Not Pretty, Would Eat

How Fine Dining Restaurants Are Using Ugly Food And Minimising Food Waste

Four Singapore chefs share how they’re using their kitchens to turn the Red Dot into a green dining hub.

How Fine Dining Restaurants Are Using Ugly Food And Minimising Food Waste
Le Chou-Fleur (with lobster bisque)

Sustainable development has become one of the biggest buzzwords of the 21st century, with calls for its application in fields such as automobiles, architecture and construction and even fashion. But in 2019, consumers are turning their attention to an area that has, so far, escaped public scrutiny: Fine dining.

But what does sustainable development have to do with fine dining? Plenty, according to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals programme, which lists the reduction of food waste—a contributor to greenhouse gas emissions—as one of its goals. In Singapore, food waste accounts for ten per cent of the country’s overall generated waste—a 30 per cent increase over the last decade per the National Environment Agency’s (NEA) records. In 2018, 763,100 tonnes of food waste was generated across the island; only 126,200 tonnes were recycled.

While these sobering numbers and growing consumer awareness may have made many sit up and take note lately, food waste has always been a critical issue for the fine dining scene, says chef Andrew Walsh of CURE. Vianney Massot, executive chef and director of Vianney Massot Restaurant, chimes in agreement: “In our industry, we have long been exposed to it and tried to overcome it. It’s our job to monitor these trends and concerns as it affects our industry and livelihood.”

Vianney Massot, executive chef and director of Vianney Massot Restaurant

However, chef Vianney feels that it’s great that [food waste] has come to the forefront of global discussion. “Now there is a bigger involvement, not just by those in the kitchens,” he adds. Chef Beppe De Vito echoes this, too, citing well-travelled diners and easily accessible information for this increased awareness. “They are very exposed to how much food waste and hunger there is across the world,” he elaborates.

Chef Beppe, chef Andrew and chef Vianney aren’t the only ones who take food waste seriously. Enter chef Alysia Chan, who has recently propelled The Black Swan to the top of every diner’s list with her sustainable creations and passion for food waste. The first step towards combating food waste, she says, is to respect your food and where it comes from. “I have deep respect for the farmers and producers that I work with, and I try to use everything as a form of respect,” says chef Alysia, who finds that adopting a sustainable food preparation process has helped her reduce the restaurant’s food wastage significantly. The numbers don’t lie, considering The Black Swan only generates one bag of food waste per day.

Despite Black Swan’s generous portions, chef Alysia Chan’s focus on sustainable food preparation means the restaurant only generates one bag of food waste per day.

Respect for the ingredients and the hands that have interacted with it has been an essential element in chef Beppe’s culinary beliefs as well. “All ingredients deserve to be respected and utilised to their full potential; this goes hand-in-hand with our continuous efforts to further elevate our cuisine,” he stresses.  

It is this respect that has led each of these chefs to utilise each purchased ingredient to its maximum potential. CURE, says chef Andrew has a root-to-stem philosophy that celebrates the vegetable in its entirety. “For example,” he explains, “In our seasonal White Asparagus, Burrata, Caviar dish, we use the peeled skin of the asparagus to create asparagus milk foam. Potato, Seaweed, Soil makes good use of the usually discarded peels of the humble potato by dehydrating them.”

The asparagus milk foam in CURE’s White Asparagus, Burrata, Caviar is made using the peeled skin of the asparagus.

At The Black Swan, the oft-discarded broccoli stems are blended with carrot leaves, sun-dried tomatoes and toasted pine nuts to make the vegan-friendly Broccoli & Pine Nut Hummus, beef tallow from streak trimmings is refashioned into a delicious Beef Fat Butter that’s served with the restaurant’s house-made sourdough, and excess dough is mixed with rosemary and salt before being baked into a batch of tangy crackers that complement the Steak Tartare and Cheese Platter.

It’s not just vegetables that can be maximised this way, says chef Beppe, who uses fish bones, scampi shells and shrimp heads to form the base for his soups and sauces. Other trimmings and edible parts are used in multiple stages during the cooking process. “For example, fish bones boiled down for stock is then dehydrated and grind into a powder to use for garnish, while stale breads are turned into breadcrumbs,” he describes.

Another simple answer in the fight against food waste is to plan ahead. Space constraints at Vianney Massot restaurant means that chef Vianney plans his inventory tightly and orders only exactly what he needs for the week. Planning is also a must for chef Beppe, who says “food wastage is low, as we plan our menu very carefully, enabling us to fully utilise all edible parts of an ingredient.”

Braci’s Beef Tartare, prepared under tight planning controls by chef Beppe de Vito.

Chef Andrew prizes communication with his suppliers, and goes the extra mile to see if they have any extra produce that can be used in CURE’s seasonal menus. “Suppliers are usually enthusiastic to come forward about the extras they have, because they would be wasted if not sold. When we buy from suppliers at a good price and put the products to great use, it’s a win-win for both sides.” He also turns leftovers into delectable meals for his staff, which served as the inspiration for his Scrappy Suppers programme. The community initiative rallies fellow chefs, bartenders and kitchen teams from CURE’s culinary neighbours along Keong Saik Road to discuss sustainable dining over a potluck supper that’s made from food trimmings and repurposed leftovers.

‘Ugly’ food and its acceptance are also key in reducing food waste. It may not be aesthetically pleasing, but “it’s the job of a chef to be able to transform ugly food into delicious food,” stresses chef Alysia, who says she makes a conscious effort to not trim the ugly parts of my ingredients in my dishes. “For instance, I grill the spring onions all together with the roots still on; I don’t peel my carrots because there are a lot of flavours and nutrients in the skin.”

“Food that isn’t aesthetically pleasing does not mean it lacks flavour—we can make very good stocks, sauces and condiments from that to create amazing flavour for the dishes. For instance, bruised tomatoes can be used to make tomato water and jelly,” says chef Vianney whose only criteria in using ugly food is that it must be fresh and edible.

But can ‘ugly’ foods really carve a niche for itself in fine dining? It is, after all, an industry that relies on immaculate plating to entice diners. “There is a saying that consumers first eat with their eyes. Many young chefs today place too much focus on presenting dishes that look presentable and often overlook the big picture—reducing food waste,” sighs chef Andrew.

CURE’s Scrappy Suppers was initiated by Chef Andrew Walsh to highlight the issue of food waste.

That, though, is where the challenge lies, he believes. “Chefs create dishes with the intention of the flavours coming together as well as for them to look picture perfect. The ingredients chosen have to look good enough to eat. “Imperfect” produce will then be thrown away. It may still be a challenge educating our industry friends and influencing them to minimise their food waste immediately. It is, however, not impossible. With some time and the right mindset, we can all do our part in minimising food waste.”

Chef Alysia concurs, as her team does not come from a culture where food waste is an issue. “To them, it was an inconvenience but they now understand the importance of minimising waste and have been very supportive since.”

How will food waste be approached in the near future, I ask? Both chef Beppe and chef Alysia feel there’s plenty of momentum left for the movement, as consumers, organisations and restaurants become more educated and make a conscious effort to reduce their food waste.

“I think it will spark a new generation of chefs who are respectful, responsible and innovative. There will always be parts of an ingredient that you thought cannot be used but turns out to be immensely useful – it depends on how the chef uses it,” says chef Vianney.

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