"[T]here is something satisfying about watching well-to-do Greenwich Villagers plop down a tidy sum to dine on what is, essentially, garbage," Gothamist's Scott Lynch writes in his review of wastED, a pop-up temporarily occupying Blue Hill, Dan Barber's upscale-sustainable Manhattan restaurant. For the past two weeks, with a different celebrity guest chef at the helm each day, the pop-up has educated customers on the deliciousness of meals made from food scraps, for $15 a course.
The aim of the restaurant, which ended its run Tuesday, is as much about transparency as reducing food waste. Back in 2012, Matthew Yglesias called out foodie types who praised low-waste charcuterie while deriding “pink slime”: "[T]he basic thing the meat companies were doing with the 'slime' is exactly what vendors of sausage and pâté and the like have been doing from time immemorial." Well, here’s Barber to shed food frugality of euphemism. As Hannah Goldfield explains in the New Yorker,
The difference with wastED is that the menu tells the truth in the plainest terms. "Cured cuts of waste-fed pig" are served with "reject carrot mustard, off-grade sweet potatoes, melba toast from yesterday’s oatmeal." "Dry-aged beef ends broth" features "malt rootlets, mystery vegetables and peels" and "cow corn crackers."
As stunts go, this seems innocuous enough—admirable, even. At least it’s different than the usual sustainable-eating advice, which demands a level of organic-grocery bounty most people can’t access. That said, the stunt is begging to be privilege-checked. There’s something tone deaf about a restaurant telling rich people—including supermodels—that leftovers are a thing. GQ's Alan Richman, who nonetheless concluded that his experience was "convincingly instructional and absolutely joyful,” expressed such concerns in his review. He compared the concept to “an inhumane fashion trend of a decade ago called ‘homeless chic,’ whereby designers created pricy fashions for wealthy people that resembled what bag ladies wore on the street.”
But that doesn’t mean the food-scrap ethos itself should be dismissed. I'm less concerned about whether a celebrity chef like Dan Barber has properly reckoned with his own advantages and those of his clientele than about wastED's goal of raising awareness of food waste among home cooks.
In an interview with Epicurious' David Tamarkin, Barber provided home-cooking tips such as turning cauliflower cores and broccoli stems into a salad of sorts. “Barber's hope,” Tamarkin writes, “is that diners will take what they see and incorporate a less wasteful approach to their daily cooking and eating habits.” Goldfield refers to her own kale-stem guilt in her review (kale stems being, for some reason, the ultimate food-waste concern), while Pete Wells, in the New York Times, begins his review with a reflection on having composted ingredients that he now realizes he could have—you guessed it—turned into a salad.
But as Richman wrote, “I wondered if wastED was supposed to demonstrate to the impoverished that if they were going hungry, it was their own fault…. If so much in the way of edible waste is readily available to anyone interested in obtaining it, even if Dumpster diving was involved (indeed, Dumpster Dive Vegetable Salad is also a menu option), even those too poor to afford a refrigerator would be just fine when dinner time came around.”
A less-dire version of that criticism would be that the pop-up shames more affluent home cooks—those who are already cooking from scratch, maybe even with locally sourced organic products—for their failure to use every last carrot green. Or perhaps it's simply meant to inspire encouragement: If waste can be made into such haute cuisine, surely it can be your family’s weeknight dinner, too.
But that may not be true: It takes a brilliant chef to turn most scraps into something remotely appetizing, as I know all too well from my experience with unexceptional leftovers. I have enough problems figuring out how to make kale exciting; I’m not about to start learning how to coax palatability out of the tougher parts of the leaf. More realistic food-waste-avoidance advice would be to accept that using up what’s in the fridge means not always eating for enjoyment.
wasteED's implicit answer to the food waste problem, then, is the very opposite of what the food movement usually advocates: Rather than a return to home cooking, meal prep should be left to the professionals. The message a restaurant like this sends is that the world’s great chefs can do more with vegetable scraps than home cooks can with prime cuts of meat and high-quality produce. Perhaps the try-this-at-home tips are a distraction, offered as a nod to the importance of the family dinner, but not out of any serious sense that home cooks are going to be able to turn juice pulp into anything resembling hamburgers.