Douglas McMaster, the chef behind the uk’s first zero-waste restaurant, explains how the best way to change the system is to get beyond the middle men to the primary sources of the food.
A call comes in from a lorry driver. He has 1,500 mangoes destined for landfill because one of the big supermarkets has declared them too small. He offers the whole shipment for £50 and gets an immediate affirmative answer.
The organisation taking on this mother lode of tropical fruit isn’t a dodgy food smuggling racket or a bunch of illicit activists. It is in fact a trendy restaurant situated in brighton’s fashionable north laine area. Silo claims to be the UK’s first zero-waste restaurant, operating what it calls a pre-industrial food system. “The driving force behind our ideas is a pure food system which is devoid of any processing, packaging or modern industrial methods,” said the head chef and owner, Douglas McMaster.
Douglas is a 28-year-old chef and restaurateur. He opened Silo last october after returning from Australia where he had founded another zero-waste restaurant of the same name with the artist and eco-designer, Joost Bakker. Returning to the UK to open his own place gave McMaster the chance to take everything he had learned in Australia and go even further, a journey which has led to a restaurant that brews its own alcohol, churns its own butter, mills the flour to make its own bread and even grows its own mushrooms on coffee grounds. Intercepting truckloads of food destined for landfill is apparently just a sideline.
Douglas was perhaps destined for this kind of ethical pirating, growing up as he did in a small village near Sherwood forest. Early on, he realised he needed to cut his own path. “I was never very good at school,” he said. “I’m not good at being told what to do.” So he left at 16, just after starting his A-levels, and went to work in a local restaurant. “I fell in love with being a chef before I fell in love with food,” he said. “It was something about that environment. It was kind of like being on a pirate ship. It appealed to me – that freedom.” His career as a chef would take him to some of the best restaurants in Britain, including the renowned St John in London where the chef, Fergus Henderson, operated a ‘nose-to-tail’ food system leaving none of the animal to waste. It was a sign of things to come. But first Douglas had more learning to do. He took a year out travelling and working at some of the world’s best restaurants, including Heston Blumenthal’s the fat duck, and Noma in Copenhagen, home of nordic cuisine and purveyor of wild foods, foraging and the ‘locavore’ movement.
“The driving force behind our ideas is a pure food system which is void of any processing, packaging.”
Douglas McMaster, chef
By the time he arrived in Australia he was on his 24th restaurant in a year. He was working at a multi-award- winning establishment in Sydney but soon found himself hating the experience. “It had this whole vibe of ‘made by nature’, but it was the most unnatural restaurant known to man. The waste they created was just astronomical. They had no thought for the environment at all.” But just a stone’s throw away on Sydney harbour the complete antithesis was happening – a temporary ‘pop-up’ restaurant called greenhouse which was using innovative techniques to reduce waste. This was an early eco-restaurant concept by Joost Bakker, a dutch-born florist turned eco-designer. Soon Douglas got to meet the man who would become his mentor and change his career. “It was the moment I walked into that restaurant that everything changed. Within a day of knowing him, Joost said he wanted to open a greenhouse in london and would I be interested in running it for him. It brought me into his world and changed my life plan.”
Plans for a greenhouse in london had to be put on hold because of a lack of suitable sites. Instead, a year later, the two opened silo in Melbourne – the world’s first zero-waste restaurant, or so Douglas claims. “I keep saying it is,” he said, “and waiting for someone to contradict me but no one has so far.” Douglas spent a year running the kitchen at Silo in Melbourne before he had to return to the UK for family reasons. He soon began the search for a base for the UK’s first zero-waste eatery. It was a search that would take a year and a half – fallow time in which his ideas grew and matured and the plan for a pre-industrial food system was born. When the right site did arrive, it was time to nurture those ideas into life, the fruits of which are now blossoming.
At the centre of the restaurant’s war on waste is its composting machine, a £22,000 piece of machinery that uses a special culture of bacteria to break down practically every kind of food waste within 24 hours, producing a nutrient-intense compost which is then used to grow more food. “it’s a closed loop system which is very productive,” said douglas. Silo also makes its own bread from ancient types of wheat milled into flour on site – one of the only places in the country to do so. Then there is the homemade butter, yoghurt and curd, as well as the home-grown vegetables and whole-carcass meats, all treated to various forms of ancient preparation and preservation techniques like fermenting, pickling, brining, curing and hanging. Even the crockery is recycled – the plates are made from recycled plastic bags and the glasses are old jam jars.
“There’s something very whole and pure about it. The food tastes different and looks different.”
Douglas McMaster, chef
But it is the relationship with suppliers that forms the crux of the zero-waste ethos. By buying straight from small organic farmers, Douglas is able to cut out the middle men and all the unsustainable practices that come with big agriculture. “The big mono-cultures are grown in an industrial way which means lots of packaging, lots of waste, lots of fuel, lots of carbon footprint, whereas small scale organic farmers can supply you in a way that is zero-waste.” No packaging means things like milk and oil are delivered in jerry cans and animals come in whole with the skin still on to be butchered on site. It is a system which makes the restaurant the hub of an expanding wheel of influence stretching back along its supply chain, changing attitudes and practices along the way. “it’s changing a whole generational way of thinking. People have been packaging food now for 20-30 years. They just do it that way because that’s the food industry. Trying to get them to change it is a progressive thing. We’re convincing suppliers, then they’re coming up with their own ideas of how they can do it. It’s all blossoming as we speak.”
For a restaurant so concerned with sustainability it’s odd to hear that food locality isn’t one of McMaster’s top priorities. But this is where intercepting food waste from supermarkets comes in. “That might mean using tomatoes from spain” said douglas, “but it supersedes the other conceptual ideas of locality to save all that food waste. You’ve just got to follow your instincts and I feel that is the right thing to do.” Douglas is understandably coy about his more piratical activities. “We have people on the inside as it were,” he said, “who say they’ll drive it to landfill then give us a call and offer it to us. It’s all very frowned upon from a legal perspective.” Say no more.
Like all free spirits, Douglas is contemptuous of mindless bureaucracy. So it is here, perhaps characteristically, that he sees the main obstruction to zero-waste being adopted across the industry. “Middle men are the problem. Middle men are the people who package things. Middle men are the people who insist upon food being denatured. Middle men are the people who make all the money out of the producers. So look beyond the middle men to the source and the whole system changes.”
But can a pre-industrialised food system really feed a world of seven billion people and counting? “Yes 100%. There’s a lot of information filtered into the mainstream which tells people that organic farming can’t feed the planet. It’s not true – there are proven studies. It is viable. We’re seven months into our business and we’re proving that we’re a financially-viable economic business model that doesn’t generate material waste. A year ago no one said that was possible – sceptics and pessimists saying it wouldn’t work – bullshit.”
And that seems to sum up McMaster’s attitude – the ethical pirate, the free spirit who won’t just passively do what he’s told or accept what others say is impossible. It’s the attitude which led him to leave school at 16 and it’s the attitude which is now leading him to challenge the limits of the possible in sustainability.
“We’re proving that we’re a financially viable economic business model that doesn’t generate material waste. A year ago no one said that was possible.”
Douglas McMaster, Chef