WastED opportunities

Categories: Features

Charcutier Ltd has been supplying Dan Barber’s much talked about WastED pop-up with meat products designed to shine a light on food waste. Liesel Taylor talks about the project and the impact it could have on the British food world

Words: Mark Riddaway

When Dan Barber, the American chef and activist, began immersing himself in British food culture in preparation for his current project—WastED, a much talked about pop-up restaurant on the roof of Selfridges that draws attention to the problem of food waste—one piece of profligacy struck him particularly hard. “England always was—and still is, you could argue—a dairy culture, but one that doesn’t eat veal,” he explains. “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.”

Dan, whose two Blue Hill restaurants are famous for serving up beautiful dishes underpinned by a genuine sense of moral purpose, first ran his WastED pop-up in New York in 2015, with a menu of waste products repurposed as bold and imaginative food. Coming to London to repeat the experiment, he discovered a country that is, he says, “way ahead of America” in its understanding of many aspects of food waste: ugly fruit and veg, best-before dates, trawler by-catch, food left on the plate. But some of the country’s more systemic sources of waste remain hidden from sight—and the disposal of so many millions of male dairy calves, often within hours of their birth, is, says Dan, among the more egregious of these.

Rescued veal
His plan—a typically eye-catching one—was to intercept some dairy calves and use them to produce beautiful meat for WastED, served as ‘veal nuggets’, a riff on the disposability of fast food. And that’s where Illtud Llyr Dunsford and Liesel Taylor of Borough Market’s Charcutier Ltd entered the picture. At the couple’s farm in Carmarthenshire, Dan and his team found a place where waste is already anathema, where every part of every animal is used with inventiveness and craft. “For us, this isn’t a trend; it’s how we as a family have always done it,” says Liesel. “Illtud met Adam Kaye from Blue Hill and they got chatting about rescued veal, which we agreed to intercept for them, then the conversation moved on to spent hens and waste-fed pigs…”

The latter request was easy to fulfil: feeding waste to pigs is second nature at the Charcutier farm. “As a family, we’ve always fed waste to our animals,” explains Liesel, “but it’s good food waste: it’s fallen fruit, it’s pressed apple pulp from the local cider maker, spent grain from local brewers, whey from local cheesemakers.” The chickens, though, would be something of a departure.

Spent hens are old chickens whose days as efficient laying birds are behind them. “The huge, pumped-up chickens you see in a supermarket are probably around three months old—very young, very fast growing,” explains Liesel. “These spent hens are between three and four years old. There’s no market for them. But we tasted the meat and it’s just incredible, there’s so much depth of flavour. It’s a much darker, fattier meat, quite heavy on the sinew, so there’s a lot more trimming involved. You can’t hide that it’s an older bird—the muscle structure is different—but it really is delicious.” Sourced from a bio-dynamic farm in west Wales, these elderly birds have been converted by Liesel into a hen mousseline, made using a Blue Hill recipe.

An infinity mirror
The experience of being one of WastED’s key suppliers has opened Liesel’s eyes to possibilities that even she and Illtud have missed. For example, among the waste-fed pig products they have been sending to WastED are black hams and ham hocks that have been cooked in a bag to keep them succulent. “We’ve been sending the whole thing to London still in the bag, and what they’ve been doing is saving all the juice and jelly that comes out of the bag, mixing it up with melted brawn—a traditional waste product—then stuffing it into a pig’s head and serving it as a special on the charcuterie board. They’re using the waste products from the products made from waste-fed pigs. It’s like an infinity mirror.”

The Blue Hill team are being supported at WastED by an extraordinary roster of guest chefs, including legends like Alain Ducasse, Pierre Koffmann and Fergus Henderson, as well as the new generation of waste-conscious chefs (and Borough Market contributors): James Lowe, Doug McMaster, and Tom Hunt. “Our heroes, basically,” Liesel summarises.

As well as being a little overwhelmed by such luminaries being introduced to Charcutier Ltd’s products, Liesel is convinced that the presence at Dan’s side of so many British chefs will have a transformative effect on the country’s restaurants. “Illtud went down to WastED, met the chefs and did a bit of a talk,” she explains. “The chefs were coming up to him afterwards, quite emotional, shaking his hand. He could see that every person working there was completely on board with the whole concept. They’ve all come for the experience of working with Dan Barber and the Blue Hill team, and that is now going to filter back out into the British food industry. More restaurants will see what can be done not just with the waste, but with the waste from the waste.”

New ideas
Borough Market will also feel the influence of WastED. The Market has in recent years been highly active in promoting new approaches to reducing food waste, and the involvement in the WastED project of several of its traders will doubtless spark new ideas and initiatives.

For example, Bill at Kappacasein has been supplying Dan with whey—a bi-product of the cheese-making process—which is being used in a handful of dishes, including a spectacular dessert of carbonated whey with coffee husks. For Bill, who produces close to 1,500 litres of whey every week but has never found a market for it, the experience has been truly enlightening. “These days, a rich country like ours has a whole lot of resources, but also a whole lot of waste,” he says. “We put a value on some things and no value at all on others. I think what Dan Barber does is put a spotlight on things that people don’t perceive to be particularly nice or useful, but are actually full of potential. I never thought you could do so much with whey—it has changed my outlook. I’ve been talking to other restaurants about how they might use it. At home, I’ve been cooking rice with whey rather than water, and it’s delicious—it’s like congee, really smooth and full of flavour.”

For Liesel and Illtud, the project has offered a glimpse of a possible future for their business: “We think that the best way for us to grow the business may be for us to look at waste from the food industry. We can continue doing our own whole carcass processing, but if there are things like spent hens or offal available from other places that don’t have the time or resources to process them, then that’s something we could definitely do.”

As Dan Barber asks, “with the patterns of eating that are established in the modern English food culture, are there things about waste that can be reimagined for the dinner plate?” The answer, quite categorically, is yes.