Sustainability is a word being tossed around producers, corporate boardrooms and almost every major food conference in the world right now. It’s being tossed around kitchens faster than a tea towel and as more and more consumers demand to know about the impact they’re having when they eat, it’s a welcomes sight in fine dining where waste, thanks to those perfectly square carrots and a rigid approach to plating perfection, is currently seen as one of the biggest problems to address.
Enrique Olvera spoke out recently about the problem of waste in the industry, this year's Universal Exposition in Milan is set to focus on the issues of sustainability and feeding the planet in the future, an event that will see the Italian chef Massimo Bottura launch a special project to take ingredients destined for the trash and turn them into great meals. Bottura will be joined by a host of the world's best chefs who have also agreed to take part in the project. It's evident there is a cohesive approach to cutting waste across fine dining, just last week I drank a rich broth to start a meal that had been prepared with the skins of vegetables, the World's 50 Best Restaurants List launched a sustainable restaurant award in 2013, first going to Yoshihiro Narisawa and then to Eneko Atxa in 2014 and chefs from some of the best restaurants in the world are creating amazing dishes with ingredients that may well have been trashed a few years ago.
One of the chefs who is part of this new approach in reducing waste and one who happily admits to changing his attitude towards food from 'tricky', complex dishes and plating to a much more ingredient focused approach is Brett Graham from The Ledbury restaurant in London, #10 in the World's 50 Best Restaurant list. Graham, originally from Australia, presented at the international chef congress Identita Golose in Milan, talking about his own evolution in the fine dining industry and his new found focus towards sustainability.
“I’ve been at The Ledbury since 2005... slowly we’ve changed. We’ve gone from being this restaurant that was always striving to do something tricky, or something with three or four sauces, or something where we are only using the prime part of the animal, to a restaurant that really cares about what we do. We’re conscious about wastage, about using all of the vegetable, what’s in season and being led by our farmers.”
The chef’s entire presentation during the congress was about how this new approach to food has changed the restaurant, the dishes he’s cooking and also allowed him to work with what he believes to be some of the best flavours in the world. Graham doesn’t do things by halves, evident when he speaks about the restaurants new approach to caviar, “we only take caviar if we can also buy the whole sturgeon” he explains, the kitchen will work to use every part of that strugeon and not until that is gone and the caviar is finished will they order more. It's a philosophy that’s being slowly applied to every ingredient in the kitchen.
He's buying the vegetables like large white beetroots, that no one else considers, roasting them in clay and working on unique ways to cook them while retaining intense flavour - his main trick being to cut out the idea of boiling in water. “The white beetroots we’re cooking, this farmer tells me what he has and he uses us like, instead of going in the bin we will send it to The Ledbury.”
Graham certainly doesn’t see it this way. “You musn’t take it as the way of, ’the shit is coming to us’, in my opinion we’re getting the best. The small cabbages and these big white beetroots. We have to cook like this more, restaurants can’t just take one thing and absolutely hammer it, we need to respect the ingredient. We can’t just order 6 kilos of sea bass every time and then we cut the nice piece out of the middle and the other bit we bin. Or take off the root from a salad and all the leaves in the bin.”
Graham says the approach has led to some great discoveries in the kitchen. “Mackerel is a dish that’s been on the menu for a long time, when we remove the top and the bottom (the head and tail), the bit that overcooks, we were just throwing it in the bin. It wasn’t much wastage, a tiny bit on each end, but now we use it.”
These head and tails are formed into wonderful salty flakes which Graham says are perfect to sprinkle on salads. It’s a move he’s obviously proud of, “we had this piece of the mackerel that is beautiful but it’s regarded in everybody else’s eyes as ‘shit’. Why? Why is the shin of an animal regarded less than the fillet? Why is the claw of a lobster regarded more than the tail?"
The chef admits it’s a slow process, especially when trying to get staff to appreciate things they’re used to throwing away. “It takes time and I think telling the chefs that we’re going to start keeping all these little pieces of mackerel and we’re going to put them in 2% salt and roll them up, they’re like ‘ok, yeah yeah’ but after a week or two they believe it as well". He thinks the whole industry has to work in this way, “we don’t have a choice. We shouldn’t be buying in one kilograms of langoustines to make a sauce, we shouldn’t be buying 100 langoustines a day either, we should be like, ‘ok, we use it for two days, use scallops for two days, use mackerel for two days and try to focus on different parts of these things'.”
It seems the age old addage of 'one man's treasure is another man's trash' is certainly resonating within a large group of chefs who are known to set trends, educate hoards of young staff and present their ideas to large audiences around the world. I ask him if he'd like to one day watch one of his own chefs shouting at their new sous-chef in their own restaurant for throwing away the head of a mackeral, he smiles, "I hope so".