The menu at the experimental pop-up restaurant WastED, which recently had an 18-day run inside Blue Hill’s Manhattan location, came fully loaded with synonyms for garbage. Diners could choose a dumpster dive vegetable salad with damaged apples and pears; two dishes served up cuts of waste-fed pigs, one with a side of waste kraut. Even the items that didn’t directly call something trash employed terms suggesting that what you’re about to eat is table scraps. Pockmarked potatoes, melba toast from yesterday’s oatmeal, yesterday’s bread, reject carrot mustard, and mystery vegetables are all on offer.
While it may sound unappetizing, the emphasis on waste is intentional. The restaurant’s stated purpose of “reconceiving ‘waste’ that occurs at every link in the food chain.”
Chefs, of course, do this all the time. “It’s something that all good restaurants experiment with on an ongoing basis,” David Barber, the president and co-owner of Blue Hill told Fast Company. “It’s called controlling food costs, which is how you stay in business.” But no restaurants serve all garbage, all the time. “What evolved is really calling attention to it and wearing it on our sleeve, and not try and integrate what we were doing with what would otherwise be waste into our normal meals, but focus on it.”
Instead of sneaking some day-old vegetables or less desirable cuts onto an otherwise fresh-sounding menu, WastED focused the entire culinary experience on leftovers. Everything at the restaurant embodied conservation. The wines came in magnum-sized bottles. The candle on the table was a wick burning in beef fat; once melted, servers poured the grease into a little dish for dipping bread. Blue Hill even “grew” the tables from fungus. “The idea was there is no escaping it,” added Barber, brother of famed Blue Hill chef Dan Barber. Including the nitty-gritty of the origins of ingredients makes diners aware of what they’re eating–and why it normally wouldn’t get used.
On a recent visit, I felt paradoxically compelled to order dishes that sounded like blue plate specials for Oscar the Grouch. My companion and I opted for a take on bagels and lox made with “smoked salmon blood line” and served on a “left over from an everything bagel.” We also got monkfish wings, culled chicken broth, and a juice pulp cheeseburger served on repurposed bread from Balthazar, all for $15 a plate. All of it tasted good enough to grace the tables of a restaurant (although maybe not one with a Michelin star). There’s a reason certain cuts of monkfish don’t generally sell; the spiky wings are terrifying looking. The meat was also fattier than other cuts of fish. Twice, our server described the rack of black cod as delicious, but difficult to eat because it had “a lot of small bones.” (We passed on that one.)
Part of the theory behind WastED is that tastes can and should change. Truly sustainable farming requires a system that doesn’t toss crops or eschew cuts of meat because they’re rough around the edges. “There is nothing efficient or sustainable about pursuing a farm-to-table philosophy that reinforces the world is our supermarket,” said Barber. To maintain soil, for example, organic farmers grow grains for which, right now, there is no market. Organic farmers use those rotation crops for animal feed, or plow it back into the soil. “On their own, individually, they’re a tough sell to customers,” explained Barber.
When a restaurant like WastED buys those crops for its rotation risotto (made with second-class grains), for example, it economically supports a farmer trying to do better by our earth. “We’re a very small customer,” said Barber. “If we were to incite a market for that kind of thing, and get other restaurants to embrace grain farmers to allow them to collect revenue–that really has impact.” Buying rotation crops not only drives down the cost of a farmer’s other grains, but also gives the farmer the sense that the market will support the business.
Barber gets giddy thinking about what kind of ripple effect WastED could have if it creates a real buzz around leftovers. Grains are just one of the many possibilities, as WastED’s menu proves. That juice pulp burger, for example, takes advantage of the juice-press craze. Right now, all those multi-colored $10-$12 juices produce a lot of waste. Some juicers send it to the compost, but a lot of it gets thrown out. WastED took the unused carcasses and pounded them into a veggie burger. The restaurant also created a temporary mini-market for certain fish-heads and parts of the vegetable that normally get thrown out.
At this point, beyond Blue Hill, there isn’t much of a market for refuse products, but Barber hopes that the pop-up restaurant is the beginning of a larger conversation. Sure, all chefs think about conserving waste within their own small systems. But, Barber believes restaurants should play more of a role in furthering the conversation and thinking bigger. Even just opening the pop-up opened Blue Hill’s eyes to more possibilities. Stone Barns, the farm that supports Blue Hill, doesn’t produce enough waste to run an entire restaurant. They had to ask suppliers for help. “From that came totally new ideas and totally new ingredients that we never work with,” explained Barber. If some of those alt-dishes take off, it would be a new source of revenue for farmers and restaurant alike.
But first, people have to like what they’re eating. I can’t say I would order any of those dishes if I had the choice of more traditional food; neither I nor my companion rated anything as off the charts. Some more adventurous eaters, such as this New Yorker reviewer, were more effusive, finding that “ordering horrible-sounding things that turned out to be delicious was a bizarre but exhilarating adventure.”
That was the sentiment Barber was going for. “If people left feeling like it wasn’t delicious, then that was a failure. We had to feel like it tasted great.”