"I spent all day scraping cartilage off these fish bones," the cook says as he drops a plate of what looks like flattened French fries onto the table. "Please eat them right now, while they're still hot." We obey, dipping the crisp sticks of compressed skate wing cartilage into a tartar sauce infused with smoked whitefish heads. They're golden and salty, compulsively snackable and gone in seconds.
Fried cartilage is just one eyebrow-raising dish at the wastED pop-up at Blue Hill in New York, where chef Dan Barber and a rotating cast of culinary bigwigs (Dominique Crenn, Mario Batali, Alain Ducasse) are highlighting ingredients that usually get tossed: bruised produce, meat scraps and fish bones, to name a few. Dishes like "dumpster dive salad with damaged apples and whipped chickpea water" and "dog food" meat loaf with "unfit potatoes and gravy" play up the freaky factor, but here's the thing: Everything tastes really, really good.
Dan Barber, chef de cuisine Shingoon Hong & kitchen director Adam Kaye
That's one of the central points of the pop-up, which runs through March 31. "This is not a lecture series," Barber says. "This is about hedonism and pleasure. If the food isn't delicious, it shouldn't be on the menu."
Barber, of course, is one of the most well-versed chefs of all time in issues of agriculture, sustainability and food politics, and wastED is a call to action for reducing food waste. But it's also about culinary creativity: "Our role as chefs has always been to use every part of an ingredient, even if it's considered undesirable, and turn it into something delicious," he says. "It's a part of what we do every day."
What Blue Hill diners don't do every day is eat seated at tables made from recycled corn and mushroom scraps, or under romantically draped greenhouse fabrics. Those physical transformations are the contribution of designers Garrett Ricciardi and Julian Rose of Formlessfinder, who worked to give the elegantly restrained restaurant a more playful atmosphere during the pop-up, where each dish on the 20-item, all-à la carte menu costs just $15 (a far cry from the $98 prix fixe normally offered).
And indeed, the vibe at wastED is playful—the waitstaff wears T-shirts, cooks present their own dishes straight from the kitchen and many of the courses are finger friendly, like chicken-fried monkfish wings with Frank's-inspired hot sauce and spent grain bread served with beef tallow drippings poured straight from the candle on your table. Each guest chef contributes a nightly special. When we dined, Danny Bowien was making broken rice with smoked fish skin and peanut heart furikake, chile-pickled ikura and sesame leaves.
"If you didn't know this stuff was considered waste, you'd have no idea you were eating anything weird," my dining companion said. And maybe one day soon, things like pickled cucumber butts and smoked salmon bloodlines won't be considered weird at all—Barber says that one of the biggest lessons in planning wastED is that distributors have been more than happy to supply the nasty bits they normally get rid of. "They're not throwing this stuff out because they want to," Barber says. "They toss it because no one wants it. But as chefs, we can create the demand."
Speaking of demand: Reservations for the dinners are tough to come by (though the restaurant does accept walk-ins nightly), which is why Tasting Table has partnered with Blue Hill to offer a table for two and a five-course meal (with dishes of your choice, plus a drink and coffee or tea) from Barber and special guest chef Sean Brock on the last night of the pop-up, Tuesday, March 31. All you have to do is tell us your favorite no-waste recipe that uses every part of the ingredients (go ahead, get inspired by Barber's recipe for crispy vegetable peels). Enter the contest here and prepare to enjoy every last bite.
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