Waste not, want more: why leftovers are blazing a trail to a new foodie trend

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Victoria Gray
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We’re probably all guilty of wasting food from time to time – vegetables that have sat in the bottom of your fridge for a bit too long, or the leftovers from that not-too-satisfying Sunday dinner, or even the day you forgot to pick up your packed lunch for work.

But thanks to food blogs, apps and even Pinterest, using up leftovers is becoming easier and easier, with hundreds of recipes going up each day, as well as batch cooking hacks to help you minimise any waste.

And this is a trend that isn’t limited to home cooks. Entire restaurants and food companies dedicated to waste are not only opening, but thriving, thanks to a growing appetite to address the worldwide problem of food waste.

Why the waste?

Food waste is tragically prevalent around the world, with over one third of all food grown in the world wasted each year. The waste comes down to the impossibility for farmers to meet the exact weekly or monthly crop requirements from supermarkets and food suppliers. Due to unpredictable climates meaning that not all crops will produce a yield, higher numbers of fruit and vegetables than technically required are grown and then submitted to harsh quality control from merchants.

Often fruit and vegetables will be rejected for being too ripe – and therefore not being able to last on the supermarket shelf for days - or because they don’t fit cosmetic standards, like being able to fit into machines for pre-cut vegetable packs. 

Fighting food waste with relish

Rubies in the Rubble is a company that uses supermarket waste food to create chutneys and relishes. Founder Jenny Dawson tells, “It was a simple fact that compelled me to start the business. We are wasting one third of all the food we produce, whilst one billion people go to bed hungry. I’m not saying I know the solution but there is definitely improvements we can make to the current system.”

“This was made alarmingly clear when visiting an early-morning market one morning in November 2010. Along from the bustle of the traders were the piles of unwanted fruit and veg- mange tout from Kenya, mangoes from the Philippines, tomatoes from Turkey, cranberries for California which bypassed the bustle of traders and headed straight for the bin! And what really saddened me was that much of these, though potentially with a short shelf life, were perfectly edible.”

“It was a simple fact that compelled me to start the business: we are wasting one third of all the food we produce, whilst one billion people go to bed hungry” - Jenny Dawson, founder of Rubies in the Rubble

The company now works with farmers who supply to supermarkets and have to cast aside significant amounts of produce which doesn’t meet merchant standards. Currently it sells three relishes nationwide in Harvey Nichols, Ocado and Waitrose – as well as numerous specialist retailers – with a range of ketchups and hot sauces to launch later in the year. Their products prove that food does not have to be perfect on the outside to become something delicious.

Waste cafes are not rubbish

But this is not the only way to tackle food waste. The Real Junk Food Project is a nationwide initiative that opens cafes serving food collected from waste from allotments, food banks, restaurants, cafes, food photographers, events and functions.

The café aims to challenge the grey areas in food regulation – the catering industry, for example, is responsible for waste on account of strict health and safety laws. By making use of food that would otherwise have been binned, the Real Junk Food Project invites people to think about what counts as truly wasted.

“We intercept food that is past its expiration date and use our own judgement on whether we believe the food is fit for human consumption or not, by smelling it, tasting it and visually inspecting it. We do not turn food away simply because it has ‘expired’, but we will never serve food that we believe is unfit for human consumption,” they say.

From cast-off to cocktail

And this is far from a grassroots trend. Even the exclusive Duck and Waffle in London has created a new cocktail menu called ‘Urban Decay’, inspired by ingredients that would have been wasted in the kitchen. Cocktails include the Green Bloody Mary, made with a tomato leaf vodka, and the Breakfast With Hemingway, made with burnt toast. Head of spirits and cocktail development Richard Woods explains the inspiration to “I wanted to highlight the importance of choice and what we consider to be by-products of everyday life.

“For example thrown away stems of tomatoes, used coffee grinds, burnt toast and asparagus ends are all elements used in these drinks that people would ordinarily throw away. Just because society assumes they are waste doesn’t mean they can’t still be used and full of flavour.

“I’ve always been both a conscience drinker and bartender - be it making homemade ingredients that uses less sugar or only using seasonal produce. Often the most flavourful and impactful of ingredients aren’t necessarily what is expected.”

But fear not, nothing is being pulled out of the bin at Duck and Waffle: “None of the ingredients I use are in any way unsafe, they just tend to be elements that most people would naturally throw away like asparagus ends, avocado stones, banana skins, burnt toast crusts.”

“Often the most flavourful and impactful of ingredients aren’t necessarily what is expected” - Richard Woods, head of spirit and cocktail development at Duck and Waffle

What's next for waste?

A high-end restaurant like Duck and Waffle choosing to address food waste hints that leftover food no longer holds the taboo it used to. As people connect to their food more by shopping seasonally at farmer's markets, it seems easier to judge whether it can be used, rather than sticking blindly to the supermarket sell-by dates. Food is beginning to be valued as a commodity to be enjoyed once again - something that needs to apply to the ingredients used, as well as the finished product. 

As Rubies in the Rubble argue “a big part of the problem is our attitude towards food – we need to start seeing it as a precious, natural resource that needs to be enjoyed and treasured. If consumers changed their attitudes it would have an effect throughout the supply chain.”

Although it could be seen as risky to veer away from the labelled use-by dates, Real Junk Food assures us that “every single cafe that is part of the Real Junk Food Project network adheres to all Environmental Health regulations within their respective establishment. This includes transporting food safely, storing it safely, cooking and re-heating it safely. A majority of our cafes in the UK have a 3 or more star rating from their local health authority.”

An easy way to get people to change their attitudes is to change the price, as can be seen by the amount of people rallying around the reduced shelf in the supermarket, looking for a bargain they can pick up at the end of the day. The recently launched Good to Go app operates in a similar way, offering a cheap way to get hold of food that would otherwise have been wasted. It's a win-win situation.

The Real Junk Food project operate a pay-as-you-feel system, which as well as making it more inviting to try their produce means that they can also help the homeless or those who can’t afford an expensive meal out.

So do people mind less about eating supposedly waste produce? With more of a social conscience around food developing, we’ve become more open to different styles of cuisine, but we're also starting to get more touch with how food is produced.

Rubies in the Rubble have recently rebranded, updating the products’ packaging, and Director Alicia Lawson tells that “when we started [in 2011] we had to make use of the fact that our name is a metaphor for what we do. Now we’re free to use puns around the waste element of our food, we’re not shy of the associations.” 

Companies like Rubies in the Rubble and The Real Junk Food Project prove that it’s not only possible, but practical to save food from going entirely to waste. With a rise in the idea of independent, seasonal cooking, reducing food waste goes hand-in-hand with today’s foodie trends. And that’s not to say it can’t be gourmet and exciting, as Duck and Waffle’s Urban Decay menu beautifully illustrates.

For now, the trend is thriving: Rubies in the Rubble are ready to launch a new range, the Real Junk Food Project is approaching fifty locations of established cafés and pop-ups around the world.

Yet more similar projects are beginning too, from Silo, the Brighton-based zero waste café, to zero waste pop-up Tiny Leaf which opened in Notting Hill earlier this year and is now looking for new locations.

We, for one, can't wait to embrace this audacious new culinary revolution. 


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Victoria Gray

Victoria is a contributor for She covers lifestyle and food pieces for the site. When on the internet she can be found tweeting feverishly about Great British Bake Off, and offline she is never happier than when in the company of some wine and cheese.