Mitchell Davis, Executive Vice President of the James Beard Foundation in New York, talks waste, progress, and the food chain.

Reducing food waste – and all its social, environmental and philosophical colours – is a hot topic these days, with chefs, influencers and policy-makers all raising public awareness about this important global issue.

In the United States, says Mitchell Davis, Ph. D., Executive Vice President of the James Beard Foundation in New York, the Ad Council recently released a campaign on the subject. Furthermore, he says, the EPA has issued "a really ambitious goal," to reduce food waste by half, and this by the year 2030. "They’ve been trying to get the culinary community on board with that, because celebrity chefs are like rock stars, so they can do it."

Certainly, delicious meals prepared from food that would otherwise be wasted are one way to get people's attention – and hopefully, inspire us to rethink the system and our values.

"A chef here [very] associated with the food waste mission is Dan Barber," says Davis. "He did a series of wastED dinners where he and other chefs cooked with stuff that was in the waste stream and removed from the waste stream. He just did a lunch for the head of the EPA that we organized, and he hydrated, baked and then fried the bones of skate wings to make chips that were then dipped in a foam of the cooking water of chickpeas that whips up almost like meringue. It was amazing. He does a vegetable burger from pulp of this chain of juice bars called Liquiteria, so he takes pulp that would otherwise be thrown out and transforms it into a burger, and he used the grain of the brewing process of beer and whiskey making and makes bread out of that grain."

In March 2015, Barber's popular NYC restaurant Blue Hill (in Greenwich Village) temporarily became a wastED pop-up.

"So all these things, taking them out of the stream so to speak, that’s super cool," says Davis. "It’s to raise not just public awareness, but the awareness of influencers, policy-makers and various folks, to incentivize people to not put waste into our waste stream."

Davis, Barber, and Sam Kass (who, Davis says, was: President Obama’s former private chef, Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition Policy and Executive Director of First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move!) participated in a lunch at the United Nations "for all the world leaders from every country you can imagine and they served that lunch, basically garbage... it was really something else."

Yet ideologically, there is more to this issue than first meets the eye.

"A more traditional approach to food waste is about hunger, ‘Eat all your food, people are starving,’" Davis says. "But that’s a much more complicated situation, because food waste isn’t actually the answer to a hunger problem. If you talk to people like Nick Saul in Toronto, he runs a really fascinating food charity organization called The Stop. He’s always reminding people that the answer to solving hunger issues is North America is not feeding garbage to poor people."

Ultimately, Davis says, "drawing attention to the system is a really important thing to do." Without over-intellectualizing, "It’s hard ideologically when we’ve built a culture for which the ability to waste is almost a sign of success – in a positive way. Excess has been the model of affluence, and development has been the capacity to deal with that. One of the challenges is to find a different model of progress that doesn’t contain that level of wastefulness. So that when other developing societies move forward, we’re not giving them a bad model and we’re also not judging them or preventing them from having the success that other societies have been able to have. It’s really hard." For example, "Yes everyone thinks we should eat a lot less meat and everybody’s worried about the developing world and meat. Except eating meat has been a sign of progress and affluence, all sorts of stuff. You can’t just say, ‘No no no don’t eat it.’ You have to find another model of what progress looks like."

So what does it look like? Certainly, that's something to think about.

"Dan Barber is encouraging people to think about the system, that we have a wasteful system. That’s why he’s using these other things that would end up in the stream of waste – because he wants to show that you have to think holistically about how a system produces food."

For example, Davis says, upstate New York has become a huge centre of Greek yogurt production and it’s revitalized the state's dairy industry. "However, because Greek yogurt is strained, one of the byproducts is whey which is acidic and toxic to the environment. So, "Barber feeds the whey to pigs on their farm which produced some very unique quality to the meat… He’s trying to get people to think about the whole system. You can’t think of one thing without thinking about the consequences and building or considering a systematic approach to dealing with it."

Davis points our that many traditional cuisines do this already. "Traditional Roman cuisine is based on what they call the quinto quarto, the fifth quarter, which is the stuff they couldn’t sell; the feet, whatever… Any place that’s had to deal with producing food over centuries, they’ve had to deal with famine and population growth, and had to find away to make food out of everything they can. In North America and the post-industrial world, we have to figure out a way to incorporate foods from all different systems. We eat Mexican food, we eat Chinese, we eat all kinds of stuff, so we sort of break the closed system of those cuisines, and that produces some consequences that have to be dealt with in some way."

Ultimately, Davis feels "there are ways to incorporate everything to minimize waste, but most of all to maximize gastronomy. I think it’s a problem of our time that we have so much food we can have the luxury of wasting it. And the challenge or opportunity of not doing that is inspiring chefs right now for a lot of different reasons."

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