In 2017, Dhruv Oberoi, head chef at Olive Qutub, Mehrauli, was looking for ways to re-purpose food waste and leftovers. As part of a collaborative project on sustainable cooking, Oberoi was tasked with coming up with a culinary pièce de résistance from garbage. He first fashioned his chef’s coat out of leftover fabric. Later, while walking around in the back area of his tony restaurant, Oberoi was mesmerised at the sight of broken, chipped and discarded plates scattered everywhere. They looked beautiful. The littered landscape of unwanted plates conjured up images of broken-tile mosaics à la Antoni Gaudí. And also the ancient Japanese art of Kintsugi, in which broken ceramics are rejoined with lacquer mixed with powdered gold, silver or platinum. Oberoi had mined his diamond from the dumpster and thus was born All Things Broken—a zero-waste dessert made of short crust, lime cheesecake, meringue and sorrel spice, served on two shards of broken plates. All Things Broken sat primly on last year’s summer menu of Olive Mehrauli. The tangy-sweet confection is Oberoi’s way of injecting a bit of revolutionary zing. “You see, in a fine-dining restaurant, you are not allowed to serve even on a chipped plate,” says the 33-year-old Oberoi, who has been a chef with the Olive group for 12 years.
In the last couple of years, he has held a waste-of-the-day challenge with his kitchen staff of 42 members. He once screened Netflix’s popular food show, Ugly Delicious, for his junior chefs to “get with it”. Many innovative dishes have been carved out of peels of apples, potatoes, asparagus, garlic, lemon and cheese rinds at Olive Qutub. They transform into amuse-bouche, or delectable marmalades, sorbets, jams and jellies. A day-old leftover bread is further dried and put into a mixing bowl with a light vinaigrette, along with tomatoes and cucumber. Dressed and topped with cheese, the stale bread is converted into a dish called Panzanella. Dehydrated banana skins are used to make chips, which have a nice, umami-bitter flavour. Waste from the bar, like that of mint, lemon and coffee, are re-used to make oil or honey to be used as dressing.
This kind of recycling is nothing new, says Oberoi, “It is what our moms used to do. We have forgotten our basics,” he says. But Oberoi knows he cannot be too radical with his food waste experiments. “The problem is that people will ask why they are paying for it,” he puts it bluntly.
Globally, many chefs have issued a clarion call to think seriously about food waste. There is Dan Barber’s much-touted pop-up event ‘WastED’, where food scraps are turned into $15-a-plate meals. Italian chef Massimo Bottura, who visited India in 2017, is known for his efforts to transform left-overs and off-cuts into delectable dishes. Even the late Anthony Bourdain made a documentary, Wasted: The Story of Food Waste, which sought to “change the way people buy, cook, recycle and eat food”.
According to Arina Suchde, a trained chef, mixologist and “trash cooking” expert from Mumbai, only a handful of fine-dining restaurants and niche green/health cafes in India are playing around with non-essentials like carrot tops and orange rinds. Because, mostly, they can afford to. “Unfortunately, it is a very niche concept, as opposed to being something that everybody should follow,” admits Suchde. She uses peppy cooking names to describe her ‘waste-not’ ideology, like root-to-shoot, skin-to-stem and nose-to-tail. She has conducted a number of workshops on trash cooking across Mumbai, Pune, Ahmedabad, Delhi and Bengaluru over the last two years to try and convince people to use kitchen scraps in their day-to-day meals. Like how the corn cob can be used as stock for grills and sauces, beetroot stem for pesto, salad for broccoli stems, carrot greens for chutney, or the white rind of melons for gazpacho. Her fun workshops are not really packed to the gills, attended by people who genuinely care about waste.
A sustainable menu which is locally produced, energy efficient and zero-waste has limited takers. Kabir Suri, head of the Delhi chapter of the National Restaurant Association of India and co-founder and CEO of Azure Hospitality Pvt. Ltd, which owns Mamagoto and Dhaba by Claridges among other brands, says that till date NRAI has not really conducted a waste audit or issued formal guidelines to reduce waste. It is mostly left to the whims and fancies and business exigencies of individual restaurants. He says that most of the waste generated is leftovers by customers. “Within the kitchen one is able to control waste through order processing, ingredient listing, smart cooking methods and menu plating. But how do you control over-ordering on tables?” he asks.
In April 2017, Ram Vilas Paswan, the minister of consumer affairs, food and distribution, suggested that the government should fix portion sizes in restaurants and hotels to curb food wastage. Many chefs dismissed the idea as they felt most of the wastage occurs at the supply chain level itself, because the demand is for fruits and vegetables that look perfect. An obsession with appearance at the retail level doesn’t help fight food wastage. “If a carrot is deformed, that does not mean it is rotten or is not going to taste the same,” says Suchde.
Balpreet Singh Chadha, executive sous chef at Andaz Delhi, wants to re-use food waste in many different forms. But for now he is implementing his alchemical skills frugally and subtly in the AnnaMaya kitchen. Like drying, dehydrating and churning into powder lemon skin and orange peels to use as flavoured salt and spices apart from garnish. “My waste food menu was supposed to happen in May. It got delayed. People in Delhi don’t exactly want it,” says Chadha.