chef, a writer, a broadcaster and activist—is the belief that industrialised food production is damaging, inefficient and entirely unsustainable. As he wrote in his acclaimed 2014 book The Third Plate, “fixtures of agribusiness such as 5,000-acre grain monocultures and bloated animal feedlots are no more the future of farming than 18th-century factories billowing black smoke are the future of manufacturing.”

Right now, you’re over in London running your WastED pop-up restaurant at Selfridges. All the food you serve in your restaurants has a narrative that goes beyond the gustatory experience of eating it. So, what is the story at WastED?
WastED is an opportunity to look at the food chain, from the field to the distributor to the processor to the marketplace, and try to identify ways in which perfectly good food is being ignored or discarded. We’ve then tried to imagine and develop a menu that can capture that waste and repurpose it into something useable—and also delicious.

What brought you to London?
We did WastED in New York as a pop-up several years ago. We’re now doing the same in London, in part because we wanted to learn about the English food chain. We became really interested in English agriculture, the history of cuisine in this country, and how and what you eat today. Because of dietary habits, because of the modern English food culture, there is by definition an extraordinary amount of waste.

With the patterns of eating that are established in the modern English food culture, are there things about waste that can be highlighted and then reimagined for the dinner plate? 
Already, some parts of the food waste problem have been brought to light here in ways that we haven’t yet seen in the United States: people are already talking about ugly fruits, damaged vegetables, discarded dairy, expired dairy, food left on the plate. Here, in many ways, you’re way ahead of America, so the drive for this project is to really expand the definition of food waste beyond the obvious.

Smoked kale leaves at WastED

Give us an example of what you mean.
Okay, so for example, one of the popular food culture habits of today is juice bars. On my way to Oxford Street this morning, I passed three juice bars on my walk—and I was only four blocks away. What that says is that a lot of people in England are looking to the flavour and nutrient power of juices. The question is, what happens with all the waste—the pulp— that is left behind in the juicing process? We asked the juice processors, and they told us that it just gets thrown away. We gathered them together and we fashioned all of this fibre, this pulp, into a burger. It’s a vegetable burger, but it looks just like a rare hamburger, as it has beet juice in it.

We serve it on old hamburger buns that have been re-baked into new buns, with melted cheese from an affineur who discards five per cent of his cheese for being off-grade. It’s actually perfectly beautiful cheese—especially melted, it’s quite delicious. That burger is an example of taking something that would otherwise be thrown away as a result of a modern food habit, and creating something out of the waste. Hopefully it’ll make people think about their proclivity to drink juices every morning, and also help them reimagine the possibilities for what could be created from the waste that’s generated.

But this fruit pulp burger you’re making has to taste good for that message to have an impact…
Yes. The whole drive of this is flavour, because that’s what chefs do. That’s what it’s all about: producing delicious food. First and foremost, our priority in whatever we do is to make a delicious dish. All the great cuisines of the world have historically utilised waste to do just that. Coq aux vin is really a waste dish: a tough old rooster doesn’t taste good, but the Burgundians worked out that if you braise it in the alcohol of expired wine, you end up with a wonderful, iconic peasant dish.

A bouillabaisse, much more to the south of France, was the way to capture damaged fish, uncoveted fish that couldn’t be sold at market. It was made into soup by the fishermen’s wives and enjoyed by the fishermen at lunchtime. A bouillabaisse is not called a ‘waste dish’, it’s just a delicious fish soup. That’s what we’re trying to do here: create the bouillabaisse of the future.

What has struck you most about food waste here in the UK?
The food culture around protein-centric plates of food—eating lots of meat—is a large part of the problem. Look at wheat: between 50 and 80 per cent of wheat in England, depending on the year, is fed to animals in what is a befuddling system of subsidies and protocols that date back to World War I. It makes no sense for you to be producing vast quantities of wheat and feeding it to animals. One could argue that that doesn’t count as food waste—if you’re feeding it to animals, you’re not throwing it away—but if you look at the inefficiencies of feeding wheat to animals, compared with the efficiencies of feeding it to people directly in the form of beautiful bread, you end up seeing what an incredible waste it really is.

Another thing is that England always was—and still is, you could argue—a dairy culture, but one that doesn’t eat veal. Of the very little veal you do eat, most of it is actually imported, which is an irony, and really not a very nice one. Your dairy farms have births every spring, summer and fall, and 50 per cent of those births are male. What happens to those male dairy calves? It’s not a pretty picture.

So, you’ve put veal on the menu at WastED…
Yes. We saved some veal calves from a dairy and asked a farmer to raise them on mother’s milk, raise them on pasture. They ended up as delicious, rosy red veal. That’s another way to think about waste: rather than killing them on the first day of their lives, if you raise these beautiful animals in the kind of environment and with the kind of protocols that place a value on their lives. The person who has been supplying our veal is Illtud from Charcutier Ltd—one of your Borough Market traders. He’s a character, he’s amazing, we’ve loved working with him so much. He’s also supplying us with older hens that no longer produce eggs—we’re using them for a chicken dish—and pigs raised on food waste.

In all of your work, you seem to spend a lot of time with producers, building a collaborative relationship.
It’s an important part of my approach to cooking—I think it makes me a better chef. The more I know about how something is grown and who’s growing it, the more fascinating it is to me and the easier I find it to create recipes that make the most of those ingredients. We work closely with a lot of breeders to create flavours and yields in the field that are really quite interesting. It’s been a big part of our work over the past few years.

Dish at WastED

What is your relationship with markets? Do you see them as being part of the solution to the food waste problem?
We live around the corner from the Union Square Greenmarket in New York, and I’m there most days—usually with my daughter in tow. Cultivating relationships with those farmers isn’t just about cherry-picking the best produce for my menu; it’s also about seeking out what otherwise would be thrown away. Some of the ingredients we find most exciting—things like cucumber vines or cauliflower leaves—we have discovered as a result of those conversations.

The extraordinary list of people who have jumped at the chance to join you as guest chefs in the WastED kitchen—from legends like Pierre Koffmann to the new generation of Isaac McHale and James Lowe—suggests that what you’re doing there really resonates with chefs. What is it, do you think, that makes them so keen to participate?
Most chefs are doing this work everyday in their kitchens; they’re just not wearing it on their sleeves. Restaurant kitchens are built on resourcefulness—an imperative to utilise every ingredient and eke out flavour whenever possible. For me it’s an inspiring idea: that we can tackle part of our food waste problem—and eat more deliciously—just by becoming more thoughtful cooks.

Are there any chefs who you are particularly excited to be working with?
It’s impossible to call out just one name from a hugely inspiring list; but I will say that leading the pop-up with Alain Ducasse was surreal. It’s fascinating—and humbling—to see the other chefs’ contributions.

Chefs now have far more of a voice than they ever had in the past, but do the things they say and cook have the power to create change at a systemic level?
Yes, but we have to lead with flavour. I can sell you on why we should be cooking with juice pulp or spent grain, but if I can’t make it taste delicious, it won’t make a difference. But by tapping into people’s natural greediness for good food, we can hopefully help transform these overlooked ingredients into culinary staples.