Environment

Changemakers: Dining that leaves no trace

Douglas McMaster has pioneered one of the world's first zero-waste restaurants

Waste-free supermarkets are popping up across the country, doing away entirely with packaging in an effort to stop the mass littering of the planet. But what if you fancy going out for dinner? Chef Douglas McMaster has already thought of that, pioneering one of the world’s first zero-waste restaurants and proving excellence can be sustainable.

In 2011, McMaster had worked at a few Michelin-starred restaurants and was working at a Melbourne establishment that was “great but very bad for issues around waste”. It was at that point he met artist Joost Bakker, who was creating buildings that grow food out of waste materials.

“We became friends very quickly and he asked if I wanted to cook in a new building he’d designed, the Greenhouse,” says McMaster, now 31. “Inevitably we got to talking about food, restaurants and waste, and he turned to me and said: ‘Do you want to open a permanent restaurant without a bin?’”

The artist already had some investment, so the duo got to work. What they came up with was Silo, a turbocharged version of an environmentally-friendly cafe, where the wine came in kegs and Australia’s abundance of natural resources meant bypassing the supply chain was easier than expected.

When a family member fell ill, McMaster moved back to the UK. He already had his sights set on what would become Silo in Brighton, but he discovered it was much more difficult to get that kind of project off the ground in England. The UK food industry is older and more hidebound while Australia’s “fresher” infrastructure means innovation is more welcomed, says McMaster. Meanwhile he was “foraging the streets for materials” because he had no extra cash.

McMaster eventually attracted investment and opened the Brighton establishment in 2014. The restaurant was zero-waste both in food and design, with an uncompromising focus on natural food from nearby that will never be thrown out. The furniture and fittings were upcycled pieces of furniture or building materials, with work benches made from the frames of filing cabinets, surplus plastic sheets for table-tops and plastic bags melted down to create plates.

All stock delivered to the restaurant came in reusable crates, pails, urns or sustainable containers and anything that wasn’t consumed was fed into Silo’s aerobic digester, which could generate up to 60kg of compost in one day.

And yes, there were no bins.

McMaster experimented with ways to upcycle food too. “In a kitchen you can turn scraps of vegetables into natural treacle,” he says. “The scraps are of very low value because they would just go on the compost heap, which is good, but not super valuable. But the ninja way to upcycle that is if you turn it into a syrup which is not too dissimilar to hoisin sauce. It’s literally just a process of boiling, straining and reducing.”

The biggest challenge, the entrepreneur chef admits, has been the small task of figuring the whole thing out. Coming up with an entirely new formula for infrastructure has taken years of trial and error, and is something he hopes to perfect with his next venture – he’s taking Silo to the capital.

With Silo launching in London on November 5, McMaster feels better about getting people through the door this time around. “When you start talking about waste, people might think: ‘Good on you – very noble, but doesn’t sound delicious.’”

But the world has changed in just a few years. Where once McMaster found it difficult to set up partnerships in the supply chain (“farmers were like, ‘It’s not convenient for me to work that way so why would I do it? Why would I put milk in a pail to accommodate you and your business?’”) the environmental effort now dominates the global agenda. “David Attenborough doing Planet Earth was the moment everything got easier for my business,” he laughs.

“I did a bunch of things, some of which were good, some of which weren’t, and I’m going to focus on the things that worked. It’s time for an evolution. I was a 26-year-old with a vision but not much common sense then. Now I have a tiny bit more of that plus a killer team.

“Zero-waste dining is still a bit of a novelty, though less than it was. We’re determined to let our business outshine the novelty of how we run the restaurant – that’s the only way zero-waste anything will become the norm.”

We want you to nominate someone you think is going to be making a difference in 2020. Find out more about how to put the most inspiring thinkers, agitators and innovators forward for our top 100 here.

Illustration: Matthew Brazier

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