How food waste taught chef Shane Jordan to take cooking seriously
Shane Jordan, author of Food Waste Philosophy and volunteer at Food Cycle, a charity that serves surplus food to people at risk of poverty or social isolation, is a passionate advocate of reducing food waste. After reading his book, I was keen to find out more about his experience and how he thought we could tackle food waste. Shane took the time to speak with me directly.
SJ: Apart from a few evening cookery classes I mostly learnt from watching my mum and grandmother in the kitchen. I would ask them questions about why they were adding certain ingredients and learnt along the way. I did a series of informal apprenticeships volunteering in local cafes, but never formally trained as a chef. It’s quite normal for people with Caribbean or Indian descent to learn to cook from the family. You learn to make what you have always eaten from childhood. If you want to cater for large numbers, formal training can be very useful, but in a lot of cultures cooking is learnt by sight. People don’t measure out quantities, they just gauge it by looking at it.
SD: You mention in your book that you think cooking is an underrated skill. Do you think you underrated it yourself when you were younger?
SJ: Cooking has always been in the house so it’s easy to take it for granted. If no-one tells you that you are good at something, you don’t realise it’s a skill you have. It was only when I went to other places and cooked for people who didn’t already know my cooking, that people started making comments and I realised that I had a skill they appreciated.
SD: What do you think schools can do to encourage more young people to become chefs?
SJ: There is so much schools can do. I think they should be exploring cooking styles and techniques from different cultures, encouraging students to try different things. It’s important to teach creativity too. Encourage them to come up with their own dishes. Make it fun, but don’t neglect the more serious aspects of taking responsibility for sourcing good food and reducing food waste. If they are about to throw something in the bin, like coriander stalks, broccoli stalks or potato peelings, try cooking it and see whether they like it. TV and Youtube has placed being a chef as a career much more in the limelight and showed us what can be achieved, but still schools often favour more traditional academic subjects over subjects like cooking. They don’t grade it as rigorously or highlight those doing well as much. There’s still too much emphasis on academic intelligence. We need to create a better balance and recognise and encourage other forms of intelligence like creativity in cooking.
“The limitations of working with the food available triggered the creativity I had learnt as a child and it became a challenge for me.”
SD: What did you learn most from Food Cycle?
SJ: Well, I only really started to take cooking seriously after my experience at Food Cycle. Before that my cooking was mostly based on just vegetarianism and cooking for after vegetarians. Food Cycle brought it home for me how important cooking is. I had always associated food waste and people not having enough to eat with other countries. I’d never really considered that it could be a problem so close to home. At Food Cycle I was shocked by the amount food going to waste and that fact that it needed cooking, made me start taking cooking more seriously as a career. The limitations of working with the food available triggered the creativity I had learnt as a child and it became a challenge for me. It was also very rewarding to know that it helped other people. The kitchen was right where the food was served so you could see the diners watching you while you cooked for them and then when they were served you could see how grateful they were.
SD: Do you think that having the kitchen separated from the customers contributes to the “angry chef” persona you describe in your book?
SJ: It’s certainly true that the stress of working in a kitchen mixed with not having the interaction with the people you serve doesn’t help. It’s easy to bark orders in a closed kitchen, but people can also be passive aggressive and shoot looks at each other in an open kitchen. The main issue is that for many chefs speed is the only thing they think about. I’ve been in many kitchens which are more relaxed and take the view that the customer can wait that extra five minutes to enjoy food that has been created without a rush. TV also doesn’t help. They seem to get entertainment value out of presenting angry chefs. You only have to look at some of the visuals from the Great British Menu to see how they photograph the chefs unsmiling and with their arms folded.
SD: Do you think that the restaurant industry already does a good job of managing food waste, or are there areas that can be improved?
SJ: Restaurants are taking more notice of it, but they’ve always been incentivised to reduce food waste because it’s good for their bottom line. Nowadays it’s also good for their reputation.
SD: What have you found has made the biggest difference to reducing food waste in your own kitchen?
SJ: Planning – I always write a shopping list. Sometimes I’m spontaneous, but then I always know how I’m going to use what I get. Freezer bags are great for keeping trimmings in for making stock. Otherwise if your council has composting facilities, making sure you put everything you can in the caddy bin has a big impact.
SD: A lot of people might struggle to come up with successful flavour combinations to deal with waste. How would you help them?
SJ: It depends on the palate of the person. The most important thing is to have a herbs and spices rack with at least five different ones in it. If you have a basic tomato sauce, you can experiment by putting different spices in and figure out what flavours you like best with it.
SD: You mention in your book that healthy food is expensive, but not all healthy food is expensive – take a cabbage for example. Why do you have that impression?
SJ: It’s more about the publicity. You’re right cabbage is a healthy food, but it doesn’t have the reputation that kale does for example. My comment related primarily to those foods that are publicised as being particularly healthy and nutritious. Similarly when quinoa was introduced to the market, rice was devalued by comparison.
SD: Do you think that the social aspect of eating together puts more pressure on tolerance of other people’s dietary beliefs?
SJ: It depends a lot on how it’s done. I’ve been to some places where there was a spread of dishes so it was easy for vegetarians to mingle in and pick the food they wanted without looking like vegetarians. In other places there’s a vegetarian section or at a buffet a separate queue for vegetarians. While other places serve only meat and you have to ask someone for the vegetarian option. They might then shout out to one of their colleagues “hey John do we have any vegetarian food?” Things have improved a lot now, but even so food on the menu is often labelled vegetarian. One of my favourite things to ask my non-vegetarian friends is: “would you like a vegetarian pizza or a margarita pizza?” Invariably they say “I think I’ll go for the margarita pizza, thanks.” They’re both the same, but if you label something for a certain type of person, then other people won’t eat it. It’s like with cat food. It’s supposed to be just tinned tuna, but you wouldn’t eat it because it’s food for cats not for people. Increasingly now vegetarian options are described like other dishes but have a green v for vegetarians and a red v for vegans to the side.
One of my favourite things to ask my non-vegetarian friends is: “would you like a vegetarian pizza or a margarita pizza?” Invariably they say “I think I’ll go for the margarita pizza, thanks.”
SD: Would you ever have a restaurant of your own?
SJ: Probably not. If I did have the opportunity, I’d let my mum run it. She loves cooking. I’m more of a free spirit. I like to be in different places. I really enjoy doing cooking workshops instead.
SD: Are you thinking of writing another book?
SJ: Yes, I ran a raw food workshop recently and found it fascinating how people were surprised by good it could be. Even though it’s cold, the flavours are often intensified and the rush of flavours is more filling. Your jaw has to work harder, chomping on carrots for example, so you eat more slowly. And some ingredients like ginger give the illusion of warmth. I’d be interested to follow up the workshop by writing a book on raw food and its effect on the digestive system.