Main Course

Dan Barber Transforms Food Waste With Flair

Brendan heads to a groundbreaking pop-up eatery in NYC that is re-purposing edible food waste - of all sorts - as fine dining. Dog food may be involved.

Photo credit: Penny de los Santos

Renowned chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill restaurant in Manhattan has taken eating food refuse to a whole new level with a pop-up restaurant he’s hosting this month called WastED. Everything on the menu is made from food waste. Brendan met with Barber in his kitchen during dinner rush and asked where the idea came from.


Dan Barber: The idea for WastED originated because I started to see that, while I’m a farm-to-table advocate, the thinking for farm-to-table might be just a little bit too specific because it allows us to pick individual ingredients instead of looking at the entirety of a system, whether it’s a farming system or a food-processing system. And what we need to do more of is start to think about supporting the entirety of a food system. Which means creating a culture and a demand for the things that we would, at first blush, anyway, think of as un-coveted or un-delicious.

Brendan Francis Newnam: The less sexy cuts of…

Dan Barber: Less sexy cuts of meat. I mean, we have an expression, nose-to-tail eating of the animal. We need to think about nose-to-tail eating of the food system. And that includes things like, stuff that ends up in the dumpster, and things like chickpea water which, every time we dump out, we’re dumping out this delicious mousse that tastes of legumes and salt, and fatty and rich but also delicate and beautiful.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Why is this stuff thrown away?

Dan Barber: I think these foods are thrown away because we don’t have a culture for eating them. We eat high on the hog. We eat the most precious stuff, the cream of the crop. You know, ultimately, that’s not a very sustainable way to eat, but it came about because our country was so productive. It was so fertile and it produced a lot of food. We were never forced into the kind of negotiations that peasants have been forced into for thousands of years. That created dishes out of supposed waste.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So, we’d eat the cream of the crop. We would not eat the beef tallow of the crop. Can you tell me how that dish came about? That’s kind of a clever use.

Dan Barber: We’re buying whole dairy cows, and we have a lot of beef tallow. So, we figured out a way to melt it and put a wick in there, which they used to do, and have a candle. So, your candle at your table is beef tallow, and then you pour the beef tallow into a little container and that’s your butter for your bread.

Photo credit: Penny de los Santos
Beef tallow candle at wastED. Photo credit: Penny de los Santos

Brendan Francis Newnam: So, what did the dairy cow owners and the people that are throwing out the kohlrabi ends say when you approached them about buying their waste or taking over their waste?

Dan Barber: It’s been weird. I mean, the response has been like, overwhelmingly excited and positive because it’s not their fault. They create waste, yes. We all create waste. Their point is there’s no market for this stuff so the labor and the distribution doesn’t pay. So, we’ve got to create demand.

That’s why this project is here, is to create culture around these products and around this idea, not to bemoan the fact that we all waste or that Americans are a particularly wasteful society. I mean, no shit. It’s like, okay. So, what do you do about that, you know? It lasts about as long as this conversation. You feel bad, and then you try not to like, throw away your leftover dinner. I mean, okay. That, too, is sort of important, but it doesn’t penetrate the culture in a way that, I think, chefs and restaurants have the opportunity to.

Photo credit: Penny de los Santos
The bustling kitchen at WastED. Photo credit: Penny de los Santos

Brendan Francis Newnam: And so, if you make it delicious, people will start to ask for it.

Dan Barber: And it’ll bleed into the culture, but it’s got to be a context of hedonism and delight.

Brendan Francis Newnam: What’s the superstar? What’s the breakout star for you with this stuff? Because you have 21 food items.

Dan Barber: It’s the Dumpster Dive Salad.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And we have a Dumpster Salad right here.

Dan Barber: Dumpster Dive Salad with pistachios, and then this is water from chickpeas that we whip.

Brendan Francis Newnam: From like, a can of chickpeas?

Dan Barber: A can of chickpeas, drain the water, whip it.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Alright, so I’m tasting the Dumpster Salad here. It’s kind of like a coleslaw. It has carrot pieces and kohlrabi ends, shredded. Oh, my goodness! The chickpea foam is tremendous and the pistachio adds a savory quality to everything. So, I guess, you know, you were talking about how a lot of chefs, they cook with offal, they cook with some sort of waste, but it seems like you cast a wider net. So, I’m trying to think of some of the things you brought into your kitchen for this event that normally wouldn’t be there.

Photo credit: Thomas Schauer
Skate “Fries” at WastED. Photo credit: Thomas Schauer

Dan Barber: Well, a good example is skate cartilage, skate bones. That’s the leftover bones after filleting a skate. We cut it into sort of the size of potato fries and fry it.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Alright, so I’m going to eat this. So, this is crunchy like a French fry. Do you imagine any of these things being part of your restaurant outside this pop restaurant?

Dan Barber: All of these things, in different ways, are a part of my restaurant. It’s just, I don’t call it wastED. So, that’s the difference. Yes, is the answer. Everything here is part of it. I mean, some places we push the envelope a little bit, like dog food. You know, that’s a recipe from the butcher down the block.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And what is in that?

Dan Barber: He serves dog food but we looked at the recipe, and where he gets these animals from is the same place as we get our animals from. Incredible meat, but it’s offal that can’t be served, more of the dairy cow. It’s delicious.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So, what’s a thing that didn’t work, that you kind of maybe thought was going to work out but really should remain waste?

Dan Barber: Cucumber leaves. I thought we could peel them down and make a beautiful salad of cucumber leaves and branches, but it didn’t work.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So, what’s in your trashcan after an evening here with WastED?

Dan Barber: Not a lot. Not a lot. It’s a beautiful thing.