(THE BUSINESS TIMES) - What if you could stop seeing a banana peel, fish bones and stale bread as food waste? What if you saw them as carbohydrates, protein and pectins, which can be turned into something edible such as vinegars, syrups or spirits, and introduced back into the food chain instead of being dumped into a landfill?
What if chefs stopped picking up the phone to order their supplies, but instead crafted their menus based on what is available from a nearby farm? And what if you could salvage all the leftover food from an all-you-can-eat Sunday brunch at a hotel restaurant and turn it into some incredibly inventive yet delicious buffet the next day?
Every year, more than 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted. There are 2.2 billion obese people and more than 800 million people around the world who do not have enough food to eat.
Rather than discussing the latest food techniques or celebrating yet another best restaurants guide, a group of international chefs, food producers, scientists, technology start-ups and others in the food and hospitality industry gathered last month in Bangkok to discuss one of the most crippling problems of modern society - food waste.
The (Re) Food Forum 2018 took place over March 19 and 20 at the Grand Hyatt Erawan as the start of what its organisers hope will be a regular conversation among people in the food industry. The prefix "re" refers to a number of calls to action - Renew, Recycle, Reinvent, React and more.
Not so much a slick, shiny conference, but a more grassroots, non-profit movement run on a near-zero budget, the event succeeded in gathering at least 40 speakers from around the world who did not waste time on hollow motherhood statements about the perils of food waste and the wasting away of Mother Nature, but focused on real solutions and actual work being done about it.
"The objective was to create a neutral platform for discussing issues which affect the hospitality and food industries in South-east Asia," says Ms Leisa Tyler, an Asia-based travel and food journalist and event organiser, who also owns a farm in Cameron Highlands which supplies sustainable produce to some of the top restaurants in Singapore and Malaysia.
"Namely, the production of food and farming practices, the respect and identification of endemic ingredients and how this plays out in a hotel and restaurant situation, plus the growing costs - both financial and social - of food waste."
Ms Tyler teamed up with well-known Thai chef Duangporn "Bo" Songvisava, who runs the one-Michelin-starred Bo.lan restaurant with Australia-born chef Dylan "Lan" Jones, and The Brain's Trust - a group of food industry representatives in Bangkok. "It started at last year's Asia's 50 Best event, which was held in Bangkok, and Bo was upset at its use of styrofoam in a cooking class (which could have used crockery instead) and took to Twitter to tell the world about it. I wrote to her a few days later and suggested we do something about it rather than rant and rave."
They found like-minded individuals including Dan Hunter of the highly-rated Brae restaurant in Australia, and cult Swedish restaurant Faviken's Magnus Nilsson, as well as Singapore-based chef Ivan Brehm of Restaurant Nouri and Bjorn Low of Edible Gardens, to take part. They spoke about the realities behind growing and cooking with sustainably grown produce, while representatives from the Basque Culinary Centre and Swiss start-up Kitro shared their work on creating ingredients out of discarded food and using technology to manage food waste in the hospitality industry.
While some chefs dabble in the farm-to-table concept, they are mere vanity projects compared with chef-owner Hunter of Brae, which runs its own 12ha, fully-working farm about a two-hour drive from Melbourne. "The concept of being self-sufficient is b*******," he says candidly. "You can't grow everything you chew, at least not in temperate weather with four seasons."
He supports local farmers in his community instead, and focuses more on ingredients that are not grown commercially such as ancient grains; ingredients that do not travel well - such as perfectly ripened fruit on the vine; and organic produce that is expensive to buy. As a working farm, pickling, drying, fermenting and composting are given, so any waste is minimised.
For Nouri chef Brehm, working with farmers rather than suppliers has changed the way he cooks. It becomes less about finding the best product from whomever can grow it, but "about pulling things from the ground and thinking what to do with it", he says.
"It's not about creating a recipe in your head and then phoning for the ingredients. While the onus is still on the farmer to grow the best product, the relationship with the chef becomes more like 'you grow, I cook'. It's not about taking the best-quality product but to take, say, a kohlrabi that isn't so sweet, and do something amazing with it."
Singaporean speaker Low also gave his take on the future of urban farming in Singapore and how it is possible to have a balance of technology and indoor farming to create a new system of food production that can be scalable.
"You can cut out the middleman and sell direct to customers," he says. "Today, we supply to 60 restaurants around Singapore."
Education is another aspect of these citizen farms, which learn how to tackle waste and feed it back into the system - for example, converting coffee grounds into fertile soil for growing mushrooms.
Given Thailand's agricultural background, farmers and fishermen co-operatives showcased their methods for sustainable pig farming and fishing.
For example, speaker Supaporn Anuchiracheeva is the director of social enterprise company Small-Scale Fisheries and Organic Fishers. She worked with fishermen from seven communities in Phetchaburi, teaching them sustainable fishing, chemical-free post harvesting practices and the importance of traceability. Not only has her organisation helped the fishermen earn a stable income, but it has also generated a good supply of sustainable wild-caught fish sought-after by top restaurants.
From Spain, researcher Diego Prado from the Basque Culinary Centre showed how, if you see each ingredient as a composition of molecules that make up proteins, carbohydrates, sugar and the like, there is little difference between the banana you eat and the peel you throw away. The research centre delves into fermentation and distillation infusion techniques to convert food waste into usable products, turning vegetable peels and fruit pits into vinegars, syrups or spirits.
And for the hospitality trade reeling from all-you-can-eat brunch buffet leftovers, the Geneva start-up Kitro breaks new ground with a food waste-management tool. It uses technology to calculate food waste and break it down so hotels can identify where it takes place and find a solution. So far, its mantra that "what gets measured gets done" has resulted in some Swiss hotels identifying and reducing food costs.
With masterclasses and buffet lunches prepared by Bangkok-based chefs, using both leftovers and vegetables deemed too "ugly" to sell in the market, the (Re) Forum was a small step in the right direction. There is still a long way to go to meet the United Nations initiative to halve per capita global food waste at retail and consumer level, and reduce food losses by 2030, but it is clear that awareness is growing.
"By doing this, we hoped to show alternative ways, new solutions, get people's creative juices flowing and inspire them to make changes, even the smallest ones," says Ms Tyler.
For more information, go to www.re-take.asia