One of the things most beloved about Anthony Bourdain was that you could never quite predict what he’d say, or do. He ate the strange things. Dived into situations that would scare the bejeezus out of many of us. Warned us that if we didn’t become better stewards of this planet, “you’re going to be chased down the street with, like, radioactive stray dogs chewing on your nut sack.”
Radioactive dogs? That’s Bourdain-speak for stop wasting food.
About one third – one third! – of all the food produced for human consumption around the world, approximately 1.3 billion tonnes every year, according the United Nations, is wasted.
How does this happen? And what can we – as home cooks, or chefs, or food producers, or whatever role we have in the food chain – do about it?
It’s what the Bourdain documentary Wasted! The Story of Food Waste (screening on Food Network Sunday September 23 at 9.30pm, then on SBS On Demand) set out to answer – in surprising ways. The film tackles both the problem, and possible solutions. There’s a visit to Seoul, in Korea, where each household’s food waste is weighed and recorded, with a fee charged each month; a trip to Japan, where chef Danny Bowien investigates how feeding pigs different food, including what might be considered waste, affects the taste of the meat; there’s a look at places turning yoghurt whey into electricity, and bread crusts that would normally be wasted into beer; and thoughtful, passionate, encouraging comments from Bourdain, Italy’s Massimo Botturra, writer Mark Bittman and other chefs, farmers and food thought leaders.
There are moments that might make you flinch. Danny Bowien eating bits of a pig that many people would never touch, including teats and uterus. Bourdain commenting “I don’t even know that we deserve to live, honestly.” He’s talking about why he initially hated the idea of being involved in the documentary, and questioning whether the “super radical environmentalists” might have a point when they say the earth would be better off if the human race disappeared, but there’s no denying it’s not easy to hear him say that, in the wake of his passing at the age of 61 earlier this year. **
Losing Bourdain makes his message no less relevant. After all, if a break-the-rules culinary rock star can hate the idea of a project, and then get on board, there must be something worth saying. There must be something we can do. Why else would Bourdain, and the others in the film, have bothered being part of it?
“I don’t like the idea of being an advocate, you know?” Bourdain, the project’s executive producer, says in the documentary.
“But as a culinary student, as a young cook, I came up in an old school system that abhorred waste as a fundamental principle. Meaning the whole enterprise was based on the idea of use everything. So along with picking up a knife for the first time and learning how to use it, how to scramble an egg, to do all of those basic things, that principle was pounded deep into my tissue. Use everything. Waste nothing.”
While Wasted! does dramatically illustrate the size of the world’s food waste problem, it also offers hope.
“One of the things that excites me most about food waste is how accessible it is. Everyone can participate. It doesn’t matter where you are, doesn’t matter how much money you have, you can reduce the amount of food waste. What that means is that you can put more money back into your own pocket. What it means is that you can reduce your own carbon footprint,” says food culture advisor and writer Eve Trurow Paul.
“I want to show everyone that impossible is nothing. We can do it,” says Massimo Bottura, of his work setting up the Refettorio Ambrosiano in Milan, a new model of soup kitchen that has saved huge amounts of waste.
The makers of the film have said they hoped to both generate more discussion about waste and to inspire audiences to do something. While most of us might not brew beer from bread, or set up a ground-breaking soup kitchen, the film also looks at things that are easier to put into action: embracing ugly produce, being clever with how we cook, composting our scraps.
“Why should you care? Look, that’s a really hard question,” says Bourdain.
“There’s a lot of ugly shit going on in this world that people are asking you to care about and I guess … You know, you either have empathy or you don’t. I guess, I would guess that the more you travel and the more you’ve seen of the world, how people live, how hard they fight every day to live, what people are willing to do to feed their families, maybe it becomes more personal.
“The fact is we are in a position to do something. It will have a tangible beneficial effect on the planet. So it’s not a lot to ask, I think. And one can enjoy the smug self-satisfaction of doing the right thing. How often do you get to do that?”
And if that all sounds not quite Bourdain-esque, never fear. There’s also this.
“I would have made this movie a lot darker,” says Bourdain, staring down the camera.
“I believe it’s perfectly OK to just scare the living shit out of people. Um, I’m much more of a scream at the top of my lungs, ‘We’re f***ing doomed …You’re going to be chased down the street with like radioactive stray dogs chewing on your nut sack if you don’t stop wasting chicken.’
“Maybe you should look at it like this. I’m a completely self-interested aesthete who’s worked with expensive ingredients their whole life, who’s travelled around the world, who understands what’s delicious and what’s not so delicious. And my entire argument, in participation in this film, is probably based on that.”
Watch Wasted! The Story of Food Waste on Food Network Sunday September 23 9.30pm, then on SBS On Demand.
** If this article has raised issues for you or if you’re concerned about someone you know, contact Lifeline 13 11 14, or Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636 or talk to a medical professional or someone you trust.