Here’s a measure of how bad food wastage was getting in Dubai… the government was running out of landfill space in which to dispose of it. Tonnes of perfectly edible food was being buried in the ground.
A report from the Dubai Industrial Park and The Economist Intelligence Unit earlier this year revealed that in the UAE, each individual wastes 197 kilos of food every year and the hospitality industry accounts for the largest proportion of that. But one of the world’s best chefs has a plan…
Massimo Bottura is the head chef of Osteria Francescana, a three-Michelin-star restaurant based in Modena, Italy, that in 2018 was voted best restaurant in the world. He also has the Torno Subito restaurant at the W on The Palm. Outside of the kitchen, however, he has founded Food for Soul and is now partnering with the Food Bank in the UAE to try and prevent food waste in this country.
“It’s insane,” Bottura says, “all the water, human capital and everything else that goes into producing something and then it’s just thrown away – we waste so much food it’s time to start acting and now we are talking seriously about food waste and creating a revolution.”
Food for Soul is a non-profit organisation founded in 2016 by Bottura to empower communities to fight food waste through social inclusion and although the problem here is especially bad, this is not just a UAE problem. Globally around $1 trillion worth of food totalling around 1.3 billion tonnes is wasted every year, as half of all fruit and veg is thrown away as it 20 percent of all meat.
Bottura is partnering with The UAE Food Bank, a non-profit charitable organisation launched under the umbrella of the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives. It is committed to distributing food to those in need while trying to eliminate food waste by collecting and distributing excess fresh food from hotels, restaurants and supermarkets. They’ve already made a start on what Bottura plans to achieve.
Dr Essam al Hashimi, Head of the Food Trade Section in Dubai Municipality explains, “The Dubai Municipality has now stopped throwing food into the landfills, especially from supplier companies, so now the restaurants and retail companies have to change their habits and are ordering less than before.”
That food is now being given to those who need it most. “Up to August 15 we distributed 12,445 tonnes that would previously have been wasted, but we delivered it people in labour camps in the UAE. The camps that we are working with are ones that have lack of facilities and house people on low salaries so this has changed lives for a lot for those people – we fed 2,250 people in one camp in just one event.”
The food usually comes from big importers who are bringing food in and a lot of dairy companies and big chain suppliers like Carefour and Spinneys are donating food daily rather than throwing it away. But now the focus is extending to hotels and restaurant in the hope they will join the initiative. The Sheraton and Le Meridien hotels are already working with the food bank but more need to join in and Bottura’s restaurant in the W Hotel on the Palm is stepping up.
“As a hotel the W is a symbol for fun but I hope it can also become a symbol for ethics and send a powerful message for others,” Bottura says. “People now are ready for change and we can change the world by starting to change our own neighbourhoods.”
It seems like a big shout, but the Italian chef has made this work elsewhere. He started at the Milan Expo when he and a host of the world’s other top chefs set up a community kitchen – called refettorios – where guests in need are served nutritious dishes in a friendly setting.
“We were cooking free meals for Syrian and Libyan refugees who had entered Southern Italy and made their way north,” he explains. “We were all taking turns and cooking for up to 120 refugees each day… but after 10 days they were all food critics and complaining! Alain Ducasse was cooking and they called me and said ‘Please, no more of this French soup, they want your pasta’”
Bottura says he plans to build a refettorio in Dubai next year but for now he hopes that other hotels and restaurants will join the initiative and that people will start to think more about food in general and become less wasteful.
“This is not new thinking,” he sighs, “it’s my grandmother’s mentality and it was deep in the culture from the 1960s and 1970s not to waste anything, because people still remembered the shortages from the Second World War. Even the breadcrumbs left over would be used.” He smiles and drifts into a reverie of an Italian childhood, “My favourite thing before bed was a warm cup of milk with breadcrumbs and a bit of sugar… actually a lot of sugar.”
As Dubai become more environmentally conscious it’s hoped that diners will increasingly think about food in a less wasteful way. In Tristram Stuart’s book Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal he points out the startling fact that farmers, manufacturers, supermarkets and consumers discard up to half of their food ― enough to feed all the world’s hungry at least three times over.
Here in Dubai, they’re trying to arrest that trend by starting to feed those in the most need with the food that previously we simply threw away. It may not change the wasteful brunch culture in the country, but at least now we’ll have a choice of more ethical hotels at which to overindulge of a weekend, in the knowledge that what’s left goes to people who need it.
For GQ – click here for original