FOOD, LIKE FASHION, tends to rise up. The peasant vittles of yesterday often become the gourmet meals of tomorrow. For instance, lobster was so plentiful in the early years of this country’s history that it was given to slaves and prisoners. Once mere sustenance for tool-using scavenger hominids, bone marrow got its own special silver spoons by the 18th century. And today, as even the most refined gourmands turn their attention toward sustainability, we have “upcycling,” a new word for the world’s grand tradition of turning food items that might have gone to waste into delicious new dishes. “The idea of turning humble ingredients into high-brow cuisine is not a new one,” notes upcycling pioneer and James Beard Award-winner Dan Barber of Blue Hill in Manhattan and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in upstate New York. “Cultures around the world have been doing it for centuries—just look at a dish like coq au vin, which was originally made with the tough meat of a male rooster. Modern restaurants look [to] these dishes for inspiration not because of the novelty of upcycling, but because they’re absolutely delicious.”
Barber’s WastED pop-up dining experience, in which famous chefs like Mario Batali, Grant Achatz and April Bloomfield create courses for a sustainability-starved public, doesn’t gild the lily when it comes to the menu. Dishes are spelled out: “Cured cuts of waste-fed pigs” served with “reject carrot mustard, off-grade sweet potatoes, melba toast from yesterday’s oatmeal” was a hit at his first event in 2015. WastED got such traction, it took over the rooftop at Selfridges London this year, featuring a who’s who of more than 30 famous chefs, among them Alain Ducasse, Gordon Ramsay and Raymond Blanc.
Every chef does some sort of upcycling, even if they aren’t using the exact term, points out Marc Johnson, the corporate chef at Red O in La Jolla. “We find ways to reuse the tortas and tortillas, such as putting them into mole sauces or [making] croutons out of the ones that don’t make it into the enchiladas,” he says.
If you’ve had sausage or certain types of charcuterie, you’ve eaten upcycled organ meats, an underappreciated food item, according to Island Prime executive chef Mike Suttles. “I think people are missing out by not enjoying them.” he says. “I think my parents’ generation was the last not to throw those out.” But that’s changing. Local chefs are discovering there’s not only delicious flavor but also true innovation in repurposing food items and making them essential parts of the meal—and sometimes the star.