“My mission is to turn food waste into something a bit rock and roll” – Chef Douglas McMaster Interview
The culinary world is not dissimilar to an army: by obeying orders and sticking to culinary code of conduct most hope to climb the hierarchy, from the lower ranks of commis chef to an executive chef, and perhaps someday being in command of their own restaurant. But chef Douglas McMaster has rejected the restaurant rule book and is waging a war of his own, on food waste.
At his ‘zero-waste’ restaurant Silo in Brighton, the UK’s first, ‘Dougie’ is more of an ethical pirate than a kitchen soldier. Refusing to accept the status quo of sustainability, he sails in cacao on carbon zero ‘pirate ships’ from the Dominican Republic, intercepts trucks full of supermarket surplus food on their way to the landfill, and gives two fingers to anyone who tries to tell him to do differently.
At this years’ Food on the Edge, Dougie shared his groundbreaking cooking style and thought-provoking ideas; a presentation he has already delivered at conferences in Berlin, Sweden, Copenhagen and London. Sitting down afterwards with the 29 year-old chef, who wouldn’t look out of place in an indie rock band, he admits: “I’m very good at getting in front of anyone and just being like boom, this is what I’m about, this is what I do, like it or fuck off.”
At Silo he operates within he calls a “pre-industrial food system”; a pure food system which is devoid of any processing, packaging or modern industrial methods. Shaking up the model of sustainability dining, Dougie causes food anarchy looking beyond the norm of local, seasonal, and organic – he wasn’t named Britain‘s Most Irreverent Young Chef at the Young British Foodies in London in 2012 for nothing. And recently named in Vogue UK’s ‘Rising Stars – The Names of Now’ list, among 20 other innovators disrupting the status quo, Dougie shows no sign of changing his game changing ways.
“I’ve conditioned myself to think consciously. I question everything.”
At the heart of the restaurant is ‘Bertha’, the £22,000 ‘anaerobic digester’ which can process up to 60kg of food scraps overnight, producing a nutrient-intense compost which is then used to grow more food. “We eat it or compost it. We don’t have a bin,” he states bluntly.
Though with the tagline “waste is a failure of the imagination” stencilled at the wall at Silo, Dougie says that they will do everything they can to use every last scrap of a resource before turning to Bertha, and often apply various ancient preservation techniques like fermenting, pickling, brining, curing and hanging to make the most of local and home grown vegetables and whole-carcass meats.
Even the crockery is recycled – the “third generation plastic” plates are each made from 40 recycled plastic bags and the glasses are old jam jars.
“Producers are king,” says Dougie, on the importance of his relationships with small-scale suppliers to his mission to cut out the middle men, and all the unsustainable practices that come with big agriculture. But where possible Silo will make even the good guys surplus to requirements; brewing its own booze, churning its own butter, yoghurt and curd, milling its own flour, and even growing its own mushrooms on coffee grounds.
Dougie’s passion for great cooking matches his obsession with sustainability. Named BBC Young Chef of the Year 2009, Dougie’s spent six years in some of Britain’s finest restaurants, and during a year out, he worked in the kitchens of the world’s best restaurants, including Heston Blumenthal’s the fat duck, and four time World’s Best Restaurant Noma in Copenhagen.
But it was the last of his 24 stages, at a “multi-award-winning restaurant” in Sydney, that his infatuation with food waste took hold; born out of frustration rather than inspiration.
“They have a book inspired by nature, but it was so not natural. It was so twisted the way they presented themselves and the end product as nature on a plate.” “It was just despicable, the waste; a phenomenal amount of food.” He recalls working on the protein section where for one dish on the set menu he would prepare one pigs head per four people, at a restaurant which had 220 covers per day, 7 days a week.
“It was just pigs heads everywhere. I used to have to brine them for 24 hours; huge amounts of water; huge amounts of energy; huge amounts of salt. Then, take them out of the brine, then submerge them in these massive baths of ice – all that energy just to make that ice is just insane. Then, sous vide them. Then, cook them for 14 hours in these steam ovens – imagine huge ovens, just lines of ovens with pigs heads in them over night. Then, open the bag – waste the bag, obviously not recycled. Then, cut 90 per cent of that head away to go on the plate. It was horrendous.”
“Another dish, we were peeling these big two foot cos lettuce, and literally peeling the leaves into the bin just to get the core – which is quite a cool little garnish, a very tender, juicy part of the lettuce, which is great, but like do something with the all the rest of the lettuce!”
