Our modern obsession with beautiful food – and reliance on ready meals when short of time – has led to huge waste. Is it time to put leftovers back on the table?
It’s half past three and lunch is drawing to a close. The long dining room of 32 Great Queen Street in London’s Covent Garden is three-quarters empty, with just a few diners left drinking coffee or finishing off bottles of wine. One large, noisy party at the end, nearest the open-plan kitchen remains, as the restaurant staff sit down at last to feed themselves.
The meal is freshly cooked, but often put together from leftovers. Staff meals are made from cuts of meat or bits of veg that haven’t found a spot on this week’s menu. Chef Tom Norrington-Davies makes a point of using things up: when his London restaurant opened five years ago, with its deliberately unfancy decor, sparse furnishings and reasonable prices, critics heralded the dawn of a new age of thrift.
This year, with a triple-dip recession looming and the UK’s triple-A credit rating under threat, the restaurant could not be more on-message. In a speech to the Women’s Institute in York last week, environment secretary Owen Paterson talked about the challenges of feeding a growing world population, and called on the WI to “help us as a nation cut down on food waste”. He complained that we are in the grip of a “cult of beauty and perfection” around food, and said that celebrity chefs as well as supermarkets should do something about it.
“Cookbooks in the 1970s and 1980s always had chapters on using up leftovers. But this stopped in the 1990s,” he said. But is it true that Britain’s top cooks have given up on scraps?
Norrington-Davies believes there was a moment in the mid-1990s when food went bling. “You had a big shift in attitudes towards cooking,” he says. “Of the cookbooks I own from when I was younger, very few are illustrated. The first really super-posh illustrated cookbook I can remember was The River Cafe Cookbook. They were real coffee-table books, everything in them looked fantastic. And around the same time, supermarket merchandise became a lot more sexed-up; suddenly you had nonsense like vine-ripened tomatoes. I mean, what other tomatoes are there?”
When Norrington-Davies published his own, much more down-to-earth recipe book, Cupboard Love, 10 years later, he took aim at the kinds of cookbooks that “pander to our fantasies and aspirations”. But fantasies were perhaps what people wanted, and the book didn’t sell well. “It was maybe a few years too early,” he says. “It could have been quite a good recession book.”
Since then, two of the biggest names in cookery have bolted campaigning arms on to their booming business empires. Jamie Oliver, whose latest book, 15-Minute Meals, looks set to beat JK Rowling to the top spot this Christmas, spearheaded a campaign to raise nutritional standards in schools. Guardian food writer Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall led a movement to ban fish discards. And Nigella Lawson has won praise, as well as sniggers, as a role model for women with appetites – a voluptuous alternative to the size-zero clothes-horse thought to be linked to eating disorders.
Further down the celebrity food chain, many chefs and writers have become much more involved in thinking about the issues surrounding food production. “Words like ‘sustainable’ get bandied around now, and I get shy of using them,” says Norrington-Davies. “But I am trying to cook in a way that is more nose-to-tail, or holistically. The way to do it is to be completely upfront. I don’t ram it down people’s throats that if one part of an animal is on this menu, the other part we get as a result is elsewhere. But that’s how it is.”
Starting about 10 years ago, when he worked in a pub, he began to buy direct from a fisherman in Essex, waiting to hear what the catch was before he wrote the menu. Today he follows the same rule, deciding what he will cook according to what his suppliers can offer. “When I first started doing it, it was really scary. The biggest leap of faith was the first time I bought half a cow. I thought I was going to cry, I was so afraid. I just thought, ‘I’m never going to use all this, I’ll wreck it.'”
Leftovers, he points out, are not just what is left on the table. The woman he buys goat’s cheese from has no use for her male goat kids. So he cooks them. The cheese straws he served this week were offcuts from a quince tart. Yucky bits such as rabbit offal or “funny looking ends of mackerel” he takes home to his cat.
“Many of my peers in this kind of place, at the mid-range, casual end of the market, are children of the 70s, which was quite an austere time,” he says. “We ate a lot of leftovers when I was a lad, and I still have a horror of waste. Readymade food was just not an option, it was very expensive, and I still find it incredible that in a supermarket nowadays people are drawn to buying readymade meals because it looks cheaper than doing it yourself. It’s a complete reversal.”
Is it a different story at the top end of the market, where prices are high and perfection the aim? Having watched Michel Roux and his sous chef Monica Galetti put the contestants through their paces on MasterChef this week, it’s easy to imagine racks of lamb tumbling down the rubbish chute at Roux’s Michelin-starred restaurant Le Gavroche because they are a fraction over-done.
But Galetti says waste is as unheard-of at Le Gavroche in Mayfair as it is on the Masterchef set, where dishes, once tested, are often eaten by the production team. So what happens if meat is overcooked? “If it happens in the restaurant, then we have a box on the side where this meat goes, and it all gets eaten. If we can’t use something in another dish, we recycle it into a canapé or an amuse-bouche.”
