This restaurateur wants Canadians to eat 'garbage'

Brock Shepherd knows how much food restaurants waste because he's owned several. He's on a mission to do something about it.

'It's not too long ago that we lived differently.'

Brock Shepherd knows how much food restaurants waste because he's owned several. He's on a mission to do something about it. (Finn Shepherd Humphreys)

The truth is Brock Shepherd cringes a little at the idea of eating garbage, but he understands the appeal of the metaphor. 

After all, he's the creator of Trashed & Wasted, one of Toronto's most unusual food events this year.

Shepherd is challenging some of the city's finest chefs, brewers and distillers to transform their waste into delicious things to eat and drink — one appetizing way to address Canada's $31 billion food waste problem

His mission is food recovery, and he wants people to reconsider the contents of their green bin. Much of what gets thrown out is not garbage: it's entirely edible.

A tree-hugging entrepreneur

For 20 years Shepherd's called Toronto's Kensington Market home, living a few blocks north and owning restaurants and a brewing company on busy Augusta Avenue. A self-proclaimed "hippie and tree-hugger," he was initially attracted to the market's cheap rent and eclectic cultural mix.

What are other countries doing about food waste? 

  • In 2016, France banned food waste, forcing supermarkets to sign agreements with charities so no edible food ends up in the trash.
  • Italy's Senate has passed a law that makes donating food easier for businesses and offers tax credits to supermarkets and farmers who donate.
  • A Danish initiative encourages people to empty their freezers on a monthly basis and eat their UFOs — "unidentified frozen objects."

"The neighbourhood has a heart and soul of its own," says Shepherd. It's a long way from suburban Mississauga where he grew up, "in a perfectly nice and normal middle-class family."

Shepherd left school and home at 16 and made for Toronto where, for more than a decade, he waited tables. He spent years "itching" to open his own restaurant, and at 28 his dream became a reality with Azul on Bathurst Street. More restaurants would follow, including The Burger Bar in Kensington Market.

Going from server to owner shifted his perspective — he developed an interest in organic foods and an awareness of the waste restaurants generate.

He also reflected on the way his grandparents used to use everything. "It's not too long ago that we lived differently," he says. 

The global green bin

Growing interest in food waste owes much to a perfect storm of events — rising food costs and a growing consciousness of the harmful environmental effects of our throw-away culture.

With Trashed & Wasted, Shepherd's following in the footsteps of international celebrity chefs like Dan Barber in the States and Massimo Bottura, a Michelin three-star chef in Italy. In the past year, both have staged high-profile events to raise awareness about food waste. 

During the 2016 Rio Olympics, for instance, Bottura assembled a team of international chefs — including Montreal's Antonio Park — to turn food waste from the athlete's village into meals for the city's homeless.

Large events are notorious for generating a lot of waste, so Shepherd chose vendors who share his values. The proceeds from Trashed & Wasted ticket sales are going to Second Harvest, the largest food rescue program in Canada.

What's there to eat at a trash festival? 

  • From Montgomery's Restaurant, Kim Montgomery and chef Guy Rawlings are making chicken tails, a piece of fried chicken served cold. They're using chicken pickins — the fatty bits on the pope's nose and tender oyster meat from chicken backs — and garnishing it with fermented leeks and hot sauce.
  • Celebrated Toronto cookbook writers Dana Harrison and Joel MacCharles, of the website Well Preserved, are charring citrus pith and infusing it in alcohol to make burned citrus bitters, an aromatic finish for cocktails and sodas or even for food like french toast. Their cookbook Batch is full of delicious ways to preserve food in season while wasting nothing.
  • Kristin Nedzelski-Donovan and Dan Donovan, the chef-owners of Hooked, are serving smoked mackerel onigiri (a kind of Japanese rice snack) with house-made furikake. They're using fish scrapings from filleting and leftover bones to make stock, and they're crisping the skin as part of the garnish.

Tomorrow's meal plan

With an interest in preventive measures, Shepherd hopes food waste strategies will become a normal part of event planning. It's a high stakes challenge that calls for some imagination, but that doesn't dissuade Shepherd. 

"I'm artistic at heart and surround myself with creative people," he says.

There's no shortage of opportunities to educate more Canadians, and Shepherd wonders if Trashed & Wasted could become a non-profit organization. He likes the idea of food audits — picking through restaurant waste, applying value to it and brainstorming strategies with chefs to reduce or eliminate it.

He also hopes the Trashed & Wasted model could be replicated in communities right across the country. And he's toying with the idea of opening another restaurant in Kensington Market, this time to utilise recovered food.

One thing's for sure, Shepherd says he's not built for the political sphere and is content to leave legislative activities to others. He has invited city and provincial leaders to the festival though and is hoping they show up. 

Looking forward, he hopes to inspire people to eat everything they purchase and use their green bin only as "the very last option."

Over-abundance has long felt like part of the contract between a chef and their customer, but Shepherd wonders, "could we make just enough food to eat, or run out, rather than throw it away?" 

In Canada, $31 billion worth of food ends up in landfills or composters each year, according to a 2014 report from Value Chain Management International.

About the Author

Deborah Reid

Deborah Reid is a Toronto-based writer and chef. She’s written for Zoomer, Food & Drink, Eater, and Metro News.

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