WastED didn’t try to suggest, that eating could magically become an ethical and innocent act if you were just dogmatic, resourceful and concerned enough about it. It demonstrated instead, how trying to make literally the most of it makes every sense - and also what an indulgence that could be!
My notorious foodie friends invited me to visit wastED, the London edition of Dan Barber’s pop up restaurant. The American star chef’s re-visit of his earlier New York project replays his smart concept of constructing an entire menu from the overlooked byproducts of our food system. In London, the pop-up has been accommodated on the roof of Selfridges and it quickly became impossible to get a table. I’m hardly a fine dining enthusiast, and after a little reading about it, I strongly felt that I probably wasn’t part of the target audience. The proud food-waste expert in me assumed, that I would be overqualified to be properly impressed by anything a celebrity-chef might do in a department store. But I didn’t want to disappoint my friends either, who had so naively assumed, that in wastED we might have found a common interest. And luckily for me, this polite drifting got me a truly unexpected and magical lesson - inside the largest shop of busy Oxford Street.
Restaurant: Space and Objects
There was quite a maze to get into the restaurant from Selfridges, but this long procession seemed necessary in order to disconnect from the heavy perfumed atmosphere of the department store. Making your way into the concealed space of the pop up was a gradual relief. The interior felt something between neutral and pleasant, with a minimal, if somewhat predictable aesthetic, which made it instantly obvious, that ‘wastED’ would be an overarching concept here. A carefully curated collection of design furniture pieces, light fittings, serving dishes and napkins - in their various ways each about recycling and reuse - proved to be a constant source of clever entertainment throughout our meal.
The Menu Package: An Alternative Map of The City
After getting seated at our table, we began to unfold our little menu packages with the kind of enthusiasm you might feel about anything wrapped into a brown paper bag. As you slowly open everything, you gradually realise, that this is a real 3in1 treat: your menu, an educational brochure to take away with you, and also an incredible alternative map of London’s present food scene. When you turn around the unfolded menu, you get a fantastic illustrated index of all the ‘overlooked’ and ‘wasted’ ingredients that the whole pop-up is based on. What impressed me first, was its complex approach, considering all stages and forms in which we are wasting opportunities around food - including farming routines, production and sales processes, aesthetic criteria, cultural prejudices and consumer preferences. But furthermore, there were two striking things about this menu: First, there were a number of items that seemed to be just copied in from the earlier New York pop-up without much re-invention. However, when you thought about it, these items - burgers, juice pulp, spiralized vegetable cores - are indeed symptomatic of the globalised nature of both our food crazes, culture and diet problems. And second, there were other items, which were extremely unique and specific to the London context: waste from typically local food businesses such as fish&chips or shortbread biscuits, and the ‘culturally difficult’ items that would be considered perfectly attractive in many other places (as are blood or veal elsewhere). But all these put together - the global metropolitan and unique local food phenomena - created this perfect snapshot of our current London food culture.
Staff: An Immense Cast with a Personal Touch
Over a single multi-course meal we encountered a huge cast of staff members. This included at least 10 different people: hostesses (to get us from the entrance to our tables), then waitresses (to take orders and serve drinks), and finally several young cooks (who served our dishes). This must have been a very conscious construct with a double purpose: first, the large number of different staff members you had to interact with constantly reminded you of the complex mechanisms that make your meals possible. Second, by having the cooks - rather than trained waiters - serve and introduce the selected meals to your table, you inevitably feel like this whole business of going to a restaurant has suddenly turned into a very personal and hospitable act of being cooked for. Even if it might technically be an illusion, as you’re explained by them how your chosen dish was made, you can’t help but picture them personally cooking it up for you. And so, you feel just that bit closer to the meal than you normally would at a restaurant- giving your experience something of a ‘direct personal touch’.
Food: Smart Compositions & Indulgence into The Extra Ordinary
In a context, where overeating is a very significant form of food waste, the portions here were obviously relatively small and precious. But this also gave you a chance to try many different things from the menu, and get more of an overview of it. The dishes were fantastic. In the end, we tasted about as many as we possibly could consume - well, a bit wasteful of us - out of sheer curiosity. Some were simply great, and some were magical. What impressed me most though, was how there was not a shadow of deprivation or dogmatism in these dishes. The veggie-burger was far superior to any burger (proper, vegetarian or other) you will ever come across, yet it did not deny a slice of bacon from you. And the unexpected discovery was, that this little piece of bacon seemed a lot more delicious this way. It became the cherry on your cake. This non-vegetarian veggie-burger was ultimately not about depriving you of meat - but using just the amount of meat that can make for a sumptuous and satisfying treat - one that keeps your sense of appreciation for it. So in a way, not denying, just minimising it, could actually maximise your sense of indulgence. This seemed to be a key idea here. WastED didn’t try to suggest, that eating could magically become an ethical and innocent act if you were just dogmatic, resourceful and concerned enough about it. Instead, it suggested, that while eating might always remain a brutal act, it makes every sense to try and make literally the most of it.
I’d like to share one final experience, that was something like a magic moment to me: at the end of the meal, I felt so intrigued by the whole experience, and so curious to observe how other guests reacted to their meals, that I didn’t want to leave yet. So we ordered a final cup of tea instead. Or more precisely a cup of ‘cacao nibs’. A sort of tea made of cacao nibs - which was very exciting in itself - smelling like a delicious hot chocolate and tasting a little more like tea - certainly, my idea of great fun. But, more importantly, the magic concerned coffee, tea and cocoa, none of which are the local ingredients, that you might picture Dan Barber promoting. They were once exquisite luxury items, shipped from faraway countries, that have by now become the most basic household staples. In fact, I probably drink more tea than I drink water. And as much as I depend on my cup of tea, drinking it is the norm to me, and the last occasion I remember it to be special was maybe when I tasted a foamy cup of Japanese matcha for the first time.
So, this is what happens at wastED: after all the minimal and simple ceramics and dishes that all the food has been served in, you are presented with a shiny, glimmering set for your tea. A real traditional looking pompous decorated fine china - except the cup is pure golden reflection. And you realise, this isn’t your grandma’s set. It’s the saucers left from it, paired up with brand new golden cups that simply mirror the individual painted patterns of the saucers. This object is in such contrast to everything else’s simplicity here - that you can’t help but feel that there’s something very exquisite about your hot drink. As you sip your tea, you suddenly taste for the first time what a fantastic pleasure it must have been - a hundred years ago - to be drinking this stuff in Europe. And you also realise, you’ve been played on the same trick as with the burger before. You got your little unfair treat that would be so hard to give up, but this time you had to appreciate it. So smart! Now, I can’t help but want to purchase some of these smart golden cups, that I began to associate with this magic. It turns out they’re London designer Richard Brendon’s Reflect series - designed to go with those countless lovely old porcelain saucers that happened to survive their original cups. Quite an ingenious idea on its own right!
Lesson & Inspiration
WastED gave me a magical lesson and an experience I’ve kept thinking about ever since. This pop up restaurant will most likely become an important reference for my own projects as an urban designer. In fact, to me wastED was as much a fascinating urban design project as it was a magical food project.