While in Amsterdam I was served a meal made of food waste. And it was one of the most special meals of the entire trip. Instock, the restaurant in the Oosterpark area just outside the canal belt, is indeed an unusual place.
Rescuing and re-using are the keywords here: not only when it comes to the ingredients used in the kitchen, but also of the materials. So, the décor is essential, and the dining area is furnished with recovered pieces, from the tables to the chairs to the window frames. And the mix is really congenial: soft hues, from beiges to light greens to blues.
Nothing is thrown away here: not the lampshades, coming from who knows where, nor the food. What’s behind the idea of this group of young women and men is the problem of food waste, with more than one third of our food being regularly thrown away. Why does this happen? Over 30% of our food goes straight into the garbage bin because it doesn’t look good enough. And we are talking about 1.3 tons a year.
One would think that supermarkets are the main culprits, but they represent just 5% of the waste chain. The problem with mass retailers is that they often buy too much food, or have high standards. This is because customers want to buy products that not only taste good, but also look good. In this way, consumers are responsible for 42% when it comes to generating food waste.
Most food is wasted in our households and, before eating at Instock, I didn’t know that we waste over 100 kilos of food each year. On second thought, I shouldn’t be surprised: how many times have I ditched a bruised apple or a broken artichoke?
Producers and farmers are responsible too, ranking 39% in the food waste chain. Also in this case, fruits and vegetables are dumped because of their shape: they are either too big or too small and, since consumers don’t like imperfection, the ugly apple gets thrown away. In this way, the waste starts during the very first steps of food production.
Bars and restaurants are responsible for 14% of our food waste, despite throwing into the bin tons and tons of food every year.
In order to curb the waste problem, 80% of raw materials used in the kitchen at Instock are unsold products: if the ingredients weren’t rescued each day by the Instock food rescuers, they would end up into some junk bin. Thanks to Instock, 264,900 kilos of food have been rescued since the first meal was served.
Like I was told by the guy who looked after us during our dinner, a crooked cucumber tastes as good as a straight one, right? The answer is straightforward, but it is not that easy to put into practice something that in theory is straightforward: less waste.
Each day, a food rescuer leaves at dawn to collect ingredients from the suppliers: supermarkets or producers. In a few hours, the van comes back with its bounty of fruits, vegetables, bread, meat and fish. Food that gets rescued is never past its sell-by date: it’s just food that doesn’t look good enough, or is unsold.
At this stage, the chef and his collaborators have to come up with a different menu every single day. For this reason, it is impossible to know in advance what dishes you’ll be served. Those working in the kitchen have no idea of what the food rescuers van will bring, so they cannot plan ahead. If the are two boxes of bruised avocadoes, then the chef will make avocado ice-cream, and that will be the dessert of the day.
One has to be very talented and extremely creative to work in such a peculiar kitchen. It goes without saying that the choice is more limited as compared to other restaurants, but every special need is catered for: there are always dishes for vegans and for people with food allergies.
When I had dinner at Instock, the food on the menu was of Oriental inspiration: spiced soup with vegetables and confit tomatoes, steamed dumplings, and ice cream. The check: less than 30 euros per person, drinks included. A very democratic price, that makes Instock accessible to everyone, and not only to a privileged elite who can afford it. Because if you want the message to get through, it is important that as many people as possible can afford to access it.
As if they didn’t have enough on their plates, people working at Instock are also very attentive when it comes to waste management. In order to reduce the amount of things that are inevitably thrown away, they also serve smaller portions. They have started to use food waste to make other products, such as beer and granola. Their Pieper Bier is brewed by a local brewery using discarded potatoes, whereas their granola is made from spent grains left after the process of brewing beer.
But the experience isn’t over with the meal, because diners can do something when they go back to their homes.
The cookbook Instock Cooking is a collection of recipes that’ll help give a second chance to the sad carrot that has been sitting for days in the fridge. Their tips on how to reduce food waste on a daily basis are uncomplicated: don’t buy what you don’t need; conserve food at the right temperature; stick to the rule first in, first out.
The tip that I like best is the one about sharing food: with neighbors, with friends and family. Because sharing means raising awareness, and also through word of mouth we can contribute to reduce not food waste, as well as water and energy consumption.