Restaurant Revolutionaries Fighting Food Waste

August 17, 2016

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According to research by the charity WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme), the amount of food that is wasted annually in UK pubs and restaurants is equivalent to throwing away one in every six of the eight billion meals served each year.

Now, a new generation of chefs and restaurateurs are taking action on food waste, and by developing new ways of working, issue a challenge to the UK restaurant industry: it’s time to do things better.

Struggling to clear plates

A 2013 study by WRAP highlighted a discrepancy between the way people eat in their own homes and when dining out: over a quarter of people will leave food on their plates when eating out in a restaurant, even though they wouldn’t necessarily do so at home. Have you ever deliberately left part of a main course so that you could fit in a starter and a dessert? Or ordered a side portion of chips even though you knew you wouldn’t finish them all? You’re not alone. It seems that when it comes to dining out, we may have eyes bigger than our bellies.

The report acknowledges that eating at a restaurant is a treat for most people, and two-thirds of those who said they left food confirmed that they didn’t want to worry about food waste when dining out. It may be that a hunger for the three-course experience leads to a disconnect between the dish on the table and the reality of food as a vital resource, but leftovers are also the result of overly large portion sizes and menus that don’t allow diners to customise dishes or swap items they don’t like.

A new approach to food waste

There have been some recent moves to change restaurant culture and influence consumer behaviour around leftover food. Some venues now offer a choice of portion sizes to suit different appetites, and the Sustainable Restaurant Association’s Too Good to Waste campaign encourages restaurants to proactively offer ‘doggy bags’ as standard, so that customers can take away their leftovers without feeling embarrassed.

Importantly, though, it’s not just uneaten food left on diners’ plates that contributes to waste in the restaurant industry. Surplus in the kitchen, supply chains, spoilage, wasteful preparation methods and ‘unavoidable’ leftovers such as vegetable peelings or meat trimmings are also major contributors.

Tom Tanner from the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) emphasises how important it is that the hospitality sector addresses this waste. ‘Our consumer research shows that it ranks as one of the sustainability issues diners most want restaurants to address,’ says Tanner. ‘Here’s an issue that the industry can control, which will save them money and endear them to their customers.’

Fortunately, a number of trailblazing chefs and restaurateurs are putting sustainability at the heart of what they do, and making a convincing case for a less wasteful restaurant industry. Here are three UK restaurants championing a more thoughtful economical approach to their food.

Silo, Brighton

Pioneering a ‘zero waste’ ethos, Silo has made waves in the industry by proving that it’s possible to run a restaurant without any bins.

Head chef Douglas McMaster spent years working in Michelin-starred kitchens where he witnessed first-hand the shocking amounts of waste generated through uneconomical practices. Angered by what he saw as a wasteful, hedonistic culture, and motivated by his belief that ‘Waste is a failure of the imagination,’ he went on to develop the Silo concept with the Dutch-born artist Joost Bakker. The pair opened their first zero-waste restaurant in Melbourne, and in 2014 McMaster launched Silo in the UK as a restaurant, bakery and coffee house in Brighton’s North Laine.

McMaster has cited excessive choice as a key factor leading to food waste in restaurants, so menus at Silo offer just a few intelligently developed dishes, which are dictated by seasonal farming cycles. McMaster advocates a ‘pre-industrial’ food system, by sourcing and preparing organic ingredients in a way that respects their purest form. This means there’s no room for anything processed, pre-prepared or packaged in plastic. In order to maintain its zero-waste principles, Silo makes its own almond milk, grows its own mushrooms in leftover coffee grounds, mills its own flour and churns its own butter, all on site.

The restaurant uses a high-tech composter to compost all food scraps, from vegetable peelings to the morsels left on diners’ plates. The machine, which is supplied by Closed Loop UK, uses special bacteria to decompose and pasteurise food and organic waste in an aerobic environment with controlled temperatures, agitation and airflow. It is capable of generating up to 60 kg of nutrient-dense compost in 24 hours, which can then be used to produce more food.

Poco, Bristol and London

Poco has evolved from festival food stall to award-winning tapas bar, and was named Sustainable Restaurant of the Year in the SRA’s 2016 Food Made Good Awards. Through its sustainable business model and food waste strategy – which sees 95–100% of its food waste composted and recycled – Poco is demonstrating a new way for modern restaurants to operate.

