When Matt Orlando is talking about waste, you can bet he is thinking about taste. The chef/owner at Amass restaurant in Copenhagen is one of a growing band of cooks striving to promote sustainability and reduce food waste in their kitchens. But as he told the audience at the recent Food On The Edge symposium in Galway, Ireland, there’s no point in recycling waste ingredients unless the finished product is delicious.
As far as the American chef is concerned, there are no waste by-products in his kitchens, only products in their own right. As a result, he has been able to reduce food waste at Amass by 75 per cent. But now Orlando is challenging the industry to reassess the way it thinks about food waste, as it might just lead to some new and exciting flavors on our plates.
A Pragmatic Sustainability
“None of this matters unless it’s delicious,” he said. “It’s not worth putting any effort into doing any process if the end product doesn’t taste good. It doesn’t matter how sustainable it is, if it’s not delicious it shouldn’t be used because there’s no way we’re going to convince people that this is the right thing to do.”
This pragmatic approach to sustainability began six months after the ex-Noma chef opened Amass on the waterfront at Refshaleøen in 2013. During a three-week break, Orlando finally had time to think about what his restaurant was trying to achieve. “The word responsible kept playing around in my head, but I didn’t know what that was. Being responsible is leaving as small a footprint behind as possible on planet earth.”
Instead of throwing things like coffee grounds and vegetable skins in the trash, he began looking for ways to incorporate them in his menu. It didn’t take long for the new products he was making from food waste to become key components of his menu. Orlando and his team aren’t recycling, they’re upcycling.
“For us, these by-products have become an integral part of the creative process. We are looking at these products as the starting point for the dishes. The very last product to be decided on is the piece of fish or whatever.”
From Waste to New Life
Orlando is at pains to point out that reducing food waste needn’t be complicated or massively time consuming. “If it’s simply drying something so you can use it again, that’s enough,” he said.
A perfect example of this is Orlando’s garden nori, which turns discarded material from the restaurant’s herb garden into paper-thin sheets resembling Japanese seaweed. “All week long we save all the leaves that maybe have a slight hole in it, or are browning, and all the stems from every single herb we pick. We salt that for about four or five days. We dry it, grind it to a powder, add a little bit of water, make a paste, spread it, and then dry it again. It tastes exactly like nori.”
This simple approach is also applied to vegetable peelings. Carrot skins and stems are made into kimchi. Horseradish skins are retained to make oils and broth infusions, as is the pulp left over when making tomato water. But when it comes to other ingredients, more complex procedures are often called for. Coffee grounds are mixed with sugar and kombucha (a kind of slightly alcoholic ‘tea’ made by Orlando from fermented pear cores) to make a very potent coffee-infused vinegar. This is used sparingly to make marshmallows, using another ingredient that would otherwise have been discarded: egg whites.
“There were such a large amount of egg whites that we were discarding until we started to research what an egg is. An egg white contains 100 different proteins. We put them through a very fine paper sieve and we make marshmallows out of them with our coffee vinegar. Then we take the whites that are left over and we mix those with koji barley and salt and we make an egg white garum.” According to Orlando, this process saves around 520 kilos of egg whites per year.
Creating a Culture
Whether its turbot roe garum or yogurt miso, Orlando and his team go the extra mile to create super-tasty products out of things other restaurants might chuck in the bin. Fermentation, in particular, can be highly involved and time-consuming. But despite all this effort, there is plenty more to be done in the fight for sustainable food.
“The physical part of this whole practice is by far the easiest part,” Orlando insisted. “The most difficult part is creating a culture around it. We’re really trying to explore the psychological effect of this and how you can actually convince people that this is the right way to work, and the responsible way to work.”
For Matt Orlando, the war on waste has only just begun.