With grocery shopping advised to be done as infrequently as possible in line with social distancing measures against coronavirus, and many items still in short supply from stockpiling, the fight against food waste has never been more topical. Read on for tips from chef Tristan Welch of Parker’s Tavern restaurant at Cambridge’s University Arms hotel — and join him for a cook-along via Parker’s Tavern’s Instagram every Thursday at 6pm. Followers can request a recipe, and ingredients will be posted the day before. Welch will also be hosting a ‘culinary clinic’, whereby followers can ask questions via Instagram Stories each Monday, on everything and anything from making meals out of leftovers to creating store cupboard surprises, and receive answers on Tuesday.
At 6.30pm on an October Monday night, Parker’s Tavern glows with warmth and light from astronomy-style chandeliers against the cold and dark of Parker’s Piece common outside, filled with table chatter. Down one side, diners expectantly survey a set menu proffering the likes of cod cheeks and braised pork; so far, so trendy.
But upon closer inspection, certain descriptions jump out. “Stale”, “second-grade” and “overripe” are not adjectives usually used to entice restaurant-goers, but this is no usual menu. Rather, it is that of the second “Rubbish Cooks” supper club from head chef Tristan Welch at Parker’s Tavern, a “contemporary British brasserie” at the Martin Brudnizki-designed University Arms, aiming to highlight the issue of food waste.
The format is simple: on the last Monday of every month, guests can pay £20 (a cover charge, plus £5 donation to local charity Jimmy’s Cambridge homeless shelter) for a multi-course meal made from ingredients commonly considered waste. Welch reminds his suppliers on Friday to give them anything not sold, and on Monday morning, his team members find out what they’ll have to work with, allowing around eight hours to plan a menu and cook it. “It’s more than you get for Ready Steady Cook,” he laughs.
• Read the full review: University Arms, Cambridge
I am told tonight’s event sold out in minutes. First on the table is a bowl of large, roughly torn hunks of (stale) bread, toasted and doused in oil, rosemary and salt – the perfect companion to a warming bowl of “brown” black cabbage soup. The leaves of this cavolo nero are at a point in their life cycle that renders them unsellable – and consigned to the bin (hopefully compost, but nonetheless).
It’s a hot topic, certainly, with food waste accountable for four times as many carbon emissions as flying (8 per cent as opposed to 2 per cent), and one that is high on the restaurant’s agenda generally. Welch tells me they purchase one cow per month, butcher it on site and use virtually every part of it.
Days after Unilever and the charity Hubbub revealed in the run-up to Hallowe’en that 15 million pumpkins are carved by UK households and not eaten, I see Welch outside on Parker’s Piece filming a video on making pumpkin soup from the leftovers of a carving competition held beforehand. His top tip? Use pepper to counter it being watery.
The inspiration for Rubbish Cooks came two years ago, after a conversation with a meat supplier who said chicken legs could be considered “surplus to requirements”. I am as astounded to hear this as he was then – yet struggle to think of the last time I saw one on a restaurant menu.
“It’s about changing what is seen as desirable,” says Welch, in reference to the braised pork shin being served as a third course tonight, melting off the bone, along with wonky vegetable and (misshapen) bean casserole. Before that are the cod cheeks and collars, with crushed yellowing sprouting broccoli, rich with chilli and velvety saltiness from dented tins of anchovies.
The endeavour has not been without its challenges. “When I first started doing this, I thought I knew the solution, but it’s more complicated than that.” Every dented tin must be checked to ensure it has not been pierced; use-by dates still have to be adhered to for health and safety reasons. “It’s not about blame, it’s about everyone taking small steps.”
I ask what Welch thinks could help his way of thinking to spread beyond his restaurant and into people’s homes, and he laments that our current “time and age of convenience” poses a considerable challenge, but notes the rise of the “weekend chef”, time-poor during the week but foodie, eco-conscious and keen to experiment on Saturdays and Sundays. He’s had interest from supermarket buyers, which of course is where change on a mass scale can really be effected.
Welch also concedes that for the sake of the planet, meat consumption needs to decrease – but believes in an ecosystem, along with responsible sourcing and doing everything possible to minimise waste. He describes food waste from luxury hotels specifically as “obscene”, and recounts tips he’s picked up over his career on the small things that can be done to alleviate the problem, starting with making sure staff are fed on site.
Welch circulates throughout the evening, chatting with diners about why they’ve come along and how they’re finding the food. The consensus, certainly, is that you’d never guess any of it was made from “waste”. I overhear a cool woman on the table next to me enthusing about the “journey” the fig leaf ice cream took her on, served for dessert alongside overripe banana parfait, cushioned in gooey browned meringue.
The journey Welch wants to see Rubbish Cooks go on is to become a movement that inspires other restaurants. Not to mention diners – for if everyone here goes away, like me, newly motivated to find ways to make what’s in their kitchen go that bit further, it’s certainly a start.
The next Rubbish Cooks will be on Nov 25, with a break in December, and then the last Monday of every month from January. Tickets are on sale from the first Monday of every month; £20 per person, excluding drinks; to book, email [email protected] Double rooms at the University Arms from £173.