Douglas McMaster simply couldn't face another pig head. This wasn't out of squeamishness or a sudden flirtation with veganism, but rather a long-smoldering discomfort with the amount of resources and labor that the restaurant where he worked dedicated to a forgettable amuse bouche before a multi-course tasting menu. Hours of work, gallons of water, untold fuel, plastic wrap, and 110 whole pig heads—minus the tiny portion that was actually served—all burned through every day and chucked aside for the sake of a single bite. After a while, the young chef couldn't wrap his own head around the sheer waste, and he went for a walk that would change his life—and maybe help save the planet.
At the recent ArktiskMat symposium in Mosjøen, Norway, McMaster shared the story of that fateful day in Sydney, Australia, when he came upon Greenhouse by Joost. The Dutch artist Joost Bakker created the pop-up restaurant and bar in a harbor from reusable and recyclable materials, using sustainable building practices, featuring local (sometimes grown on premises), organic, and eco-friendly ingredients, with the end goal of making an entirely waste-free dining experience. It felt something like fate. McMaster and Bakker went on to open SILO by Joost in Melbourne—billed as the world’s first waste-free cafe—before McMaster moved back to his native England to focus on SILO Brighton.
The restaurant operated on a closed-loop system, meaning that they dealt directly with purveyors to assure that ingredients (chosen for theie ecological impact) arrived in reusable containers, with any leftover scraps fed into their souped-up aerobic digester to become compost that goes back to the farmers. As part of their pre-industrial ethos, the chefs at SILO Brighton churned butter, milled flour, rolled oats, brewed drinks, and used every bit of any animal they served. The dishes were made from recycled plastic bags, the lamp shades from mycelium grown on the spent grain from the brewing, and even wine bottles were ground down into glass dust that was then worked into crockery. Managing these costs efficiently came with a very attractive side effect: having more cash with which to pay staff.
As McMaster likes to say, waste is a failure of the imagination, and his imagination is too vast and furiously churning to stay in just one place for very long (also, the landlord doubled the rent). Aided by a successful crowdfunding campaign, SILO will relocate from Brighton to London in a few weeks, and McMaster is eager to see what kind of impact this kind of thinking will have on the dining public, not to mention the industry. In the cold, clear air of a Northern Norway morning, he shared a few thoughts on his hopes for this next phase of SILO.
Food & Wine: What exactly does zero waste means to you?
Douglas MacMaster: SILO is a restaurant without a bin. There are a lot of circular systems in Silo; the material will live its life, and when it finishes, it ceases to have a purpose, that material will then be reborn into a new material. To be more literal and specific, food is grown from a farm and it serves its purpose by eating and nourishing us. Or we eat it and it nourishes it. The food that we don't eat then gets composted. Its new purpose is a thing that then grows more food, and it's a circular system.
And you're working directly with farmers for this?
It's the crux of the zero-waste food system. As soon as it's indirect, there has to be packaging for safety. You don't see what happens behind closed doors. By law, and quite rightly so in a lot of cases, it has to be sealed in a way which is food safe. That's why plastic exists. That's the industrial food system. But there's this new world of exciting opportunity when you then go back to this direct trade.
You had to solve a lot of problems with this. Coffee doesn't grow near London.
Neither does chocolate. There's a new movement in ethical transportation called Fairtransport. It's a company that works with a number of different boats, and they're the logistics behind "pirate ships"—wind powered boats that run with no electricity. We all love a good pirate story. What it means is that we can deal with something, an exotic ingredient, in a way which is ethical and sustainable. It's definitely more expensive.
SILO is this really interesting economic tapestry which is woven in a very different style to another economic model. A restaurant would typically pay 30% on staff costs, 30% on food costs, 30% on rent rates and all that, bills and utility, and then 10% profit. That's the sort of most fundamental, basic restaurant model. But we spend 40% on staff.
People are getting a decent wage?
Getting really good wages. In Brighton, it was tougher because we weren't as robust a business but in London, it's going to be some really good wages. The target is 40%. Sometimes it can slip up a bit when developing products. The food cost is under 10%. Over the last year of SILO Brighton, it was 6% over the year and there were months where we were at negative, as in we were sitting on so much stock because of high take. It actually worked out. I can't wrap my head around those maths.
