Reclaimed Gourmet: 5 Takeaways from NYC’s WastED

From by Jonathan Bloom
Reclaimed Gourmet: 5 Takeaways from NYC’s WastED

This is a guest article written by Food Tank Advisory Board Member Jonathan Bloom. Bloom is the author of American Wasteland and creator of the blog “Wasted Food.” 

Manhattan-based chef Dan Barber’s wasted food pop-up restaurant/scene disrupter/edible think-piece WastED ended its run last week. Here are five takeaways on the WastED sensation (#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 edible 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 grab folks’ attention. While I would’ve loved to see more take-home lessons on the problem of food waste on the farm, and especially the household, levels…

2. …WastED was extraordinary. The creativity and camaraderie seemed palpable (and visible on Twitter), as visiting chefs worked together to find interesting uses for often-discarded items, such as poster child carrot tops (made into a marmalade) and the more esoteric pineapple core (charred, draped with candied mango skin, and served with lime ice cream).

WastED customers undoubtedly went home with 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. …Is 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 US$15. That is not outrageous for a fine (and norm-challenging) dining experience in Manhattan, especially at a place like Barber’s Blue Hill, but I think the restaurant missed an opportunity to reach a broader audience.

4. What’s in a name? I appreciate the educational opportunities implied in the name WastED, even though that 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 cooking with foods often wasted would be useful in a restaurant industry that too often leans in the opposite direction. Whatever happens next, the situation will likely be a bit different. Maybe the pop-up, hosted by another chef, touches down in a totally different restaurant. Maybe the menu tours the country, landing at other restaurants like an edible art exhibit.

Even more innovative—a pop-up that attempts to eliminate prep waste. One hurdle for any restaurant is predicting demand to know how much to order and prepare beforehand. There will always be excess, unless a chef’s comfortable running out (or even aspiring to run out!) of everything by the end of the night, or else knows demand 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 equals death. Sure, this order-in-advance restaurant wouldn’t allow for walk-ins, but for a popular spot where diners make reservations months ahead of their visit, 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.

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