Waste-Not-Want-More

How ‘zero-waste’ became the new immersive dining experience – Crowd’s Phoebe Trimingham looks at our appetite for sustainable haute cuisine…

City Limits Volume Nine – download it here.

In our latest issue of City Limits – our regular exploration of changing urban experience – we look at solutions to world problems in the food business – from climate labels on menus to floating farms. One of our spotlights on sustainability is the rise of the zero-waste restaurant as not only a call to action, but an immersive experience for the diner.

Cities around the world are full of immersive dining experiences. From eating dinner in a makeshift aircraft, to sipping cocktails in the cupboard of a pawn-shop; going out for a meal is no longer just about the food. For those looking beyond standard dining experiences, meals are accompanied by a spectacle. So much so that experience fatigue has set in. 

So where do you turn when all the ‘experiences’ have been had? When you’re served yet another once-in-a-lifetime theatre show while trying to eat your soup? You turn back to the real hero: the food. Forward-thinking restaurants in global cities are shunning the temptation for distracting entertainment, and letting the food become the experience again. 

Enter the zero-waste restaurants: establishments attempting to do away with food waste entirely. Here, the food becomes the focus as diners buy into the admirable attempt at fully sustainable dining. While the issue of waste is certainly not a recent obsession for the restaurant industry – lots of places have been experimenting with sustainability for decades – what’s new is the front and centering of the efforts, and the glamorisation that goes with it.

Silo in London, for example, is designed ‘back to front’ with the bin in mind (irony being they don’t actually have a bin, they don’t need one). All food is used in its entirety – think cured mushroom stems and yeast treacle. Any leftovers are composted and sent back to their hyperlocal suppliers. Like Silo, Helsinki’s Nolla (‘zero’ in Finnish) sends compost back into the system, but guests are welcome to take home a scoopful too – a different kind of doggy bag. It’s philosophy of ‘refuse, reduce, reuse, and only as a last resource, recycle’ is consistent, from a reusable coffee container and a composter (above) to not accepting food that comes in single use plastic.

Meanwhile, Mume in Taipei has a dedicated sourcing manager (rare in a small, Asian restaurant) with the mission to champion underrated Taiwanese ingredients and zero-waste cooking practices.

These places strive to avoid food leftovers, but also any scrap of rubbish. Rhodora in Brooklyn – a fully sustainable wine bar also ‘waging a war against waste’ – shreds wine boxes into compost material and donates corks to an organisation that turns them into shoes. Everything is transported on bikes. Back at Silo, plates are made from plastic bags, wall lights from crushed bottles, and ceiling fixtures from dried seaweed. This all-in approach to the zero-waste concept is what makes these restaurants a fully immersive dining experience – no gimmick-y entertainment required.  

But these restaurants aren’t cheap: they’re all mid to high-end. This is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, sustainability is definitely something to be coveted, but why is the experience of it not more accessible? Secondly, could the price points actually work in sustainability’s favour? Making zero-waste dining a sexy, high-end experience brands the concept as an aspirational lifestyle. Like the Tesla car model, fancy zero-waste restaurants could, in turn, make the thought of intensive recycling more desirable – eggshell compost and all.  

Saying that, it is a bit odd to glamorise something that should be an everyday activity. If people are playing at sustainability when they dine out, are they less likely to practise it at home? The very act of going out for a meal that has been beautifully prepared for you distances it – managing food waste becomes something to passively experience and admire, rather than actively do. 

Either way, city diners are hungry for new, immersive experiences – and zero-waste restaurants are a welcome addition to the menu.

City Limits Volume Nine – download it here.