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The next food movement? Maybe garbage-to-plate dining

September 8, 2015 at 6:30 PM EDT
What happens to the little ends of cucumber that get cut off by big-time food processors to make pickles? At the Michelin-starred Manhattan restaurant Blue Hill, chef Dan Barber has tried turning that food waste into cuisine, an experiment to encourage diners to rethink the distinction between what we eat and what we throw away. Special correspondent Allison Aubrey of NPR News reports.

GWEN IFILL: Now to our latest installment in our occasional series that we’re calling Food Glorious Food.

We have been looking at efforts to reduce food waste and to use it more productively. During our reporting earlier this year, we dropped in on noted chef Dan Barber, who had just launched a pop-up restaurant in Manhattan. He was showcasing how good food could be created from ingredients we normally tossed out.

Allison Aubrey of NPR took a look at what was on the menu and Barber’s approach.

This story is part of the NewsHour’s ongoing collaboration with NPR.

DAN BARBER, Chef: Ordering a salmon and eggplant, egg, and ending a burger dumpling.

MAN: Yes!


ALLISON AUBREY: At 7:00 p.m., the kitchen was working at full-throttle and the restaurant was packed. The main draw? Think of it as Michelin-starred waste. That’s what chef Dan Barber was serving up at his tony Greenwich Village restaurants for $15 dollars a plate.

Barber’s restaurant Blue Hill underwent an eco-makeover of sorts. Every night for three weeks, he transformed food trash into treasure, and called it wastED.

DAN BARBER: Get out a nice burger bun, so we can finish that, please.


ALLISON AUBREY: On the menu? A juice pulp cheeseburger.

DAN BARBER: How do you like your burger?

ALLISON AUBREY: A dish called dog food, fried skate-wing cartilage and cucumber butts.

I have heard you talk about cucumber butts. I don’t even know what those are.

DAN BARBER: Cucumber butts are from a cucumber processor, a pickling processor in Upstate New York who cuts off the ends of the cucumbers, so these aren’t staring at you in the glass jar. Right, there is an industry term called pickle butts. I didn’t make that up.


DAN BARBER: He was excited. We came by and we said we’re going to start a market for your discarded butts.

ALLISON AUBREY: People buying cucumber butts instead of tossing them out, well, that’s part of Dan Barber’s vision.

DAN BARBER: We actually have the power and creativity to take what you deem uncoveted or refuse and turn that into the deliciousness. That’s very powerful.

ALLISON AUBREY: Barber’s no ordinary chef.

DAN BARBER: Pick up here, please.

ALLISON AUBREY: He’s won multiple James Beard Awards and, in 2009, made it onto “TIME” magazine’s 100 most influential list.

He’s profiled in a recent Netflix documentary called “Chef’s Table” on notable chefs from around the world.

DAN BARBER: If you’re thinking about an idea that you can solve in your lifetime, you’re thinking too small.

ALLISON AUBREY: Barber always seems to be thinking big thoughts and they all converge on this 80-acre plot of land just north of Manhattan, where he combines an experimental farm and restaurant. It’s called the Stone Barns Food and Agricultural Center.

The mission? To change the way Americans eat and farm. Adjoining the center is Barber’s restaurant, a true farm-to-table enterprise.

DAN BARBER: In this day and age, chefs have a message to broadcast, and in this case, we’re broadcasting that vegetable pulp is delicious fiber that could be utilized.

ALLISON AUBREY: Vegetable pulp? We watched as Barber’s right-hand man, chef Adam Kaye, transformed beet and celery pulp salvaged from a local juice bar named Liquiteria to make something that lots of people might actually want to eat.

Oh, I have to say looking at this doesn’t look appealing. It looks like I would be eating wet grass.

ADAM KAYE, Chef: Well, it really does taste like celery. You can see there’s still a lot of fiber in there, which we will want it chopped up a little bit so it’s not complete uniform.

DAN BARBER: Yes. And this normally just be tossed out?

ADAM KAYE: This would be tossed out. It would be composted or landfill.

