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How to Have a Nice Meal and Save the Earth at the Same Time

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

An exclusive excerpt from a new climate-conscious cookbook

By Robert Downey Jr. and Thomas Kostigen

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Cool Food: Erasing Your Carbon Footprint One Bite at a Time, a new book by celebrated actor and philanthropist Robert Downey Jr. and New York Times bestselling author Thomas Kostigen.

“We don’t waste food in the Downey household. There are too many mouths to feed and not all of them are human. We have Kunekune pigs, goats, alpacas, bunnies, mini horses, and a feline to serve. I’m happy to say that our compost takes a more direct route into fertilizer than most. Pigs, especially our matriarch Lady Bug, are great at producing the stuff. We’ve all benefited from seeing up close the full cycle of growing, eating, and using the waste to grow again. Hate to cut it off here, but I’ve gotta get Lady Bug her homegrown salad for lunch.”

–Robert Downey Jr.

Leftovers? Boy, are there lots of ideas. And expiration dates? Maybe not.

While we’re all about erasing our carbon footprints by what we put in our mouths, we learned that it’s just as important, if not more important, to mind what doesn’t make it into our stomachs. There’s a lot we can do to cut down on food waste and, in turn, prevent tons of greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere, warming temperatures, and causing climate havoc.

We learned why methane is such a big problem for the United States: we toss out more food than any other country. Research shows that in the U.S. we waste about a third of the food we have at home by over-shopping and under-consuming. And at restaurants, we also typically leave anywhere from 30 to 40 percent on the plate when it’s taken away.

This sends tons to landfills, where food is the most abundant item among all the trash. That all translates into enormous amounts of methane gas escaping into the air when the food is left to rot. Methane, remember, is the second most abundant greenhouse gas, after carbon dioxide, that leads to global temperature rise and climate change. Clearly, to help keep our planet cool, we need to reduce food waste.

That said, most of us Americans think that we do a good job cleaning our plates without wasting food; more than two out of every three of us in the US believe that we throw out less food than our neighbors, according to studies of food habits we read. But our beliefs, according to the numbers, don’t add up. We need to face the facts: we all need to cut back on food waste.

The most common types of food that are spared from our digestive tracts only to find their way to landfills are bread, milk, coffee grounds, apples, potatoes, and pasta. It seems as though we can stand to be more discerning with how and what we consume, right?

For inspiration on how to do this, we turned to Douglas McMaster, a trailblazer of the zero-waste movement. He owns and is the executive chef of the famed Silo restaurant, as well as the host of Zero Waste Cooking School.

Back in 2014, McMaster was burned out on cooking at some of the world’s best restaurants, including the Fat Duck and Noma. He said, “I don’t know what to believe in anymore. I don’t know what to do. That’s when I met this artist. He was an absolute genius who said to me, ‘Could you not have a bin?’ It was unusual timing because he had just built a restaurant out of waste materials. It was entirely made from waste. And then I just kind of fell in love with his work.” The artist he was referencing is Joost Bakker, a founding member of the zero-waste movement, and the suggestion of having a kitchen without a trash can was revolutionary for McMaster.

“From that moment, I had this sense of fulfillment, this sense of purpose.” And so, McMaster’s own zero-waste odyssey began. “Since then, that’s my whole life,” he said.

His zero-waste restaurant, Silo, was born in the seaside town of Brighton in the U.K. and moved to East London’s über cool Hackney Wick section in 2019. It’s a spectacular space. And nearly everything with which Silo was built has been recycled. The handsome design features white walls, and the menu is projected against one of them (to save on paper menus). The floor is carbon-negative cork. The tabletops and bar are made from recycled packaging. Plates are upcycled plastic bags. There is a sophisticated design element and luxurious quality to everything. Perhaps, and maybe especially because McMaster thought he might become a fine artist like his father, he has a refined eye.

In any event, the food is, well, the main course in the display of zero waste.

Seated at a table overlooking the canal that runs by the industrial complex where Silo resides, McMaster explained, “You’re going to have a dessert tonight. It’s an ice cream sandwich. The ice cream is made from buttermilk. We’re churning butter for your bread and butter. Heritage grain from the farm is used to make the sourdough. The by-products from that first plate of food, the bran from the bread, become a wafer for your ice cream sandwich. And then the remains of the bread itself, we make a syrup from that. So, it’s closing the loop from three surplus products from the first course.”

The full-circle approach takes a lot of creativity. The outside leaves of cabbage that typically go to waste are made into a dish using fermented egg whites, for example. Egg whites also often go to waste. (“There’s only so much meringue you can make,” he said.) And portions matter, too: There is just the right amount of food on each plate.

The staff educates diners about each serving. It’s not pretentious. You actually feel good while fine dining and knowing that you’re being mindful. And that’s the whole point—conveyance.

“That mindfulness can be instrumental in how the shift in society will hopefully make the food system better. I’m big on what mindfulness can do,” he said.

The takeaway on minding waste is infectious and is something that can be carried home. “There’s all these basic tips like composting. If you can’t have it at your home, then connect to a local composting system. Or proper recycling. Understanding how your local recycling system works. Or freezing foods. Or batch cooking. There’s all these little things. They add up. They matter,” McMaster said. (For more tips, tutorials, and recipes, check out his Zero Waste Cooking School on YouTube or his book, Silo: The Zero Waste Blueprint.)

His ultimate mission is to hold out a culinary movement defined by principles of respect for the planet: “Waste is a symptom of an unsustainable food system, or any system, for that matter. The more waste there is, the more unsustainable our system is. So, it’s kind of a marker . . . A truly sustainable food system in the world would mean balance to the inputs and our relationship with natural resources. That includes our emissions. It’s all about creating harmony,” McMaster said.

In the back room of the restaurant, behind closed doors, he points out the garbage bin. It’s smaller than what many people have in their homes—and Silo serves hundreds of meals a week. And guess what? Those remains will get composted.

No bin.

Make no mistake, sticking to a slimmed-down food program doesn’t translate into a forced diet program; it simply better matches how much food you should get versus what you actually eat. And wasting less comes with a bonus: $1,500. That’s how much the average family of four could save in a year if they planned meals properly.

Obviously, our appetites vary, and sometimes we change our minds about the type of food we feel like eating, which leaves food fated for the bin. If you find yourself with an abundance of perfectly edible food, food banks are a great way to donate to those in need. They accept untouched food. And for home gardeners with excess produce, AmpleHarvest is a great organization to turn to. According to their website, they leverage technology so that home and community gardeners can “share their surplus harvests with nearby food pantries instead of letting them go to waste.” Food pantries register online and report what foods they need. Home gardener registrants respond and fill the request. It’s a super simple online matching system.

Dr. Jean Buzby, an expert in food loss and waste, said there is no single silver bullet to food waste; its effect is far and wide, touching nearly all aspects of our lives. “We’re talking about our humanity, really. It affects the climate, our use of resources. It touches the amount of finite arable land we have, fresh water, and food security. The scale of this is so massive with the growing world population. This is really a big deal,” she said.

But there is hope.

From Cool Food by Robert Downey Jr. and Thomas Kostigen. Used with the permission of the publisher, Blackstone Publishing. Copyright ©2024 by Robert Downey Jr. and Thomas Kostigen.