Into the zero-wasteland

Text by Kenneth Nars. Photography by Alastair Philip Wiper.

The rows of wooden crates have been a hallmark of restaurant Amass in Copenhagen since its opening in 2013. In the restaurant’s front yard, which might be more accurately called a wasteland, a small labyrinth of weathered wooden boxes catches the attention of the occasional passer-by. When spring comes to the surroundings of this former shipyard, more than 80 different varieties of green herbs, berries, vegetables and flowers spring from the crates, giving life and colour to both the yard and the elaborate restaurant dishes they were grown for.

As the restaurant business booms, environmental concerns in this mostly unsustainable industry are shouldered by just a few. But now a growing band of chefs is leading an expanding movement with zero tolerance for waste.

 

For American-born chef Matt Orlando, the crates are just one sign that he has created a restaurant that makes a real difference. His reason for doing this is very simple: it feels like the right thing to do. “What we chefs must be aware of is that our industry, in general, is extremely unsustainable. Before Amass, I had never worked in a restaurant that made any conscious efforts to be aware of how much food ends up in the garbage bin.” Behind the well-designed and welcoming dining rooms of most restaurants, the logistics result in a myriad of packaged produce arriving from near and far. After stripping the produce of its packaging comes the next phase of cleaning, peeling and cutting the produce to size, leaving scraps like peels, stalks and bones. In addition, making stocks, sauces and soups are processes that leave a sizeable amount of spent produce. Add to this all the beverages with their bottles, cans and other containers and we are already faced with a considerable amount of food and other waste from merely one restaurant.

Amass is situated inside the former Burmeister & Wain Shipyards.

To tackle this problem at Amass, the first step was to start minimising the amount of waste produced. The second was to arrange sustainable ways of dealing with it. “Composting is something that we did from the very beginning—during our first years, we tried eight or nine different methods. The huge amount of fresh organic matter that comes from a restaurant kitchen is a challenge for any composting system, as it has to be balanced and needs a constant flow of oxygen to decompose efficiently.” The most labour-saving way of cutting waste is to use all parts of the produce. At Amass, by-products like almond pulp are used to make a delicious soy sauce, coffee grounds and fruit peels are turned into miso paste and green vegetable trimmings are fermented, blended and dried to make crackers with a seaweed-like flavour. The shrinking amount of waste has led to a positive problem. “Our gardener occasionally comes in and tells us that she needs us to process less of the waste and leave a bit more to feed the compost. So our efficiency in reducing waste is almost killing our compost.”
 
The example of restaurants like Amass has been an inspiration and trigger for the chefs and restaurateurs at Nolla (Finnish for zero) restaurant in Helsinki. In a small back room of the 120-year-old city mansion in the residential district of Kruununhaka, a low, humming noise emanates from a sizeable metal trunk. Restaurateur Carlos Henriques proudly sticks his hand into a plastic bin next to this automatic composter and brings out a fistful of dry, organic soil. “Two days ago, this was coffee grounds, vegetable peels and fish bones. This compost will be collected by some of our farmers to improve their soil and to grow more vegetables for our kitchen.” For the crew at Nolla, the waste philosophy stretches to all corners of the restaurant: water glasses are cut from old bottles, the cutlery is second hand and vegetable oil is bought in 200-litre industrial barrels. At this stage, the goal is to be seen as a great zero-waste restaurant. But the hope for the future is that they will be just a great restaurant, and zero-waste will be a standard throughout the industry.

This zero-waste ideology is still implemented by surprisingly few restaurants, most of which are in Nordic countries.

In Stockholm’s Södermalm district, by the waterfront, lies the Fotografiska museum of photography. Its award-winning restaurant serves up a menu of sustainable cooking that it calls “conscious cuisine”. For renowned chef Paul Svensson it is about adding one more dimension to both the restaurant and the food. “For me as a chef, the easy way would, of course, be to change nothing, use the same ingredients as before and not to bother about food waste. But to evolve as a chef and as a person, I chose to take this challenge—to rethink how we can use a whole vegetable and how we can stretch the cuts of a whole animal to as many dishes as possible. This has been a valuable lesson for me and my team and only now I can say I have started to fully understand the ecosystem of a restaurant.”

This zero-waste ideology is still implemented by surprisingly few restaurants, most of which are in Nordic countries, and in the top tier of the industry. Big restaurant operations and fast food chains still have a long way to go before even coming close to sustainability. At the end of the day, what difference will zero-waste efforts and the composting routines of a fairly small restaurant in Copenhagen have? The answer is clear for chef Matt Orlando. “Never before did I imagine chefs would have as much of a voice as we have right now. And the bigger the voice you have, the bigger the responsibility you have to carry.”