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Captain Planet

Raise the bar

In conversations with: Douglas McMaster

The Ozone team is always looking for opportunities to do things better. Better for people and better for the planet. Our sustainability journey is a constantly evolving one, and we love looking to our community to inspire us and “raise the bar” for environmentally-minded practices. Silo, a restaurant, bakery and coffee house in Brighton, is one friend of Ozone that does just that. Born from a desire to innovate the food industry, Silo’s “zero waste” approach is pioneering a new era in sustainability. Joe O’Connell, Head Chef at our Leonard Street eatery, visited Silo and caught up with Douglas McMaster, Head Chef and owner of Silo, to hear about Silo’s philosophy and techniques.

Silo’s Douglas McMaster has been a chef for over 15 years, hailing from the London institution St John. After working with Joost Bakker at Greenhouse in Melbourne, Douglas was inspired to create a venture with the environment at its philosophical core. Silo was born. After initially opening in Melbourne with Joost, Douglas returned to England and in 2014 he opened the United Kingdom’s first “zero waste” restaurant.

There are two key planks to Silo’s philosophy. The first is “zero waste”: Silo endeavours to eliminate waste by thinking “with the bin in mind”, trading directly with farmers, using reusable containers for deliveries, and using its composter, Bertha, to turn waste into compost used to produce further food. In doing so, Silo seeks to “close the loop” between those who grow and supply food, and those who consume it. The second plank is the concept of “pure foods born from clean farming”. Inspired by pre industrial food systems, Douglas believes that using seasonal, unprocessed foods allows the ingredients to speak for themselves to create delicious food.

Joe: The idea for a “zero waste” business really began in Melbourne with yourself and Joost Bakker – can you tell us a bit more about how you “got the bug”?

Douglas: When I was in Melbourne, there was this pop-up restaurant called Greenhouse (owned by Joost Bakker) and I heard this loud rock ‘n roll music coming from this construct that Joost had built with wild strawberries growing on the walls – thousands and thousands of them! It was a huge buzzing garden with bees, and it was an urban jungle and I thought “Wow! This is amazing”. I walked into the building and just thought “this is my future”.

I think I had always subconsciously had this respect for nature. St John’s, where I had worked previously, was so sustainable, although I hadn’t really pieced it together. St. John’s adopted “nose to tail” cooking, which is one of the best and most important sustainable practices you can do in the world of catering. I always think that big ideas are never “light bulb” moments. I think of it like a jigsaw puzzle: some pieces are bigger than others. There’s a person, a time, a place, an experience, an accident or whatever. They’re all pieces to this puzzle. St John’s was a big piece, and working at Noma in Copenhagen was lots of pieces because I was thinking about wild food. Then Joost had this idea of having a compost machine at Greenhouse.

“People say that “we can’t feed the world”. But that’s because we throw half of what we grow away.”

Joe: How difficult was it to establish yourself as a viable zero waste business? How did you get suppliers and producers on board?

Douglas: It was very difficult to begin with. With any radical idea, even if it’s simple, there is so much that you don’t think of when you actually do it in life. I literally put blood, sweat and tears into understanding the concept of “zero waste” when I was in Melbourne. I was like a detective trying to solve the mystery. I then came back to England and spent a year really digging into the concept. Then I had this real epiphany – the root of every problem I have in trying to achieve “zero waste” is industrial processing. Zero waste is limiting. I can probably only get 60% of what the restaurant around the corner can get because so much of everything is in a packet. That’s the way of the world. So we are limited because all of our ingredients are whole. I’ve got a couple of pigs hanging up downstairs! It forces you to think differently and I think our end product is defined by that. It’s very simple food but it’s quite original because we’re forced to think differently.

In terms of suppliers, you have to be a bit charming and you’ve got to make sustainable practices a win-win. That expression “know your enemy” is almost like “know your supplier”. You need to get into their shoes, understand what makes them tick and make sure that your requests are no more of a hindrance. For example, it’s very boring, but we need to understand the size of the crates that will fit in our suppliers’ vans.

Joe: Often, when people use an ingredient, they throw part of it away and think “I’ve made this out of this, so I don’t need the rest of this anymore”. How does Silo use by-products to help achieve “zero waste”?

Douglas: There is a philosophy in our kitchen – a way of thinking and questioning everything. It’s almost like a Buddhist state of mind. As soon as there is problem, we analyse the problem and adapt. We have this chocolate nib cake. Our chocolate is from the Dominican Republic and it’s sailed over with zero emissions and zero waste in these big slabs from my friend Abraham of Seaforth Chocolate Co. Now, 80% of Cacao is wasted as only 20% of the pod is used for chocolate. Abraham saves all the shells and nibs and stuff. So we had this chocolate nib cake recipe which had ground almonds in it and we thought “almonds are like £200 per kilo – so expensive and not zero waste”. So we thought about why ground almonds were good for this cake. You can’t actually taste them because the chocolate is so intense. So it’s about texture. We thought: what is this texture similar to? So we tried using crushed cacao nib instead of ground almonds. I could give you thousands of other little examples, such as how we use pear skins in a flapjack or turn waste coffee milk into cheese.

A closing word from Joe:
This approach to responsible cooking and sustainable living requires diligence and commitment and it is essential to economic viability and more importantly, environmental stability that we put in the effort now. As we strive to eliminate wasteful practices across the board, building relationships with like-minded people and businesses is the key. Collaborate and listen.