“I’m not changing the world,” says Sabine Spindler. But in her corner of the world, she’s doing her best - in some very delicious and clever ways - to make the most of all the food that passes through her hands.
Food waste is a huge problem: globally, 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted every year; 793 million people are undernourished; yet more than 2 billion people are overweight and high-income countries, such as Australia, have seen the greatest increase in obesity. It’s not only wasteful but expensive – Australians discard up to 20 per cent of the food they purchase. And who wants to throw money in the bin?
Some high-profile names have become food waste champions - including Michelin-starred Italian chef Massimo Bottura with his Food For Soul soup kitchens – but there are food waste heroes in our midst, too.
Sabine Spindler is one of them, and her inventiveness is impressive. At Sydney’s Cornersmith cafes, She’s turning discarded steamed milk into ricotta and fermented pineapple skins into Mexican soda drinks. To many, she’s known as the Waste Warrior.
“In my early years as a chef I never thought this educational side of cooking would be part of my job,” discloses Sabine. “I’m not changing the world but I do have a responsibility to think about how we eat.”
Sabine was born in Germany and completed her apprenticeship there in the late 1990s. She sashayed from one European Michelin-star restaurant to the next, ending up at the UK’S acclaimed The Waterside Inn. In 2004, Sabine came to Australia for a career sea change, beginning at Rockpool but after a few years realised fine dining was no longer her soul food. She adopted a more proletariat approach and ran the kitchen at Sonoma Bakery for four years as well as working casually in the kitchen of livestock distributor, Feather and Bone.
In that kitchen she met Alex Elliot-Howery, owner of Marrickville’s neighbourhood café Cornersmith. Alex was preserving on her day off and “pretty quickly we realised we were thinking very similarly about food”, remembers Sabine.
Soon enough, in 2013, Sabine became Cornersmith’s head chef and began sharpening her non-waste skills among the café’s ethos of sustainability, local produce, no processed foods and pickling and preserving to reduce waste. Cornersmith is also known for its trading system, where locals exchange their homegrown produce for a meal or Cornersmith’s own house-made products.
“People bring in so much – there are still a lot of people with gardens in that part of Sydney [Marrickville] and they’re often overwhelmed by the amount of produce they have.”
Cornersmith’s Annandale café opened in 2016. The same philosophy applies but Sabine has nudged it along with a no-meat menu. “Marrickville has always been 80-90 per cent vegetable-based food. This is where you can display seasonality, as well as show people they can have a tasty meal without meat.”
Of her ambitions as the Waste Warrior, Sabine says, “I want people to question this idea of pushing food to the end of the board and throwing it in the bin. I had been doing it myself for years.”
Waste not, want not
So what does she do with all this unloved food? “Leftover herb stems are finely chopped and put through salads as a flavouring,” she explains. The Breakfast Bowl features fig leaf-infused yoghurt with figs, plums and shiso – after foraging for the figs, Sabine makes a syrup from the leaves and infuses the yoghurt with its intense flavour. “When we come to the end of our Heidi Farm Tilsit cheese, we put the rind under vegetable oil and let it sit for five months – it becomes a cheesy oil in which we fry our mushrooms,” explains Sabine.
At any one time, you can find capsicum skins, kale stems or stone fruit kernels being preserved. The menu is an exercise in ingredient synergy. “We use peas on one menu then we put the pea shells under a fermenting brine and add it to a soy milk-based aïoli on the next menu.”
Sabine turns her Waste Warrior efforts to suppliers’ produce as well. “Suppliers share a similar philosophy. Our juice supplier Rainy Lane always has leftover pulp so we dehydrate it, then pass it onto our other supplier Nonie’s Food who bakes bread with the turmeric, ginger and carrot pulp.”
Elsewhere on Australia’s cooking scene, the uptake to reduce waste may not be grabbing headlines but it is happening up and down the dining spectrum. Lennox Hastie is co-owner and chef at Firedoor in Sydney’s Surry Hills. It’s Australia’s first fire-powered restaurant with a strong focus on the ingredient and a sincere goal to use every part of the animal or vegetable in order to limit waste.
“Ingredients are increasingly expensive and time-consuming to grow, so we need to maximise what we get out of them,” says Lennox. “Murray Cod is in season so we roast the heads in the wood oven – they’re equally if not more delicious than the rest of the fish. We also make our own butter so we use the buttermilk to make ice-cream or use it in a dressing.”
So how does the home cook make this magic happen? It’s not lost on Sabine that it’s easier to reduce waste in a commercial kitchen: “Trying not to waste food is a logistics challenge. You need storage space; you need imagination. There’s a constant thinking ahead – this is what our grandparents did when they preserved.”
Sabine’s German heritage certainly informed her instinctive no-waste behaviour. “It has a lot to do with my German history. My grandmas survived the Second World War, which created a non-nostalgic background of not wasting food. That was passed on to my parents and then to my generation,” says Sabine.
Cornersmith is taking its focus on “less waste, more flavour” to a broader audience with its cooking school. Sabine hosts workshops throughout the year – her next talk is on 10 May. Discover timetables for the cooking school here and community talks here. And a second Cornersmith cookbook with a strong focus on waste reduction will be released later in 2017.
“We didn’t invent any of these waste reduction processes – we’re looking to other cultures to see what they do,” reflects Sabine. “To fight waste, as chefs, we have to do something together.”
Sabine’s Top 5 food saving tips for home cooks
• Structure your shopping – buy smaller amounts and seasonally at a market to support local producers and buy food that is in season
• Store food properly – wrap herbs and sturdy vegetables in damp cloths, use more fragile vegetables earlier than others
• Use stems and more fibrous parts of vegetables in a ‘no waste ferment’ or chop them finely and pour quick pickling brine over them
• Flavour vinegars with leftover herbs and stems, small bits of ginger and turmeric, or older berries
• Cook vegetable stock with off-cuts/tops/bottoms of root vegetables, onions, garlic and saved herb stems
Want to follow Sabine on her waste reduction mission? Follow her here: https://www.instagram.com/wastewarrior/ Or take inspiration from Cornersmith’s pickling and bread chef: https://www.instagram.com/ppmak/
It might be more unusual to see fruit instead of vegetables in a pickling liquid, but we pickle lots of fruit and find the vinegar offsets its sweetness beautifully.
This potato salad uses all the elements we have on hand to make a light and bright salad: our Cornersmith mustard and pickles, plus left-over pickling liquid for the dressing. If you find you don’t have quite enough pickling liquid, you can top up to the required amount with a good-quality white wine vinegar. For a heartier version of this salad, add some pan-fried speck or bacon and mix a little mayo into the dressing.
Ever since we started making our own mustard at Cornersmith, production hasn’t stopped! As well as selling lots in our shop at the picklery, we use it in all sorts of dishes in the cafe, including our take on a Reuben sandwich, our ploughman’s plate and with pork chops. We tweak our mustard according to the time of year, using sage in autumn, horseradish or rosemary in winter, and thyme in spring. Mustard is such a great food to make from scratch, with lots of opportunities to experiment with different flavours, so feel free to try using other herbs, or to add freshly chopped herbs when serving. A jar of homemade mustard also makes an impressive gift.