“To create change, you need to shock people”

Categories: Features

Rebellious, ambitious and more than a little evangelical, Douglas McMaster promotes the concept of zero-waste cookery through his Brighton restaurant, Silo. He talks about composting, pre-industrial food and the joys of braised beef sphincter

Words: Clare Finney
Images: Joseph Fox

It is a truth universally acknowledged that meeting a person equal to you in age but streets ahead in their accomplishments is an intimidating experience, however nice they might be. Inevitably it leads to a totting up of the woeful disparity between your paltry achievements (school progress prize circa 2003, anyone?) and theirs. Douglas McMaster, owner and head chef of Silo in Brighton, is a case in point.

He’s no celebrity—not yet anyway—but in the course of just 28 years his accolades range from changing Australia’s food waste policy, to winning two major awards and opening Silo, one of only a handful of zero-waste restaurants in the world. For any 28-year-old it would be commendable—let alone a boy from a “cold, hard, grim northern town” whose story is, by his own admission, a classic tale of “being dyslexic, a bit rebellious, dropping out of school and into a local restaurant kitchen”.

We meet inside his restaurant, a warm, gently buzzing environment of whitewashed walls, rustic wooden floors, long benches and brown sugar jars. If that sounds a bit gimmicky, it’s actually not: “By maximising these jam jars, we minimise waste,” Douglas says, following my line of gaze. “It is never a gimmick, what we do. Jam jars are hardwearing and multifunctional: one day it’s a jam jar, the next a glass to drink out of, the next something to ferment cabbage in. We can use the lid to serve butter, or snacks. It’s better than energy-expensive recycling.” Instead they’re upcycled (repurposed) along with everything else you’ll find in this place, which somehow manages to make waste look not just useful, but cool.

More than just zero-waste
Plates are made from plastic bags, tables from industrial floor tiles, and work benches from filing cabinet frames. Raw ingredients are delivered in reusable containers or, if animals, as carcasses straight from organic farms. What little food diners don’t eat is turned into compost in the anaerobic digesting machine. Silo is about more than being just zero-waste, Douglas says: “It is pre-industrial. Waste is part of the problem, but it is also a symptom of the larger problem that is the industrial food system, in which a middle man takes the whole ingredient, does things to it and passes it on to the consumer.” It is the middle man, continues Douglas, who gives the impression that “throwing food away doesn’t matter, because it costs so little and there is such ready availability”.

It’s the middle man who adds the bin-bound packaging, over-processes the food, and siphons off most of the money in doing so. “We talk about waste, but it is directly related to healthcare, to politics, and to the economy,” he tells me passionately. “Farmers are so poor now that no one wants to be one. Health problems arise from food which is so processed, it barely resembles the natural product.” Conversely, in Silo’s pre-industrial system, Douglas trades directly with small organic farmers in the local area, mills his own flour, butchers his own meat from whole carcasses, churns his own butter and curd, brews his own beer, ferments his own pickles and, like an increasing number of chefs, supports a nose to tail and root to fruit ideology.

There’s no other word for it: Douglas is evangelical—about food, about waste, and about our relationship with the environment. An hour in his company is depressing and uplifting by turns. On the one hand, his clear-sighted interpretation of these issues is that they’re connected and if we don’t change, “the planet will explode, really. We’ve some serious problems.” On the other, he believes “organic systems have a way of healing themselves. We’re a bit behind, but we are an organic system and we will find a way.”

Nature-loving liberals
He’s optimistic, in short—and while sipping a home-brewed, fermented elderflower drink, surrounded by like-minded people dining on homemade bread and fresh farm eggs, it’s easy to be persuaded. Silo is in many ways representative of the changes we must start making in our relationship with food. Yes, it exists in the bubble of Brighton, a city renowned for its nature-loving liberals, but Douglas is no Don Quixote: “I was on the Today programme earlier and the journalist asked me if I’d roll Silo out across the country. I said no. Because I don’t know how,” he says simply. “I don’t believe you can franchise Silo as it is at the moment. But there may well be a better, slicker version. An evolution from what I am doing now.”

Silo is but a stepping stone—a beacon of hope, not the definitive answer. “It could take me three more years to master that solution, because it is not an easy thing.” This is not a cop out: if Douglas was into quick fixes, he would have just set up in the countryside proper—“you know, have a hippy kumbaya restaurant in the woods with its own smallholding. But by 2050, six billion people are expected to live in cities. If I want to make change, real change, I need to deal with the harder model and show there is hope for the future of urban consumerism in the food world. I have to be based in a city.”

We touch on Borough Market—the perfect place, Douglas says, for a London Silo. “Everything I’d need is in that market. It would be really amazing.” Borough Market itself has been making the reduction of waste a priority recently, with surplus food going to local charities and its packaging increasingly recyclable, biodegradable or non-existent. It’s a far cry from the Australian market whose obscene quantities of waste fuelled Douglas’s first solo venture, aged 24: Wasted, a pop-up cafe in Sydney which used this surplus so deliciously, it ultimately persuaded the Australian government to change its food waste policy.