“It was so despicable, so elitist and self-righteous. So, you’re inspired by nature? I was just like fuck off.”
Dougie put ego and preconceived notions of what it takes to deliver fine food aside by setting up the original Silo in Melbourne as a one-year experiment in 2012, with artist Joost Bakker. Returning to the UK, he opened Silo in Brighton’s Bohemian North Laines. Brighton itself is known for being a hub of sustainability activism, but Dougie says he encountered elitism and snobbery of a different sort there.
“It’s a quirky little town, and they believe they are very sustainable, and I love Brighton, but there is a bit of a cliquey, sort of misguided culture of people who think sustainability is local and organic only, and that’s definitely part of it but there’s a lot more to consider.”
“Local doesn’t always mean sustainable.”
While ‘zero-waste’ has become Silo’s flag, Dougie explains that food waste is only the tip of the landfill pile. “At Silo we’re local, of course, organic, of course, but we also focus on so much more in the realm of sustainability that no one really looks at. Obviously the zero waste, not having a bin thing is a big part of sustainability. I mean, it’s a big statement, but there are so many other ideas.”
One point of contention with the local-only brigade was with Silo’s wine, which they source from France. “I mean we get wine from France, but then everyone in Brighton is like ‘that’s disgusting’, because they have this sort of mentality that it’s only about local. But what if I told you how energy went into producing the chemicals to then spray the grapes to have your local wine; what if I told you how degrading that is to our health; what if I told you the principle of farming used to produce these grapes is so harmful to the environment; because it’s local does that make it okay? There’s more to it. I can get wine from France, and yes it’s been brought over the channel and that’s a lot of energy, but this amazing wine is beyond organic, it’s from an environment that is so pure, and choosing that wine is far more sustainable than this local wine, and they don’t get that.”
Far from feeling limited, Dougie says his self enforced constrictions breed creativity, but admits not every body gets it. “I like being limited full stop. But it’s when we get a TripAdvisor comment saying “there was so little choice, there was chicken on the menu three times and only three meat options”, I mean they don’t understand what I do is to turn one thing into three things; doing more with less; the idea of maximising resources to minimise waste. They don’t get that, so that limitation that I adhere to shoots me in the foot. It’s very frustrating.”
These minor frustrations aside, Dougie is adamant that this pre-industrial food system can be replicated in any restaurant, and is viable both financially and ethically. He says the idea is simple: have a compost machine on-site, and trade with only trusted suppliers, avoiding the “evil middle men.”
“The industrial food system is detached, and broken into many confusing pieces, like these middle men who are processing and packaging food in a way that is only good for them and their short-term financial gain but it’s bad environmentally.”
He hopes that by proving that an “enlightened version of a wasteful restaurant” can work it will encourage other waste free businesses across all industries:
“If you imagine sustainability like a big tree, this is just one branch of it. Zero waste isn’t the whole picture, there’s more to it. There’s the agriculture, energy use, so many aspects to sustainability other than waste.”
Part of the conversation on ‘The Future of Food’ at Food on the Edge was on the responsibility of the chef; to respect the environment, respect the way our food is generated, and respect the nourishment we give our bodies – things which are already at the core of Silo’s ethos. “I think every human in the world should feel responsible,” Dougie says.
“We are part of a natural system, and we all have a responsibility to this earth. There is only one earth, and only so many resources. Our culture allows us to be so irresponsible with waste. We get away with it. People go to prison for minor things which we have deemed unrighteous, but yet we are so careless with wasting food, eating shit, and allowing places like McDonalds to exist.”
“Part of my personal mission is to turn a dull and insipid topic, waste, into something a bit edgy and rock and roll. I want to make it cool and sort of beautiful – it is a beautiful thing.”
He laughs when I explain that I can relate, having undertaken a 50,000 word thesis on household food waste, “but it’s how you dress it up isn’t it?”
And Dougie does a pretty good job of dressing it up with dishes on the menu at Silo like Ox Heart Tartare, Mushroom and Lovage, and Pirate Chocolate, Beetroot and Almond Milk.
He hints that his ethical food pirate ship might soon set sail for London, and with talk of “a refined explosive version of Silo” it seems that Douglas McMaster is set to land a grenade on our preconceptions of sustainable dining. You’ve been warned – be prepared to be blown away.
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father, and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after completing a law, she went on to do a Masters in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.