Meet the man who runs a restaurant without a bin

Chef and restaurateur Doug McMaster has blazed a trail for the zero-waste movement. His restaurant, Silo, has an innovative and inspiring approach to food, farming and fermentation

He may not be a household name – yet – but Doug McMaster has been instrumental in getting across the zero-waste message, inspiring esteemed chefs such as Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York State and Christian Puglisi of Relæ in Copenhagen.

Disrupting restaurant norms is McMaster’s stock in trade. And the food? Dishes such as shiitake mushrooms with dumplings and mustard taste as good as they sound – and they look beautiful, too.

Back in 2012, Doug, who’s worked at St John and The Fat Duck, was challenged to run a pop-up restaurant without a bin. While making shortbread, he realised he’d need to source the raw, unpackaged ingredients directly from farmers. “It was the most delicious shortbread I’ve ever eaten,” says Doug. Two years later, he opened Silo in Brighton with the same zero-waste ethos.

The restaurant, which moved to Hackney in east London in 2019, works directly with its suppliers. Food is delivered in glass or paper packaging and the furniture is made from recycled materials. This sourcing method makes financial as well as environmental sense. Milk, bought by the pail, is used to churn butter and make yogurt – cheaper than buying the finished products. Flour is milled on-site and bread baked in-house. The daily menu is projected onto the wall (no paper) and changes are made in real time as ingredients run out. “It’s an evolving, breathing, living menu,” Doug explains.

“It’s true to the supply chain and the reality of what’s come from the ground that day.” Everything is used: they make miso from potato skins, and vegetable treacle (which Doug says tastes like hoisin sauce) from veg trimmings. The restaurant weighs everything and uses a formula for serving sizes. Any food scrapings are sent for composting at a supplier farm.

“Waste is a failure of the imagination, because we haven’t had enough vision and creativity to find a solution,” asserts Doug.

According to the government’s Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), £3 billion in food is thrown away yearly by the food service industry. “Some of the waste I’ve seen is criminal,” says Doug. “But with imagination and intelligence we can turn it into a precious end product.”

The United Nations is calling on the industry to halve food waste per capita by 2030, and WRAP says achieving this goal would deliver an annual reduction in UK farm-to-fork food waste of 3.5 million tonnes, saving £10 billion of food a year. It hasn’t been easy but, encouragingly, Doug says the ideals he’s been seeking – such as sourcing produce without packaging and direct delivery – are becoming less of a challenge. “To be able to cook and serve food the same day it’s picked is amazing. We’re a drop in the ocean, but hopefully we contributed to that shift.”

This feature appeared in the February 2020 issue of delicious. Magazine [PDF]