By Amy Huo, executive chef, The Informalist / Photo by Kyle Lehman
According to a July 2016 article in The Guardian, Americans discard roughly half of all produce because of a “cult of perfection.” That is, because an apple has some spots or lettuce leaves have fallen prey to a wayward cabbage worm, those products are unsellable and promptly discarded. It must be noted that this produce is unharmed in all other ways, usually perfectly ripe but unfortunately looks imperfect. While I would like to say that my parents and grandparents—the generation oppressed by the Great Depression—would be horrified to see food wasted in such a manner, the truth is quite the opposite. Years of marketing by Big Agriculture in the food industry has changed perception of how our produce must appear in order to be edible. That is, imperfection in appearance signifies imperfections more serious than surface-deep.
Where did this begin? All signs point to the discovery, processing, and development of sugar in Europe—some even argue that sugar was a means of supporting American independence (British forces were apparently too busy defending their sugar plantations in the Caribbean to adequately defend against American colonial independence). Furthermore, heavily processed wheat and white bread products were seen historically as more pure than brown bread made with wheat that includes the germ and bran. Essentially, many eighteenth-century Europeans believed eating white foods made one more pure.
While I cannot connect via concrete evidence that any of the historical significance of eighteenth-century European tastes led to our demand for culture of perfection in food of the modern age, it does seem that there is a persisting connection between perfect appearance and taste. We live in an age of hothouse flavorless tomatoes and the “Red Delicious” apple (really not delicious at all, in fact, mostly mealy and devoid of flavor altogether).
It’s no secret, at this point, that my experience in New York with Chef Dan Barber has impacted my life and my approach to food in the restaurant. Chef Barber started the wastED campaign in New York by serving a dinner completely made of food waste. Most recently, he and the team from Stone Barns served dinner on the rooftop of the Selfridges department store in London to draw attention to the egregious amount of food wasted around the world in developed countries on the daily. His dishes were inventive and flavorful, served on broken plateware and other usually discarded items.
Because my background in the culinary industry is heavily influenced by this kind of throw-nothing-away philosophy, I’ve begun to focus on the food waste issue here at The Informalist. wastEDwi is my campaign to draw attention to the many ways we utilize usually wasted ingredients in our kitchen to create dishes that are inventive, beautiful, and delicious. Preserving ingredients to use year-round demands innovation but begets unforeseen experiences for our guests. For example, this year, to preserve the flavor of sugary spring parsnips, we used the meaty parsnips for our various dishes requiring root vegetables but then dehydrated the peels and ground them into dust. The perfumed quality of the fresh parsnips and the pure sugary sweetness are both preserved in the dust and give us an extra layer of flavor to play with in our dishes. In some recipes, I’ve gone as far as replacing the sugar content with this parsnip sugar or dehydrated sweet corn in the same manner. Beets juiced for sauces leave behind pulp that can also be dehydrated, ground, and used to color pasta. Carrot and fennel tops usually discarded can be used the same way or mixed with salt or sugar to garnish a dish.
Kitchens have long had to use normally wasted items to improve their food cost, but this approach is more important than just saving money. It’s about respecting the time and effort farmers and producers spend to create the ingredients we serve in our kitchen. Using every part of a product—essentially nose-to-tail for vegetables—means that spiritually speaking, nothing is disrespected. I believe, on a personal note, a guest can feel this kind of approach on a plate. If we can understand that every single element on a dish belies a deeper significance about preparation, care, and environment, then the dish can speak for itself about the philosophy of a culture. In the cult-of-perfection world we live in, imperfection requires innovation. Here at The Informalist, we seek out those experiences so that we may bring the guest a unique, surprising, and exceptionally innovative plate every single day.