Very rarely do you get to see all the components of your dinner at their sources. It’s happened to me only once before: I was 16 and WWOOFing in the middle of western France, on a farm that got milk and yogurt from its goats, vegetables from its garden, wheat (and bread) from its fields, eggs from its chickens. Everything we ate came from their land—the platonic ideal of farm-to-table cooking—and nothing was wasted, from whey (which was fed to the chickens and cats) to weeds, which were assessed for their edibility and usually thrown into the stockpot. The scraps were as important as the "good stuff"; the byproducts were the ingredients.
There may not have been any "weed soup" at Rescuing Dinner, the wastED event American Express and Blue Hill recently hosted in our office with the help of City Harvest, a New York City organization that recovers good food and distributes it to hungry New Yorkers—but there was whey. Not, this time, from a herd of cantankerous goats like when I was 16, but from the very kind Homa Dashtaki of The White Moustache yogurt.
I visited her at her Red Hook, Brooklyn production space in anticipation of the dinner; Adam Kaye, Blue Hill’s vice president of culinary affairs and a chef who did much of the recipe development for this past spring’s wastED pop-up, was picking up two 5-gallon buckets of Homa’s whey, the byproduct of her strained yogurt. Often thrown away by yogurt makers (including home yogurt makers), whey is simply the moisture strained from yogurt; it’s also rich in probiotics, milky-sweet, and tangy. Homa sells her whey as a probiotic drink (and as a brine for Thanksgiving turkeys), but this particular whey would find its way into the cocktails at Rescuing Dinner: a punch made with tea-infused gin and a simple syrup made from leftover beer.
On the same day, I followed Adam to Organic Food Incubator in Long Island City, Queens for juice pulp; Raffetto’s Pasta in New York City’s Greewich Village for odds and ends of pasta; and Dickson’s Farmstand Meats in Chelsea for offal and other meat scraps. There was sort of a search-and-rescue vibe: At each stop, we’d pick our way to the back of the shop or facility and collect big plastic tubs of things that would otherwise meet a less exciting end.
The juice pulp—meaning whatever’s left of fruits and vegetables after the juice is pressed out of them— used to make Blue Hill's burgers comes from two juice-making facilities in the Organic Food Incubator. The pulp produced at these facilities weighs in at nearly a ton everyday, and what doesn’t make it into the burgers is composted. It’s the same story for oddly-shaped scraps left over from making hand-rolled or cut pasta (like fettucine) from the generations-old pasta shop Raffetto’s; Blue Hill collects them in every flavor and color, from saffron to squid ink.
At Dickson’s, we picked up set-aside bits from the day’s butchering efforts: trimmings that would otherwise become sausage, stock, or ground meat, and dark, shiny beef livers and hearts. Dickson’s actually does repurpose some of its scraps into fresh dog food—a mix of meat and other things (like sweet potatoes and apples) that founder Jake Dickson developed with a veterinarian. This dog food was Adam’s inspiration for wastED’s Dog Food, a meatloaf made from the Dickson’s meat, sweet potatoes, and Armagnac-soaked figs (his terrine-inspired stand-in for Mike’s apples).
The Rescuing Dinner itself was full of “eureka!” moments—of instances where we, the eaters, whacked our palms to our foreheads. The Dog Food is a very good example of why wastED does what it does: It reminds home cooks and anyone else that goes grocery shopping or composts that so much of the food we consider waste is actually just due for some repurposing. People were at first squeamish, said Adam, about having “Dog Food” on the menu—but then relaxed when reminded that it was made from really beautiful, humanely-raised meat, meat that we’d pay extra for if it weren’t being called Dog Food. Similarly, scraps and cores from apples, onion, celery, and other vegetables became a “Dumpster Dive Salad" when dressed with a tarragon pesto. And the super-savory broth that started the meal highlighted the discarded edges of aged beef and stems of mushrooms.
Some of the components of the dinner, like the salad, showed what we can do with familiar kitchen scraps. The juice pulp—which maintains much of the vitamin content and all of the fiber of juiced fruits and vegetables and is tossed every day, simply because we don’t know what to do with it—is another example. For this dinner, the pulp became tender veggie burgers that tasted (perhaps unbelievably for a veggie burger) like vegetables, served on a bun made from reconstituted stale bread and pickle “butts,” the knobby, discarded ends of pickled cucumbers. Other aspects of the meal suggested other instances of waste in the food industry, and often major ones—the creamy-crisp polenta fries made from cow corn (the commercial corn fed to cattle), and topped with scrappy bits of pickled vegetables.
“What I love about the whole wastED thing is that we’re thinking about the word ‘waste’ differently,” Lisa Sposato, City Harvest’s director of food sourcing, told me. “Many people may once have thrown out a piece of fruit with a dent in it before realizing that they can eat around that… You might bypass a bruised piece of fruit at the grocery store, but you’d eat it if it developed a small dent by the time you got home. If you’d eat it at home, we [City Harvest] would still take it.” And City Harvest does: With discarded or unwanted food from wholesalers, office cafeterias, bakeries, supermarkets, restaurants, and even greenmarkets, they feed thousands and thousands of New Yorkers. Their goal this year is to recover 55 million pounds of food, and they’re on track to meet it.
Just as Lisa hopes that City Harvest’s efforts will encourage home cooks to be more aware of their own kitchen waste, wastED is quick to remind its eaters that this is not a novelty exercise, but in fact a way of eating. “There are no new ideas here tonight,” Dan Barber, Blue Hill’s chef, told us at the dinner, “only repurposed, refashioned ones.” Dan told the group about how he thought wastED’s skate wing fries were the pop-up’s most creative recipe—“But then Mission Chinese chef Danny Bowein told me about a centuries-old Cantonese dish that uses skate cartilage,” he said. WastED’s dishes might feel new, but they’re really riffs on the vast culinary history that’s come before them. WastED just doesn’t call the ingredients “waste.”
Here are a few of our favorite photos from the dinner! See more of the whole process by looking up #RescuingDinner on Instagram.
In honor of the event Rescuing Dinner, American Express will make a donation to City Harvest, which pioneered food rescue in 1982 and has delivered over 545 million pounds of nutritious food to community food programs across New York City. To see more #RescuingDinner stories, follow along on American Express's Instagram and Twitter.