Staff at Poco ‘weigh the waste’ every day to monitor how much is produced and determine how this can be reduced, with the ultimate aim of eliminating all waste. They record any plate waste that is returned to the kitchen, and relay to chefs when specific elements of dishes are being frequently left by customers. Chefs can then amend dishes to counteract this, if they find that many people aren’t finishing their food.

‘I think it’s vital that the restaurant industry steps up to this challenge and fights food waste,’ says Poco’s head chef Tom Hunt. ‘Everyone’s responsible for reducing waste at every level, from field to fork and then to the bin.’ As a food waste activist and environmental campaigner, Hunt is one of a new breed of ‘eco-chefs’ who believe that how our food is produced, and the impact this has on the planet, is just as important as how it tastes and looks on the plate. He adheres to the ‘root-to-fruit’ approach to cooking and eating, which uses every part of the plant (as with the nose-to-tail use of an animal), placing emphasis on valuing ingredients by wasting nothing.

He explains that although on the surface it’s a very simple idea, it’s actually a completely holistic approach. ‘The philosophy runs deep into everything the business does,’ says Hunt. ‘It’s in its DNA, from how we source the food to how we dispose of it.’

Arbor Restaurant, Bournemouth

Arbor Restaurant, based at the eco-friendly Green House Hotel in Bournemouth, was named by the SRA as the UK’s most environmentally friendly restaurant two years in a row. ‘Local’ and ‘sustainably sourced’ are more than just buzzwords at Arbor, which is fastidious about verifying the quality and eco-credentials of the suppliers it works with. It even produces its own honey from beehives on the hotel’s roof.

In order to minimise food waste, the kitchen at Arbor closely monitors portion sizes, and ensures that core elements can be customised to diners’ liking with a number of different side dishes. Staff are briefed before each service on which sides are appropriate for each dish. Menus are incredibly detailed, so that diners know exactly what to expect on their plates and chefs will prepare dishes according to customer preferences so that there’s no danger of diners being served something they don’t like or are unable to eat.

A small kitchen with limited storage means that the restaurant receives small, regular deliveries from local suppliers, ensuring waste from spoilage is kept to an absolute minimum. Arbor also sends used cooking oil to be converted to biofuel, and what little food waste the restaurant does generate is made into compost and sent to local farms.

Fad or future?

Impressive though they may be, these three restaurants remain rare examples in an industry with a vast waste problem. It’s unlikely that cutting waste is going to be at the top of your local takeaway’s agenda for the time being. However, there are further signs that the hospitality sector is beginning to rise to the challenge. Zero-waste veggie pop-up Tiny Leaf enjoyed great success at its recent residence in West London and is now seeking a permanent venue. And, increasingly, chains such as Pizza Express and in-residence caterers like those at the Universities of Manchester and Brighton are also implementing food waste strategies, driven not only by environmental considerations, but by opportunities to reduce costs.

Cutting food waste offers potentially huge financial savings for restaurants, and Tom Tanner from the SRA says that there are two steps that restaurants need to take in order to minimise the amount they throw away. “The first and most important of these is to acknowledge that you have a problem,” he says. Having overcome that first hurdle, restaurants then need to separate and measure their waste to identify the type of food being wasted, the times of day when the most food is wasted and the points during production and consumption at which the most food is wasted. Armed with this information, says Tanner, kitchen teams can then generate solutions.

The SRA believes that sustainability is becoming an increasingly important factor in where diners choose to eat out. But as a meal in a restaurant remains a treat for most people, with pleasure often winning out over principles when it comes to deciding how much to order and how much goes uneaten, it’s not enough to put the onus for reducing food waste purely on the consumer. If a less wasteful hospitality industry is to one day become a reality, chefs and restaurateurs need to draw inspiration from those revolutionaries who are addressing the issue and finding new ways to tackle restaurant food waste.

Photograph: Adryan Page

Kathleen Steeden

Kathleen Steeden is a freelance features journalist and editor. She writes mainly about food culture, sustainability, social action and travel (sometimes all at the same time), although her only real criterion for taking on an assignment is that it must be interesting.

Tags: building resilient food systems, food waste, food waste reduction schemes