Labun Jordan: Food Waste

May 7, 2015

At the end of March, Chef Dan Barber from Blue Hill Restaurant in New York City experimented for two weeks with menus composed of food waste. And people are still talking about it.

Now, food waste here didn’t mean supermarket food at its expiration date but still perfectly edible, or fruits with a few blemishes. Barber focused on waste from food processing, serving up dishes like broken razor clams with pig’s ear vinaigrette or cauliflower ribbons and lobster legs. Dessert included charred pineapple cores with candied mango skins.

Reviews for the food were that it tasted good, odd but (at the flavor level) not off putting. The menu, though, did its best to emphasize culling each ingredient from the trash, as Barber made a larger point about food waste - essentially, that there’s a lot of it. The most common estimate is that 40% of U.S. food gets lost somewhere in our supply chain. That means not only food thrown out in home kitchens, but also food lost in transit from farm fields or discared in processing.

Let's be honest, Barber’s restaurant experiment appealed to a very small group of customers. Sure, I wish I’d had a chance to try his fried skate cartilage or cocoa pod sorbet — and if that were a majority opinion, we’d all be eating skate cartilage by now. Instead, Barber’s menu gets at a fundamental question underlying many sustainable food projects: how far will people go outside of their realm of known, “normal” foods? We don’t all need to have the same answer.

Some sustainable food entrepreneurs are firm that they won’t try to change people’s preferences - like Beyond Meat, which produces veggie protein that tastes like chicken tenders. It’s a different food, but we shouldn’t be able to notice that difference.

Some projects forge a middle ground - sustainable fishery groups that shift the species of seafood we eat, or advocates for seasonal eating that shift foods like fresh tomatoes into certain times of the year.

Then there are more extreme options, like rallying American diners around pig’s ear vinaigrette.

There are pros and cons to each approach. You could argue that high concept menus like Barber’s are really gimmicks. Or you could argue that changing what’s in our food without changing how we think about food is superficial. In truth, we have as many different possible paths towards sustainable food as we have different appetites. Supporting that diversity is what keeps everyone thinking creatively. And those candied mango skins? I’m hoping they’ll catch on.