Everything but the pips: Arc Café is pioneering the vegetarian version of zero-waste cooking
Samuel Muston discovers why we should think twice before we throw away those peelings.
Scan the TV pages this week and find a cookery show on the schedule. It doesn't matter if it's a repeat on the cable network, American or British, new or something from the days when Keith Floyd was the man. Watch a few of them and try to spot the similarity between the chefs. Nearly all of them waste food. Not flagrantly, not even consciously, but still they do it. When they slice off that bit of fat, bin those peelings, drain that grease and throw it away, they are wasting things we probably would have eaten in times past. And the reason we don't notice it is because that's the way we all cook – they simply cook like us, and, indeed, we cook like them. Throwing stuff away is as ingrained as a part of our culinary culture as using a knife and fork to eat a steak.
Or at least, that's what the 26-year-old Bristol chef, Shane Jordan, is telling me over a plate of vegan curry at Arc Café, where he works.
"TV chefs are all chop, chop, chop, put this to the side, throw away this," says Jordan, who is to be found in the kitchens of Arc Café on Bristol's Broad Street most lunchtimes. "I used to watch and think: 'I could make a dish out of what you are throwing away alone.'"
So that's what he started doing. At Arc he has created a series of dishes that are zero waste, or a hair's breadth from it. So if he uses one part of a vegetable or fruit, he'll use the rest of it elsewhere, so long as it isn't injurious to health.
In fact, my curry – dark, earthy and picked out with little spicy thorns of chilli that singe your tongue – is banana-skins curry, the skins filling in for what would normally be meat. Laid on the plate in front of me, his signature dish looks just like any other vegetarian or vegan curry. But where did the idea to use that particular part of that particular fruit in a curry come from?
"Well, it's a matter of connecting the dots for me," he says. "I make a lot of banana fritters with the flesh, so I'm left with all these skins. And I thought, 'what can I do with them?' Then I found an Asian recipe which tells you how to make them edible and I built the dish around that."
In some senses, this sums up his cooking. It is inventive, like a vegetarian version of the nose-to-tail cooking of chefs like Ferguson Henderson. Cross-cultural, too, borrowing techniques and recipes from all over the world.
But at its core it is merely good kitchen sense with a make-do-with-what-you-have attitude that, Jordan joyfully admits, has a backwards-looking feel to it.
That may not be a bad thing, Tom Tanner, of the Sustainable Restaurant Association, says. "We have become used to fast, quick, disposable food. A return to the culinary values and good housekeeping of our grandparents may help reduce the vast quantity of food we all chuck away."
Certainly the SRA's own figures on waste are a cause for jaw-clenching concern. A 2010 study of 10 London restaurants found, on average, that each wasted a massive 21 tonnes of food each year, with two-thirds of that coming from preparation waste, off-cuts and garnishes. While discomfiting, that pales in comparison to how much we waste at home. The Waste & Resources Action Programme's 2011 study into home eating concluded that we waste one-fifth of all the food we buy, which amounts to £680 a year and 7.2 million tonnes of food in landfills around the country.
It is against this that Jordan is fighting, in his own way. "I believe in spreading what knowledge I have of my type of low-waste cooking, I don't want to lecture people," Jordan says. "But I do want to try and show people there's another way."
To help do this he has teamed up with Nakd, the raw-food snack bar company based in Bristol, to create a rolling programme of school visits. In these, he'll teach kids how to cut vegetables and fruit (tight to the flesh) and think about food as something that isn't infinitely available from the fridge – and infinitely disposable.
He is also targeting slightly older cooks. "In the next few months we also plan to set up a webcam to livestream what we do in the kitchen so people can learn exactly what you can and can't eat," Jordan says. Hearing about some of his other dishes, there'll be lots of tips we could pick up – and some we might want to avoid. I'm not quite taken with his idea for using pumpkin and butternut squash peel as a sort of crouton for salad after you've dried them in the oven. But using peelings from fruit to add flavour and bulk to cakes and jams seems eminently sensible. His pineapple smoothie, too, sounds interesting. Although the peel isn't edible you can use the core. "Cut it out and blend it in a food processors with some of the flesh – it tastes nice and the core has lots of bromelian enzymes in it," he says. The ends of broccoli stalks and leeks, often overlooked, are also great for throwing in stir-frys.
This may all sound a little left-field, but this type of creative thinking might just be what we need, according to the SRA's Tanner. "We have to face up to the fact we have a waste problem," he says. "It costs us money and it's bad for the environment – and to change it we need to change our attitude to the food we eat."
While we may not all be ready to start boiling down banana skins or knocking up vegan jams with our old bits of peelings, in a time of belt-tightening and retrenchment, we could all do with cutting down on the throwaway – and Jordan may just be one of the men to help us.
Tips on cutting down on waste
Soft, slightly pulpy fruits and vegetables on the turn are great for throwing into soups or casseroles – don't waste them.
Buy little and often. This way, you're less inclined to fill your fridge with things you fancy, but don't need, and then end up with lots of spoiled fruit and vegetable at the back.
Shop locally. Get to know your local suppliers; they'll not only tell you when foods are coming into season but will often give you older, riper fruit and vegetables at a discount.
Be careful with your knife. Don't slice away unconsciously. You probably don't want to eat the end of the carrot but equally there is no point in cutting away lots of the good bits, either.
If you do buy things from a supermarket, make sure you use things in order of their sell-by dates. Sounds simple, but lots of us don't.
Don't be afraid to experiment.
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