Why Anthony Bourdain Is Becoming an Activist Against Food Waste (Q&A)
The culinary personality and documentary producer talks balking at fine dining's squandering and making sense of that New York Times review of Locol.
Anthony Bourdain is fed up with food waste.
The prolific chef-turned-TV personality produces, narrates and appears in WASTED! The Story of Food Waste, a new documentary that explores the major yet widely unknown sources of food waste, from the farming and fishing industries to supermarket chains and school cafeterias. A lot of what’s tossed out is due to lack of demand from the public — until it’s trendy, that is.
“As chefs and as cooks, we see how the same thing that everybody told us was shit last year, wouldn’t pay for it and would turn their noses up, suddenly every man-bun neck-beard is paying $29.95 for,” says Bourdain of uni, lobster and tuna in The Hollywood Reporter’s exclusive clip of the doc. “People who cook food and spend time with food, they know what the good stuff is. Those dumbasses in the dining room may not know, but we know. We know, we always knew.”
Co-directed by Anna Chai and Nari Kye, the eco-minded doc also applauds those implementing innovative and delicious solutions, and features appearances by chefs Dan Barber, Mario Batali, Danny Bowien and Massimo Bottura. The Rockefeller Foundation, which last year made a $130 million commitment to cut food waste in half by 2030, supported Zero Point Zero Films and Bourdain to create the doc. It makes its world premiere on Saturday at the Tribeca Film Festival. Cinetic Media is handling sales.
Bourdain sat down with THR to talk balking at fine dining’s food waste, appreciating oft-tossed ingredients and making sense of that “uncomfortable” New York Times review of Locol.
What drew you to Wasted?
I am most definitely not an activist, and I somewhat studiously avoid anything with a message, but this problem of food waste is something that goes against my years of training as a cook. I come from a very old-school background, and the first rule of classic French cuisine is, use everything. So the idea that this much of most delicious ingredients is being wasted was already deeply offensive to me. Then, of course, as a person who spent the majority of the past 16 or 17 years traveling all over the world and seeing often very hungry people doing the best they can with very little, it was kind of personal for me.
What shocked you most?
The sheer scope of the problem, especially in supermarkets. I was familiar with the fact that many of our animal products are modified to be transported and look good, but the need to give this impression of endless abundance of “always pretty” food on the shelves was shocking to me, particularly as I’ve become more familiar with European and Asian markets over the years. Picking out your food and negotiating for maybe the less pretty ones is a fundamental part of shopping and, as a matter of fact, part of the fun.
How can restaurant chefs curb their food waste?
Particularly for those in fine dining, the chefs who work in restaurants with only serve perfectly squared, trimmed-down pieces of fish without a single bone, bit of skin or irregular part — on one hand, they’re the biggest offenders of food waste, but that also makes them the most acutely aware of how much perfectly good food is being thrown out. Responsible chefs use those scraps to make staff food, or merchandise it in something delicious like a soup or dumpling or something, or work closely with food relief programs.
But what’s interesting is how many chefs are actively involved in doing something about the situation. They’re leaders in both hunger and food waste issues. The Massimo Bottura example was particularly interesting, because not only is he using otherwise wasted food to feed hungry people, but the food is garnished, it’s arranged beautifully, and it’s served by real waiters in a real restaurant situation rather than a cafeteria setting. That extra effort — to not just feed people’s stomachs but also treat them with respect and dignity and make them feel good about themselves — is quite beautiful.
What’s a favorite oft-wasted food?
Oh my God, there’s so many. Look at fish heads. There are entire restaurants in Japan that serve nothing but fish collars and fins. It’s an example of a food that chefs always knew was the most delicious part of the fish. You have to work a little harder to get out the good bits. It always pained us to see people always insist on a boneless fillet when we knew all along that fish on the bone is so much more delicious and rewarding. A lot of these ingredients that used to be considered trash, things that the poor used to have to eat because they had no other options, are now only attainable in expensive hipster restaurants.
Which food trend is overrated?
The kobe slider or the kobe meatball is such a meaningless and ridiculous concept. It’s the best example of what I call the "douche economy." I mean, no one orders these things because they expect to taste the qualitative difference in their meatball or slider, but because the experience of eating a relatively small piece of steak is a very pleasurable one. But it’s completely wasted in something that’s like a slider or a meatball in sauce. I find that’s not about the quality of the object; it’s about bragging that you’re getting a boutique, expensive slider. The appearance of a kobe slider on a menu is always a bad thing. It does not portend well for the rest of the meal.
The New York Times critic Pete Wells drew ire after his review of Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson’s Locol, designed to bring fresh, healthy, inexpensive cooking to underserved areas. What did you think?
I don’t know. I think it was a little out of bounds. Look, I’m OK with a take-no-prisoners- approach to a meal in a strictly analytical way, but given what Locol is attempting to do and has done, I think it was inappropriate. I was very uncomfortable with the review, and I don’t think the muscle and power of a New York Times [food section] was an appropriate venue for a review of a place with that specific purpose. It’s perfectly OK for Pete Wells to walk into an expensive restaurant. I guess my feeling was, pick on someone your own size.
I think the power of The New York Times restaurant review is overstated. I think they’d be probably the first to admit that print media in general, as far as restaurant reviews, is shriveling more every year with fewer resources, lower budgets for restaurant critics. I don’t know if fewer people read them, but they temper that with reading online reviews. Instagram might be more powerful than The New York Times at this point.
Editor’s note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.