You don't have a bin. So what happens? Somebody finishes up what they're eating and there's something left on the plate?
When you're cooking and you have some sort of liquid, does that get transmuted into something?
I mean for instance, I don't want to bathroom talk...
Sure. Bring it. It's important.
There's an amount of control that you can and can't have. People put things into the toilet and that goes. There are some really interesting ways of turning human feces into energy. That's not a point we've got to yet. But Joost Bakker, the artist who inspired Silo and who had the vision for a zero-waste restaurant did this one thing at a festival, where he basically acquired hundreds of used urinals that were chipped or whatever and went into this forest where this festival was in, and strapped urinals to trees in a forest. It was a work of art. Then gents would go in to take a wee in the forest and it was collected, then converted into energy, which then powered the restaurant.
How did he collaborate at SILO?
He was the visionary. He built this restaurant out of waste materials, Greenhouse by Joost—it's stunning. We then started SILO together. He said to me, “Can you not have a bin at all?” That was sort of a very artistic, abstract thing to say.
You seem to like a challenge.
Being creative with things, broken things I don't like, is a way I can express myself. I can unleash this creative energy that's in my head, get it out, and might as well fix the problem while I'm at it.
What part of this is a moral and ethical drive for you?
I didn't start a career thinking, “Oh, I'm going to be ethical.” Just saw things that were unethical, and it was just like, “This is not good. This is really bad,” and just disgusted by it. The World Restaurant Awards voted us one of the most ethical restaurants in the world, which is quite a high praise.
Pressure. Praise and pressure.
It's very difficult, this tightrope of being ethical. The reality is the world is an imperfect place, and to survive and succeed in that place, there is compromise. Anyone who says there isn't, is definitely wrong. Being ethical is a matter of doing everything within your power within existing, or succeeding, or not dying. The business cannot die. So all I can do is everything within my power to remain as ethical as possible without the business capsizing. That's not a perfectly ethical restaurant.
How does this translate into dealing with the humanity of people who work for you?
I'm a good leader but I'm not a good manager. I can inspire people and I can get the best out of them, but I'm not that sort of Monday through Friday managing and micromanaging. I'm inconsistent and creative in my mind and attention spreads like Sauron's Eye. It's kind of chaotic. Management's much more organized in the way you work. I'm a good leader.
But I love people. I immediately love people who dedicate themselves to the idea that I have, and I give them everything within my power. I've always I challenged the people who work for me to do things that will force themselves into a higher position. I don't mean like a chef moving up to a sous-chef. Just in the way they think about things, and feel confident. Pushing them into doing a pop up dinner, writing a menu, or upping the game in some way.
You're taking care of the people who work for you, and taking care of the earth, but how do you care for yourself?
I'm definitely masochistic. I don't put myself first. I've gone through spates of meditation. Sometimes the routine allows it. In the stage I'm in at life, running seems to be a better action. I think a certain amount of physical energy that I'm expelling is good.
With the shift from Brighton to London, there is a different energy and clientele. How are you setting yourself up for the change in the kind of people you're going to serve?
Even on my day off, if I'm not doing something that's progressing myself in some way, I feel agitated, which is probably an unhealthy thing. I'm so proud of this theoretical system that I make exist. Now I want to honor that system by putting the best plate of food together that I can possibly do. For years, I've been like trying to crack the code, and I actually am so confident that the product that's going to be on that plate in London is going to be world class. I really probably shouldn't say that.
What do you hope people will replicate from this system?
There's a subversive message that's in everything I do and say. We're born into a world that tells us the world is this snow globe. This is the world, this is life, and that's how you see it. It's an imagined reality and I like to put that to the test. I like people to question the constructs that humans have created—like industrialism. We're born into this world of metal and steel and plastic and rubber and you don't necessarily question it. It's that existential moment where you look in this industrial snow globe and you're like, this doesn't make sense. That's killing the planet. Industrialism is quite literally the nemesis to nature.
We're not as adaptable as we could be as humans. SILO is my living manifestation of these thoughts and behaviors, obviously focused on food. The subversive takeaway is nothing's as it seems, and you should question everything, and shift your perspective to see the bigger picture.
It's very punk rock of you.
I do like anarchy.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.