Blood, brains and skin
“The idea was to use all the ingredients that would otherwise be wasted to create a really elegant tasting menu,” he explains. Being a self-described extremist, Douglas made headlines with a starter of cow’s nose and nettle soup, and a special entitled ‘blood, brains and skin’. “Poached brains are like a sweetbread, really, and I dehydrated the braised pig skin,” he grins. “When you do that it blows up like a quaver. The sauce was pig’s blood and people literally licked the blood off the floor tiles.”

They ate off the floor? “No, no—I used donated items of waste for plates, like frisbees and floor tiles. It was so successful, though. The Evening Standard even reported on it, and called it ‘a triumph of ideas’.” To create real change, Douglas argues, you need to shock people. “If you’re only a bit different, people think “Oh that’s nice, but they don’t really think about it enough to change things.” Were he an artist, his meals would be on the Jackson Pollock end of the spectrum, he agrees: bold, original, challenging and alluring by turns yet, like Pollock, well grounded in formal practice. “I’ve spent 12 years in fine dining restaurants. I’ve learnt lots of techniques. You might be surprised, but even the most outlandish dishes, like the pig skin, make use of techniques that aren’t at all new.”

Douglas’s technical competence is hard won, gleaned from some of the world’s best restaurants. A stint in St John in London was followed by The Fat Duck in Bray, Noma in Copenhagen, and Greenhouse—a waste-free restaurant then in Sydney, now relocated to Perth. It was there he met Joost Bakker, “a designer, farmer, artist, fifth generation tulip grower and one of the world’s most brilliant people,” according to Douglas. “He built Greenhouse from waste materials. I was working at another restaurant at the time, which I hated, and I saw this incredible, glowing building with huge crowds outside as I was leaving one evening. I was drawn to it like a moth to a flame.”

Honest and relaxed
Two hours of queuing in the pelting rain later, Douglas walked in and “knew within minutes this was going to be the rest of my life. It encapsulated everything I wanted: a brilliant environment with brilliant food, yet so honest and relaxed, with chefs sitting with customers, music playing. No pretence at all.” He sought out Joost, and before the night was out had been offered a job as head chef at a prospective London branch. “It didn’t happen in the end—we did something in Melbourne instead—but it was pretty amazing that he had so much faith in me straight away.”

Joost told him he chose intuitively, and no doubt there’s truth to that. But I can’t help but think Douglas’s eloquence and passion on the subject of food had an influence. He’s best known for being the BBC Young Chef of the Year in 2009, but it’s the UK’s Most Irreverent Young Chef award he is proudest of. “I won that in 2012, with a dish inspired by the Wasted cafe: I served Marina O’Loughlin and Nuno Mendes pope’s eye, which is the beef sphincter muscle. It’s the muscle that pumps the waste from the cow’s bum. I braised it and served it with other ingredients you’d normally discard, like a lettuce core. I’m so proud of that,” he beams. “But I don’t care if I’m the best at cooking. I care about making change.”

We talk about role models, his impassioned rhetoric rising in urgency as he reels off his food heroes, from his dad to René Redzepi. “They say all creatives have a lightbulb moment. Well, there is no such thing. It’s experiences in life, isn’t it?” he enthuses, “Certain experiences which build up and lead you to a piece of art, or plate of food. Would I have got here without Fergus Henderson and his ethics? No way. But then it was Noma where I learnt about using stalks and skin from vegetables, and foraging. It was my dad—a poet and a brilliant, wise man who only really eats cheese and biscuits—who made me the man I am today.”

Something messianic
Even his hometown, a “northern mining community” near Sherwood forest, played its part. “The culture there is you eat whatever food is easiest, cheapest and quickest, processed or whatever. Maybe, in my unconscious mind, rising from there made me want to create something completely contrasting.”

What with his long hair, intense blue eyes and expressive features, there is something messianic about Douglas’s food crusade. Compost has never seemed so compelling. “It would cost about £1,000 a month for our waste to be taken away, so our anaerobic digester actually makes us money,” he says excitedly. “The resulting compost is so amazing we give it away to our vegetable suppliers, so they save money also. It’s a closed loop.”

Douglas’s phone rings not for the first time today, but he’s been too polite to answer it until now. It’s a delivery. Reluctantly, I let him throw back the last dregs of his fermented elderflower and make moves to go. We’ve been talking for almost two hours now, yet I still have at least 20 questions to ask: about the churn, sustainability, fermentation, waste—even about the compost machine. I limit myself to one quick, final query: what can the public learn from Silo when it comes to consuming food?

“That nothing is as it seems,” Douglas says. “I want people to be inspired and to adopt as much as they can from here—composting, nose-to-tail eating, not throwing away jam jars—and just appreciate that this is a successful business that’s making a positive statement about the sustainability of food.” I’m still intimidated; lost as to where I could even compost in a small flat in London, let alone the rest. But as I tear into fresh, sourdough bread spread with creamy homemade butter and organic rocket, I resolve to try harder. There’s nothing like meeting an accomplished person the same age as you to make you up your game.