The Star Malaysia - Star2
Running a minimal waste restaurant
IN the 1980s and 1990s, being a chef was all about producing the best meals using the best ingredients, regardless of the off-cuts and cast-offs that never made it onto plates and were unabashedly thrown away.
Fast forward to 2021, and this practice is still widely used. But in the past few years, a growing sustainability drive has taken root among many mindful chefs around the world, driven primarily by increasing environmental awareness.
These days, chefs like the acclaimed Dominique Crenn in the United States – who has just been honoured with the World’s 50 Best Restaurant’s Icon Award 2021 – are rewriting the rules. Crenn for instance, is working towards waste-free status in her restaurants by turning food waste from her eateries into compost at Bleu Belle Farm, the farm she started for this purpose.
In Sydney, Australia, meanwhile dynamic young chef Josh Niland endeavours to utilise every single part of the seafood he serves at his acclaimed restaurant Saint Peter, which has been hailed as a model of the nose-to-tail movement.
Closer to our neck of the woods, fellow Australian chef Drew Nocente is making his mark on the zero-food waste movement with his Singapore-based eatery Salted & Hung, which endeavours to make use of all the ingredients in the kitchen in order to generate as little waste as possible.
This is particularly important as food waste generated by restaurants is fairly high. In Malaysia alone, restaurants generate 23% of total food waste!
Nocente grew up on a rural farm in Australia and learnt how to utilise everything grown on the land. Nothing was wasted – the animals were fed scraps and once a year, pigs and cows were slaughtered for the family’s consumption.
Although Nocente eventually went on to work in London as a sous chef at Gordon Ramsay’s celebrated Maze Bar & Grill and in Shanghai where he was part of the pre-opening team at Jason Atherton’s Table No. 1 restaurant, he never forgot his roots.
“I think the restaurant’s ethos truly stems from my childhood on the farm – I didn’t realise how much of an impact it would have on me in later life. It was kind of ingrained in me from a very young age, so that experience has really fuelled this minimal waste cooking that I am trying drive,” says Nocente.
Nocente says that it is actually a lot more challenging to put together a menu that utilises all the ingredients in the kitchen than it is to pick and choose what he wants, the way many chefs do in most restaurants.
“Yeah, it’s definitely more difficult. It’s not just making the dish now; it’s having that whole consciousness of everything that goes into the dish and everything that is left out of the dish and how we can reuse that. So yeah, menu planning is a lot more difficult now,” says Nocente.
Nocente says there is constant thought behind every single ingredient in the eatery and how to repurpose, reuse or make use of it in its entirety. Onion skins for example, are dried out and burnt to make ash to flavour some of the
dishes, which gives it a toasty, rich onion flavour.
Bread trimmings on the other hand, are utilised to make the restaurant’s own version of Vegemite, a yeast spread that is ubiquitous Down Under. Nocente also makes a kelp oil in the eatery and uses the byproduct of that to produce kelp butter and even a seaweed muffin!
“There’s a lot more thought process in the dishes now, so we try to keep it simple on the plate, like just three to five ingredients but the thought process behind that does involve about 10 to 20 different stages of actually making the dish,” says Nocente.
Nocente says that diners have been extremely receptive to the eatery’s ethos and his goal now is to educate as many customers and young chefs as he can.
“Chefs are definitely not trained to do this, like if you take a cow, most of the chefs are trained to use prime cuts, so secondary cuts are pretty much forgotten about. So yeah, there’s a lot of training and education that needs to be done, I feel,” he says.
With Nocente and others leading the charge, there is hope that this sort of forward-thinking will transform restaurant kitchens across the globe into zero-waste platforms and advocates.
“There are more and more chefs coming out that are looking at how to use products in different ways, so I think it’s great and I think the more of us out there doing it, the better it is for everyone,” says Nocente.