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DREW NOCENTE HAS just launched a new menu at his restaurant Salted and Hung. It's got nothing to do with seasonal produce, as chefs are wont to do, nor is he out to show how he has evolved as a chef new techniques or inspiration from say, his latest food travels.
His new menu revolves around the theme of 'minimal waste' - that is, dishes created that make use of every bit of food 'waste' that all restaurants face every day.
He says that he's been mindful about food wastage ever since he opened the restaurant in 2016.
"It takes me back to growing up on the farm, where we never wasted anything," says Chef Nocente. "We used every single part of the animal to make something. As chefs, it is about respecting the produce - animals die so we can eat. I look at it as teaching the next generation of chefs about reducing waste - to use one product to create many dishes."
His dish of Grouper, Infused Soy, Charcoal & Fermented Prawn Butter from the new menu uses fish bones which are normally thrown away. Grouper bones are infused with soy sauce for 30 days to make an aromatic sauce, and then dehydrated to form crisp crumbs as garnish. The remaining fish bones are then turned into a stock that is used to steam-bake the grouper.
Over at Magic Square, chefs Desmond Shen and Abel Su have both worked in farms and know "how much effort goes into planting, growing and harvesting -we have a deep respect for farmers and producers."
Adds Chef Shen, "Firstly, we try to use everything as a form of respect. Secondly, we realised that off-cuts and trims have a mother lode of flavour. When I first made pea shell miso, I never thought it would taste nutty with hints of peanut butter. When I bit into papaya seeds, I didn't know they would taste spicy and piquant. There is so much potential and flavour to be unlocked in the weird and non sought-out parts of food."
In their case, necessity is the mother of invention since the menus at Magic Square go at S$78 for nine courses, so they can't afford to waste anything. Not only does it challenge their skills as chefs, they save as much as 25 to 30 per cent of their food cost this way.
"Food wastage is an ongoing problem in kitchen - if we act more responsibly and care about the environment, chefs can really make a difference," says Andrew Walsh, chef-owner of CURE.
"One of the ways to do this is to use ingredients that are perceived as 'bad' or 'imperfect' in consumers' eyes. It's up to us chefs to make something great out of them."
Walsh has advocated "minimising and eradicating food waste" since he opened CURE in 2015 and does this by curating his menus based on seasonal products and speaking to suppliers about excess produce. Suppliers, he says, are usually eager to sell their extra produce which would otherwise go to waste.
In his seasonal White Asparagus, Burrata, Caviar dish, discarded peeled asparagus are used to make a milk foam. Another dish, Potato, Seaweed, Soil, makes good use of potato peels which are dehydrated. Crumbs from its homemade sourdough are added to a Slow Cooked Egg dish to bulk up and add texture to the smooth smoked potato espuma.
For Group Executive Chef Seumas Smith of Maggie Joan's, reducing waste means being smart about using products. For example, he smokes rendered fat from beef trimmings and adds it to their butter. He also uses leftover whey from making ricotta to enrich curry sauce for the staff meal - he has also recently crafted a smoked ricotta ice cream from it. Chicken fat is skimmed from the stock and tossed with day-old sourdough breadcrumbs before finishing in the oven till dried and crispy. It is mixed with fresh parsley, tarragon and lemon zest to crust fish.
"We live in a world with limited resources. It is our job as a chef not only to use our creativity to transform what some people might call "odd bites" into tasty food, but also to promote this concept of giving something a second thought before throwing it away," says Archan Chan, executive chef of LeVeL33.
As the world's highest urban microbrewery, they generate a large amount of spent grain. Rather than having it thrown away (this can typically be used to feed cattle, but well, this is Singapore), Chef Chan puts it to good use. She blitzes it finely for flour to make spent grain flatbread; mixes it with coffee powder, vinegar, oil and spices to make "soil" for baking heirloom carrots; and she can also cook it with rice and process it to a paste, then dehydrating and frying into crisp chips.
For Chef Nocente, it's not just about saving money. "We do it to push ourselves, to push boundaries to do better. We have designed the menu to reduce food wastage by creatively using the 'whole hog' - be it pig, cow, bird or fish - from protein to innards, skin to bone. We constantly ask ourselves what can we do with the things we throw away." Prawn shells are used to make fermented prawn butter; meat trimmings and fats are rendered down to make natural oils; the same for pork fat to make lardo.
Emanuele Faggi, Head Chef of Zafferano Italian Restaurant & Lounge, spent five years at the two Michelin-starred Cracco Ristorante in Milan, where chef-owner Carlo Cracco would check the bin every night to ensure no useful parts of an ingredient were discarded.
In the Zafferano kitchen, powders that give great umami to dishes are made from skins of onions, tomato, potato, capers, carrot, used coffee beans and lobster head coral. Parmesan cheese rinds are dried and topped with uni cream and nori flakes and served as snacks to diners; rice that they use for storing truffles would be made into rice crackers or cooked for staff lunches.
"I feel strongly about the term 'food waste'," says Chef Shen. "It has a negative connotation and I feel that changing the way we label it is the first step to a higher thought process. Instead of 'waste', we should address them as ingredients per se (eg. tops, seeds, peels, trimmings), so we feel the pinch when it's being thrown out."
With more chefs following suit, fine dining could take on a whole new meaning.