What do zero-waste restaurants mean for fresh produce sourcing?
Chef Douglas McMaster stands outside Silo where he gets to grips with the limitations of zero-waste

What do zero-waste restaurants mean for fresh produce sourcing?

Liz O’Keefe
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Silo is a thriving zero-waste restaurant and business in Brighton. Produce Business UK talks to progressive experimental chef Douglas McMaster, the man behind the concept about how he sources his “off-grid” ingredients and maximises surplus to minimise wastage

Having arrived at the Universal Cookery and Food Festival this year held at hobbyist-turned-professional biodynamic, organic farmer Jody Sceketer’s Laverstoke Park Farm in Hampshire, expecting some pretty digressive and forward-thinking views and artisan food, I was not disappointed to find the executive chef of Silo, a restaurant that allows absolutely no products that can’t be reused or recycled in some way into the restaurant. The fruit and vegetables have to be delivered either packaging-free or in biodegradable packaging. Any trimmings, peel, cores or inedible leaves go into the on-site compost, as there aren’t any dustbins on the premises. Even the plates are made out of recycled plastic bags and the menus are projected onto the walls, in lieu of printing on paper.

What is zero waste?

Disillusioned with particularly wasteful large fine-dining restaurants over his 10-year career, McMaster happened upon one of the first zero-waste pop-up restaurants in Sydney, and was re-inspired. “There was a massive queue outside, and when I got in, I saw why – it was a rooftop garden restaurant, with wild strawberries growing in terracotta pots, load music and a restaurant made of waste materials,” he says. “It felt really right, but I realised that there was no such things as zero waste in an industrial society. I don’t mean that as negative, I am just being realistic. Running a kitchen in a commercial setting that is absolutely zero waste is a nightmare – you have to work directly to source with every supplier and it is the hardest thing to get even close to the result of a normal restaurant.”

Despite the self-imposed limitations of opening a zero-waste restaurant, McMaster did just that in 2014. He found a warehouse in Brighton, with the painted signage “No.39” on its huge sliding doors and Silo was born. Kitted out with entirely recycled materials including refurbished furniture such as old primary school benches and industrial tiles, the restaurant took on an effortless cool brought about, McMaster says thanks to his “being 27 years old and having no money”.

For all this haphazardness and McMaster’s slightly new-age chef aura, Silo is a well-tuned machine, with a strict mission statement of providing “quality through purity” whilst respecting the natural order through both “modern and ancient” techniques, which takes constant kitchen and sourcing management.

“Everything we make is from scratch,” he says. “We can’t buy in yogurt because we can’t do anything with the packaging, so we make our own, and the same goes for churning our own butter from milk that comes in in reused containers, and also is used in the coffee, from which the leftover froth gets turned into cheese; we grow mushrooms and wheatgrass at the premises for the menu and if any foodstuff isn’t consumed, it’s put in our own industrial compost machine.”

McMaster also took to training himself and his eight-strong team of chefs to mill their own flour to make bread and sourdough and makes his own soap for cleaning products. “The menu is a reaction to the environment, season and nature. If you do this, you create the most unlikely situations that mostly produce the best food. Recently, we had some bolted leeks that were inedible they were so hard, so we bottled and fermented them, then sliced them against the grain – they were amazing. It’s reactionary food.”

Sourcing fresh produce

McMaster describes the way he sources fresh fruit and vegetables as “off grid”. At first, he had to drive out to find producers himself to get the produce, without packaging, that he needed. “There are two parts to my fresh produce sourcing; the available that I need to find and the new and interesting that I can inspire, such as getting a farmer to grow Japanese knotweed down the road. It’s also about using what else is on the farm that wouldn’t necessarily get used, like weeds, pests and blood.”

The chef pretty quickly established a firm relationship with a large organic grower in the local area and the largest organic farm in the UK, Laines Farm. “It’s proper, big-scale organic production and it has to be the future for organic,” says McMaster, who buys around 200kg of vegetables a week from the supplier. “Fruit is obviously very seasonal and creativity with vegetables can fill the hungry gap between autumn and spring.

“We manage to be 98% local with all food at Silo, but when you serve coffee and chocolate, which are catering musts, you can never be totally local. I think there is a lot of nonsense going around about ‘local’. The reality is, the amount of local ingredients you use in a commercial kitchen is very low. It should be more about being real – being sustainable isn’t essentially or exclusively about sourcing locally.”

Setting trends

On one of his sourcing travels out and about, McMaster realised, after being asked if he wanted swede at every location, and patiently answering no each time, that Sussex soil was particularly suited to swede cultivation. “I loved the idea of maximising a resurgence to minimise waste,” explains the chef. “We rolled out massive sheets of swede cooked in swede juice, paired it with wild garlic oil, steamed, then roasted it, then teamed it with fermented swede ribbons, dancing around the edge of the plate.”

One of the Sussex chef’s inspirations is René Redzepi, head of the renowned three-Michelin star restaurant Noma, in Copenhagen. “René turned his back on tradition and as a result got a Michelin star,” says McMaster, who recently hosted the UK premier of the Noma documentary at his restaurant. Last year Redzepi inspired several chefs in Amsterdam with compost cookery, which has now made its way to restaurants such as the The Blue Hill in New York City. “He limited himself to his environment, when at the time chefs were using the best-quality ingredients from all over the world,” McMaster explains. “Sometimes what you think will be bad, has the best things come out of it.

“My menu is what’s on farms, what people want, what’s leftover in the fridge,” says McMaster. “We never use more than three main ingredients on a plate – the recipes are really different ingredients broken up into pieces and reconstructed in different forms on each plate.”

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