Galetti thinks people understand perfectly well the difference between glossy food photography and competitions to create restaurant-standard food on television, and the kinds of meals they might eat at home. So she rejects the idea that over-glossy media cookery might have increased the likelihood of less-than-perfect food being thrown away. Instead, she thinks supermarket sell-by dates have a lot to answer for. “I know people who will look at the label on some ham, and if it’s a day over they’ll throw the whole packet out instead of opening it up and tasting and smelling it.”
In other words, people need to be more confident and knowledgable about food. Campaigning food author Joanna Blythman believes this is where TV chefs can help, and have done .”I think any chef that gets people cooking from scratch, from raw ingredients, is to be applauded,” she says. “I don’t think they’re saying to people, chuck in the bin what you can’t use. I think a bigger problem is that we’ve been encouraged to give up cooking on a routine basis. My mum and her mum had a rolling programme of food in the house. You made certain things that left leftovers, and on to them you grafted other things, so food tended to get used up in a fairly systematic way.
“You would have probably a chicken carcass on a Sunday, so you would have what was left of the roast for sandwiches or something on a Monday that would use the rest of the meat. Then that carcass would make stock that would become soup, say for Tuesday. My mum would never throw out mashed potatoes – they would be made into potato scones or Irish potato cakes. That whole rhythm is disrupted by processed food. It’s a kind of deskilling. One of the skills of the cook is opening the fridge and thinking, what could I do with that? It’s the kind of thing that used to be taught in home economics.”
Blythman preferred the more old-fashioned, practical programmes (Delia Smith, Madhur Jaffrey) to the ultra-slick, lifestyle-focused ones of today, and echoes Norrington-Davies’ reservations about fantasy eating. But she believes our wasteful food culture is more about the structure of working lives than it is about people trying to cook like Heston Blumenthal or Jamie Oliver.
“You’re always being steered towards a processed-food choice,” she says. “If you’re the person who is still in the office at 6.30pm, and you start thinking, ‘What shall I eat tonight?’, you’ll most likely find yourself in the supermarket an hour later picking up some over-packaged food.”
Food author Niki Segnit, whose first book, The Flavour Thesaurus, was garlanded with awards when it came out in 2010, says she used to be just such a person before she gave up her career in advertising. “The context for me is having gone through a period of time when I used to do that thing of buying a load of meals in Marks and Spencer, and then I would throw them all away on a Saturday and go shopping again. It seems so sinful in retrospect, but food prices have gone up so phenomenally since then.”
Segnit’s mother was of the generation who grew up during and after the war, and today Segnit is a different character, remade in her mother’s image and fanatical about not throwing food away. “It can be obsessional. It becomes like a game of Tetris – you have these blocks and you’re trying to fill in the gaps all the time. Sometimes I have to check myself, because I know it’s silly to get het up about a cup of rice worth 15p.
“It can be better to just throw out the old stuff and start again. Not everything warms through particularly nicely, and my poor husband has had to put up with some pretty horrible meals. But I get a lot of pleasure from not throwing things away. It’s quite an interesting starting point a lot of the time. OK, I’ve got this and I’ve got that, so what do I do?”
Segnit thinks Owen Paterson’s complaint about modern cookbooks is wide of the mark. “Delia’s Christmas book has a fantastic leftovers chapter that is well-thumbed in most households I’ve been in. Maybe leftovers were a bit old-fashioned and not the height of cool in the 1990s, but Nigel Slater almost has a fetish for using up scrapings and remnants. He writes about that sort of thing as a matter of course.”
There has been significant progress on household food waste over the past 10 years, with the biggest recent study – for which researchers went through 2,000 dustbins – showing a 13% reduction. Campaigners want supermarkets to do more, and point to the competition commission’s recent finding that they have tended to push problems further up the supply chain, lumbering producers with unwanted goods.
But consumers can undoubtedly do their bit, by addressing their own habits, and in the signals they send to food producers through the choices they make. The Women’s Institute is planning a national campaign around food security and responsibility, with a second launch in Cardiff next month.
With millions of people in Britain now unable to afford the food they have been used to eating – figures this week showed a sharp decline in consumption of key nutrients among the poorest people – and global food prices set to rise as climate and other pressures increase, tackling food waste in the kitchen is at least a place to start.
If the government is serious about seeking a celebrity champion to front the war on waste, Monica Galetti could be just who they are looking for. She is known on MasterChef for her brisk, no-nonsense style, and admires Jamie Oliver for his work on school dinners, but would she consider taking up a cause herself?
“It would have to be the right thing for me, I’d have to believe in it 110%.”
So what about waste?
“I’m not happy with any waste at all.”