There are trends and there are trendsetters. There are dreamers and there are doers. There is drama, but only if skillfully handled, is there lasting impact. In the process of mentally digesting my dinner at WastED, what resonates is the message Dan Barber serves, as much as the food itself.
The premise of fully utilizing all parts of an animal or fish, fruit or vegetable, or other byproducts of the food preparation process is a seed Dan has been nurturing for a while. Our preoccupation with choice cuts of meat, perfectly formed produce and the thoughtless efficiency of our food system contributes to the staggering statistic that 40% of the food produced in the U.S., from farm fields to processors, distributors, wholesalers, retailers, restaurants, caterers and our own homes, ends up in the trash.
Our devotion to culinary trends results in a narrow if not wasteful use of ingredients. For example, kale--most recipes call for trimming the rib that runs up the center of the leaf. These thick and tasty strips get tossed. Or think about pineapple slices: most desirable once the core has been removed.
At WastED, you will enjoy a Stew of Kale Ribs, with pockmarked potatoes and parsnips, and shaved immature egg yolk. Or for dessert, Charred Pineapple Core, with fermented pineapple skin granita, candied mango skin, and lime leaf ice cream. One of my favorite dishes was Rotation Risotto, with second-class grains and seeds, squash seed pulp, pickled peanuts, and spent cheese rinds.
The ED-ucational part of the evening is derived from several perspectives. First, the décor announces that something is very different. The walls are draped with row cover - something we use at Katchkie Farm to protect young crops from cold weather or pests. Or as the dinner menu guide says, "it prevents waste in the field." You then learn that the tables were grown "with compostable materials and mycelium." The decorative green on the table, in lieu of fresh cut flowers, is actually a sprouting parsnip top or bok choy sitting sustainably in dish of water. (Who knows, maybe that is next week's meal?) Even the votive candle has a story. I was wondering why there was a piece of tape saying "BEEF" on the glass, until the bread was served. The server then lifted the votive, poured the hot liquid of rendered beef fat over a dish with herbs and suggested we use it as a dip for the bread.
There are leftovers that are familiar to cooks - bones, peelings, rinds - things many of us have learned are useful. But at WastED, I was introduced to a robust list of products I hadn't thought about: pasta trimmings (from Raffetto's), dry-aged beef ends, skate cartilage, cocoa pod husks and broken razor clams. There is a cocktail of "spent kitchen lemon limoncello, sparkling wine, lemon thyme stems." (As I type, I'm eyeing the clementine peels I am about to discard, wondering what Dan would do.)
But chefs have already discovered the charms and flavors of underutilized meat cuts or undesirable fish remains. Nose to Tail has an army of loyal adherents. Gabe Stulman elevated the miso-maple salmon head and Mario Batali bolstered his profile with unlikely animal parts.
But, Dan is focused on teaching us, even more than feeding us. What seems to be the most unique feature of this pop-up experience is the almost deliberate attempt to shock the eater. Dumpster Dive Vegetable Salad, reject carrot mustard, off-grade sweet potatoes, mystery vegetables and peels, old dairy cow bresaola, outer layer onions, Dog Food, bruised beet ketchup. What do you feel now?
This is the sort of meal that evokes conversation. At our table, it went from "I can't believe I'm eating this stuff" to "the smoked salmon bloodline wasn't what I expected, it was really good" to "I'm going to pay closer attention as I'm tossing things away."
A most remarkable part of the evening were the memories that bubbled up; images of our grandmothers and mothers, cooks from a different time, cooking chicken feet and giblets, saving cheese rinds and bones, making soup from scrapes or wiping out the egg shell for the extra drops. The evening's guest chef, Dominique Ansel, reminisced about his grandmother's strategy for stale bread as well as his first job when if he didn't get every bit of butter off the wrapper, he was sternly chastised.
Our affluence has made us food-arrogant. And our arrogance has not only resulted in extraordinary waste but has inadvertently narrowed our enjoyment of food, which comes not only from what we consume, but as importantly from the integrity of the preparation.
WastED elevates the senses, inspires reflection and challenges our creativity. The staff has learned another aspect of telling the story of what is on your plate and it is done with passion and clarity. The menu comes complete with the "wastED GLOSSARY," the first installment in your new collection of writings about eating. Guaranteed, you will look at your pantry and fridge differently. Or, in the words of the song that plays while you are placed on hold when calling WastED:
"Oh, I love trash!
Anything dirty or dingy or dusty
Anything ragged or rotten or rusty
Yes, I love trash
I have here some newspaper thirteen months old
I wrapped fish inside it; it's smelly and cold
But I wouldn't trade it for a big pot o' gold!
I love it because it's trash"
(Sesame Street - "I Love Trash Lyrics" - Metrolyrics)