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Sustainable food

Tom Hunt, conscious chef and award-winning food entrepreneur speaks to SideStory

Tom Hunt, conscious chef and award-winning food entrepreneur speaks to SideStory

Tom Hunt—Bouteco Hero—eco-friendly chef, food waste activist and champion of charities galore, gets to the root of how we can eat our way to a better world. Sitting down with Livia Solustri at SideStory—Bouteco’s favourite hosts of creative experiences—Tom tells us what we can all do to reduce the UK’s 20 million tons of annual food waste. 

Tom Hunt’s mission is to champion root-to-fruit eating, and to reduce waste by using every scrap of produce. Actually, that’s just the start of The Natural Cook author and Soil Association ambassador’s vision. If that wasn’t uplifting enough—big smiles, good humour and an infallible determination shine through in his work and his energy, too. Did we mention he also works with Feeding the 5000, FareShare, FoodCycle and StreetSmart? And his London restaurant Poco was 2016's Sustainable Restaurant of the Year as well as Best English and Best Independent at the Food Made Good awards.

Tom, you just got back from Nepal where you were helping Action Against Hunger. Your life is a whirlwind of projects supporting sustainable food and zero-waste initiatives.

My ambition and drive is to improve the environment by helping people reconnect with their food. The goal is to create a more conscious and joyous global community and achieving a more sustainable future. These days I’ve taken a step back from chef life to focus on the broader vision and purpose. I spend most days online, doing interviews and finding ways of making connections for the cause. I write a few articles a month, create recipes and shoot and style, and visit the restaurants. As an optimist and a food entrepreneur, I’m always devising new ideas and projects. I’ll throw an idea out there and see if anyone catches it. 

What are you most excited about right now?

A book proposal! I have a concept I want to explore which is looking at food holistically and marrying health and sustainability in a recipe book.

And an idea for a ‘handmade restaurant’ in which everything is handmade – the walls, the cutlery, the crockery... the idea is to look to the past and see what we can bring forward into a sustainable future. Nothing made by machines, not even any fridges! Everything cooked around the central fireplace and no electricity so all ingredients will be fresh, fermented or cured. Hyperlocal and focusing on indigenous products. It could potentially be nomadic – I want to pilot it in one location for a year or so.

Acclaimed chefs such as you and Dan Barber are drawing attention to how we could be collectively paying attention to food waste. Should other chefs join the cause, or are you more concerned with educating home cooks on how to make better use of food?

I think of my audience as the public. Chefs now have the privilege of being able to communicate with the public, so the more of us who subscribe to cooking sustainably and talking about it the better. Chefs in the best UK restaurants are already offering high-quality, sustainable produce. Although often they’re not talking about the sustainability. Their focus—and not wrongly—is the taste and quality, and that’s what they want to talk about. Only a few of us are openly championing sustainability.

Congratulations for becoming a vegetarian! Can carnivores still be sustainable and eat animal protein?

Going vegetarian was a very personal choice. My message is about reconnecting with food and nature to learn its true value. I realised I needed to genuinely know the origin of the meat, and when you eat out a lot, it can be hard. So I really wanted to acknowledge my connection with the animal. It’s worth saying, If I were offered meat in Nepali village because they’ve slaughtered it to celebrate our arrival, I’d share the meal out of respect and gratitude.

We can eat meat sustainably, and I’m an advocate for good sustainable animal agriculture. But we need to change how we do it. We have to eat much less meat and only on special occasions. Its price will continue to increase as the cost of energy and production rises. I hope this brings a natural shift towards eating more veg, and pushes a diverse range of grains into our diet. As we become more attuned to the idea of biodiversity and farming on a commercial scale we’ll be more resilient to a sustainable farming system. As part of this cost sensitivity many are shifting to meat substitutes, although I’m not a fan of imitation products. I like food intervened with as little as possible.

Price vs quality. Any tips for environmentally minded home cooks?

Falling for lower prices can be a false economy.  The focus of my writing and study is around eating and shopping for home cooks and consumers. There is a false dichotomy in having to choose quality or price…

  • Buy seasonal produce at markets, if it's abundant, is priced competitively with grocery stores.
  • Supermarkets are built to encourage spending. You buy things you might not need, or things packaged into quantities that force you to buy more than you may want—making you spend more.
  • Through my ‘root to fruit’ eating philosophy I’m trying to communicate that eating for pleasure, and connecting with the origin of ingredients, and being proud of where our food comes from, will produce less waste. This saves on costs, making healthy and sustainable dietary improvements cost-neutral while helping regenerate the environment. We waste 20–30% of the food we purchase. If we invest in high-quality produce that we truly value—high welfare and organic produce that we eat in its entirety including skin, leaves and stalks—we save money spent on that wasted food and all of the resources used to produce it. We even prevent social and environmental destruction caused by the food we have forfeited.
This process of reconnecting with our food and its origin creates a butterfly effect: the more we build a connection with our food and value it, the more good it does for the environment and our collective health.

You joined forces with likeminded chefs as part of the wastED pop-up at Selfridges. Chef or dish you found special? 

[Tom smiles and pulls out the one-page paper menu from the night.] Look—one side has a map of all the different things they are using. The other side is the actual menu. What was inspiring was the innovation – look what Michelin-starred chefs from world-class restaurants can do when they put their minds to an environmental issue.

90% of each dish truly is a byproduct or an ingredient that people would never use, like the bloodline from a tuna or the core from a broccoli or an old battery hen! WastED’s one pre-set menu invites guest chefs to do their own dish, which they provide the ingredients for. They didn’t have as many vegetarian dishes as I would have liked, but they worked with incredible ingredients.

The spiralising trend has resulted in vegetable cores going to waste, and the juicing trends discard the husks and pulps. WastED turned spiralised cores into a pretty dish, and fruit and veg pulp into a vegetable cheeseburger.

My English twist on Dan Barber’s ‘rotation risotto’ was a ‘rotation porridge’ using spelt and rye from trial crop grains sourced through Gilchesters Organic farm, topped with clover, their rotation crop.

You’ve undertaken a 30-day no-packing minimal-waste challenge. Any learnings to share?

There is no such thing as zero waste, really. It’s just a great way to communicate the idea. In the industrial food system there is no such thing as zero waste. Every seven weeks we produce our own bodyweight in rubbish—by reducing the packaging we consume, we can have a huge impact. This journey has taught me of the power and impact of the individual in achieving sustainable outcomes.

Every seven weeks we produce our own bodyweight in rubbish—by reducing the packaging we consume, we can have a huge impact. This journey has taught me of the power and impact of the individual in achieving sustainable outcomes.

Waste-conscious start-ups are making a different. What businesses are making a real effort to champion the cause? How can consumers support the initiatives?

 The majority of major supermarkets have taken up the challenge of reducing their waste—although lots of the time their solution is to send food to anaerobic digestion instead of stopping it from actually spoiling and feeding it to people. They need to improve that. The charity FareShare in the UK is significantly helping with food-waste reduction—help them by volunteering.

Thank you to SideStory for sharing Tom Hunt's wisdom and ideas. 'Every city has a story, and every story has a SideStory. The experiences we’ve crafted show you the city through the eyes of its creative movers and shakers — our SideStory Insiders.' An authentic and sustainable way to learn about a destination is to spend time with their insiders.