Reclaimed Gourmet: 5 Takeaways from WastED

Dan Barber’s wasted food pop-up/restaurant scene disrupter/edible think-piece ended its run last week. Here’s are five takeaways on the phenomenon that was WastED (#WastEDny):

1. It was a true phenomenon! At least in the New York restaurant—and, hence—media scene. Everyone from The New Yorker to the New Republic raved about the idea and especially the execution. While I didn’t see as much buzz on social media from those without megaphones, Alan Richman, writing in GQ, captured the mood thusly: “I don’t believe I’ve ever been in a Manhattan restaurant where so many people appeared so enthralled, so thrilled.”

It felt like two weeks of non-stop conversation about America’s wasted food problem. More specifically, WastED brought a focus on food items people rarely consider food. This comes as no surprise, as serving an offal meatloaf called “dog food” and setting the table with beef tallow candles (for dipping bread) tends to capture folks’ attention. While I would’ve loved to see more take-home lessons on the problem of food wasted on the farm and especially household levels…

2. …WastED was exceptional. You can’t blame WastED for not being all things, and most of all it was wonderful. The creativity and camaraderie seemed palpable (and visible on Twitter), as visiting chefs worked together to find interesting uses for often-discarded items. For example, that category’s poster child, carrot tops, became a marmalade, and the more esoteric pineapple core was charred, draped with candied mango skin and served with lime ice cream.

WastED customers undoubtedly went home having had their food assumptions challenged. The question I have is whether they brought home any usable ideas. Will it inspire people avoid waste in their own kitchens or just intimidate them because they don’t work in Dan Barber’s? Judging from this follow-up piece, I’d guess most people will at least be on the lookout for new ways to use kitchen castoffs, as Barber advised in this interview.  One helpful way to encourage that is to avoid calling these food items ‘garbage,’ as Money did. They are not that.  And on the topic of money…

3. …Was WastED Too Costly? What to make of paying first class prices for dishes using “second class grains and seeds?” In other words, should the price reflect the low cost of the ingredients or the creativity and skill required to carry them out? I would have loved more of the former, enabling a variety of folks to enjoy and learn from this virtuous experiment. The cost veered away from populism with all of the small plate dishes priced at $15. That is not outrageous for a fine (and norm-challenging) dining experience in Manhattan, especially at a place like Blue Hill, but I think the restaurant missed an opportunity to reach a broader audience.

4. What’s in a name? I appreciate the education implied in the name WastED, even though there were a few complaints of pedantism (to which I’d respond, what did people expect?). But on a lighter note, every time I see ‘WastED,’ my mind’s editor hopes that it was helmed by a guy named Ed. I would settle for Ted or a chef nicknamed ‘D.’ As in, ‘man, it’s impossible to get a table at WasteD.’ Something to chew on for next time, D. Barber!

5. And looking ahead, let’s hope there is a next time! By any name, an annual exercise of cooking with foods often wasted would be useful in a restaurant industry that too often leans in the opposite direction. Whatever happens next, it will likely be a bit different. Maybe it’s held at a different restaurant, hosted by another chef. Maybe it tours the country, landing at other restaurants like an edible art exhibit.

Even more radical—a pop-up that attempts to eliminate prep waste. A major hurdle for any restaurant is predicting demand to know how much to order and prepare beforehand. There will always be excess unless a) you’re comfortable or even aspiring to run out of everything by the end of the night or b) demand is known in advance. With the latter, how about a restaurant where you commit to your meal the day before, so the restaurant knows exactly how much to order? That kind of operation would be similar to catering, but minus the mindset that running out = death. Sure, this order-in-advance restaurant wouldn’t allow for walk-ins, but for a popular spot where reservations are made months in advance, this idea could conceivably happen…and with just one click! I mean, what’s more exclusive than an eatery that makes you order in advance?

More realistic and better still, maybe the restaurant industry will gradually adopt some of the notions, if not the tactics, behind WastED. Subtle, lasting changes—now that would be truly radical.

This piece also ran on Food Tank. Visit those fine folks for all of your sustainable food needs.

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