Barber sees his pop-up as an extension of his philosophy that challenges Americans to radically rethink what is acceptable and unacceptable to eat. "In America we come with this blessed landscape, this Garden of Eden ... with incredible soils, temperate climate, predictable rainfall, and we produce a ton of food. And because of that we were never forced into the kind of negotiations that suck up waste," he said. That explains the "wasted special" served up by one of Barber's guest chefs, Bill Telepan of the Upper West Side restaurant Telepan. He fashioned his plate of tuna on a bed of salvaged radish greens, incorporating them into a pesto, slicing the radish into the dish and using the usually tossed blood line of the fish in an aioli.
Grant Baldwin and his wife, who live in Vancouver, British Columbia, filmed themselves living on discarded and culled food for six months for their documentary "Just Eat It." They did their share of dumpster diving — heading to unlocked bins of wholesalers for the best finds. And they came up with some treasures: cartons of eggs with plenty of time left on expiration, boxes of pricey chocolate bars tossed because they did not have the requisite EnglishFrench labeling required in Canada, and a mountain of packaged hummus still in containers but perfectly edible. "The whole reason that we did the project was to prove the food was good," Baldwin said. "Everybody talks about how 40 percent of food is wasted, but to see it in the bins is another thing. Eating from dumpsters is not a good lifestyle for anyone. It's a terrible lifestyle. The point is the food shouldn't be in the bins to begin with."
Baldwin thinks rigid standards for date labels on packaged foods serve to muddle the edibility issue, wrongly convincing people that perfectly good food is no longer safe to eat. And appearance remains a huge stumbling block in the processing and packaging of food, with retailers demanding exacting uniform standards that have growers and middlemen tossing 20 to 70 percent of shipments in some cases.
Michael Muzyk knows that first-hand. He's the president of Baldor Specialty Foods, a distributor and processor of produce in the South Bronx serving high-end hotels and restaurants. Baldor has made strides in repurposing his own wasted food, using natural enzymes to dehydrate byproducts before they hit landfills. The company is also a major contributor to City Harvest, which feeds the hungry in New York City using rescued food. "Will there be 100 chefs tomorrow saying 'I want to follow Dan Barber's lead?' I hope so," he said.