ALLISON AUBREY: So why not turn it into a burger? That beet pulp looks kind of meaty.

So this looks like a meat loaf my mother would have made.

ADAM KAYE: Yes. I mean, no pun intended, but let’s call it a beet loaf. Right?


ALLISON AUBREY: I love that.

ADAM KAYE: This has become probably one of the most popular items on the wastED menu.


ADAM KAYE: It’s just incredible. And people — people are going crazy about this and everyone’s convinced that we’re sneaking, I don’t know, beef fat there or like bacon drippings or something.


ADAM KAYE: They said it tastes so meaty.

ALLISON AUBREY: Besides the vegetable pulp, there are a bunch of other ingredients.

ADAM KAYE: Chopped toasted mushrooms, just natural almonds with the skin on, again, great texture.


ADAM KAYE: And what else? We have some roasted mushrooms.

ALLISON AUBREY: And some Blue Hill secrets that he couldn’t reveal.

ADAM KAYE: There you go. You’re a pro at this.

DAN BARBER: The hope here is to create the demand that then kick-starts a larger conversation for an economy that gives the juice processor a reason to save that pulp and distribute it and use it. I mean, I don’t know, maybe juice bars actually become the next burger kiosks.

ALLISON AUBREY: So this is the moment I get to give this a try?

DAN BARBER: Yes. I hope I haven’t overpromised.

ALLISON AUBREY: We will see. All right, a little bit of this wasted beet ketchup on it.

ALLISON AUBREY: This is not a veggie burger wannabe. This is actually — this is good.


ALLISON AUBREY: Like, I would eat this. I might even think that there’s beef in here.

DAN BARBER: I wouldn’t lie to PBS.

ALLISON AUBREY: To garnish that beet-infused burger, Barber’s prized pickle butts.

And out in the seating area, diners were surrounded by walls draped with a white fabric that farmers use on their crops as a cover to fend off pests. The tables were lit up with tallow candles, which is rendered beef fat.

Michael Parillo and Margit Verv just finished the dumpster dive salad made with bruised apples and pears salvaged from a food processor in the neighborhood. And what’s in that dressing? Water left over canned chick peas.

And as you were tasting it, were you thinking, this is left over from an industrial food processor? How was it?

WOMAN: Surprisingly good. Yes, yes, delightfully, surprisingly good.

MICHAEL PARILLO, Diner: Yes. It was great. It’s sort of a shabby chic.

ALLISON AUBREY: They almost ordered a dish called dog food, made from animal organs that are usually discarded, but:

MICHAEL PARILLO: We planned to order the dog food, but we made a last-minute turn in a different direction.

DAN BARBER: The other idea is to look at some of these ingredients like this and others that you’re going to see later tonight and start to think about it in the context of where were we with sushi 30 years ago, right? I mean, anyone who was going out to have a sushi dinner 30 years ago was crazy. It would be like eating insects today. Right? Sushi 30 years ago was the insect of today.

ALLISON AUBREY: And wastED had a series of famous chefs from around the country dropping in to dine and join Barber in the kitchen. In the house that night, award-winning chef from Chicago Grant Achatz, whose restaurant, Alinea, is ranked ninth best in the world.

MAN: We can’t throw that away, right?

ALLISON AUBREY: Achatz came with his own special brew of cocoa husks. The husks are the outer shell of the cocoa bean that are normally thrown out during processing. Achatz served up some cocoa husk smoked eggplant.

So can salvaging a few servings of skate cartilage or some cocoa husks really address America’s food waste problem?

DAN BARBER: I’m hopeful that this kind of thing begins a different kind of conversation that really is to back away and say, look at the entirety of the food system from nose to tail and think about not just juices, but the juice — the pulp that comes out of the juice, and can we make something delicious out of it.

ALLISON AUBREY: Barber’s veggie pulp burger actually made it on the menu at the hip burger chain Shake Shack. It was only for a day and just one location, but all 500 burgers went fast.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Allison Aubrey of NPR News in New York.