The zucchinis are too big. Gigantic. Definitely too big to make zucchini boats out of. Mirko Buri has to make a decision quickly and change his plans. He already knows that. Buri runs an anti-food waste restaurant in Köniz – the first in Switzerland. He works with unpredictability. Because the products he turns into dishes are those that others have sorted out. He is a pioneer in the fight against food waste.
Until a few years ago, Buri cooked in top Swiss restaurants. He implemented visions of courts. Before he set out to cook them, he had a clear idea of how the compositions should taste and, above all, look. He has received several awards for his creations. Things were going well until a documentary called everything into question.
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One evening he saw "Taste the Waste." For the first time he became aware of how much food ends up in the trash unnecessarily. The numbers he heard there left him no peace. He packed his car, drove into the country and was shocked. "You're standing there on the field and you know that with what's there you could easily feed 3,000 or 4,000 people," he says. A sight that he hasn't gotten used to even after six years.
If fruit and vegetables grow out of the classic shape, this is considered a quality deficiency. Although the appearance says nothing about the content, these products hardly make it onto the market. Although there are now supermarkets that offer such “misfits”, these are still niche products and more of a curiosity than normality.
A status quo that Buri knew all too well. At this point, product perfection was part of his everyday life. If the delivered goods did not meet expectations, or if the size, shape or color did not match the planned dish, the products were not processed. A circumstance that caused him to quarrel more and more.
Is all of this correct? He now began to make regular trips to surrounding farmers on the weekends. There he took with him what was left as a waste product. The farmers were surprised. “They thought we needed food for animals,” Buri laughs when he thinks back to the beginning. It went like this for a year, it was a year of transformation.
"I used to completely lie to myself. I thought I was cooking super regionally and didn't realize at all that I was kidding myself," he says looking back. In 2014, Buri made the cut. He resigned and dared to restart his own restaurant “Mein Küchenchef” – and with it the public protest against food waste.
70 percent of all the food the restaurant processes is such field waste. 30 percent is purchased conventionally. "Some people kept coming and saying, you're the ones who take the pig buckets from the restaurants and make soup out of them," he reports - "of course we don't do that."
Even if food waste is a top priority, nothing that was already on the plate as a dish is cooked and Buri cannot be stored in containers either. Work is carried out strictly in accordance with the rules of the food law. However, it is legal to buy food from companies that are of good quality but whose packaging is damaged or the printing is outdated.
Opening an anti-food waste restaurant was a risk. Even farmers were skeptical; many initially reacted negatively. “Nobody wants to admit publicly that they are causing food waste. This is a huge taboo topic,” says the 37-year-old. But Buri convinced her.
In the end there was only one open question: who will eat this? "We were afraid that people wouldn't understand what we do. That we would have to explain too much," he explains. But the concern was unfounded. The place was already full on the second day. So full that they had to set up folding tables to handle the crowds. The store has been booming ever since, with reservations full almost every day. Up to 70 dishes are served every day, including daily menus and à la carte meals.
Regionality is the key. There is no avocado or banana at Buri. Instead, guests can rediscover many of the things that grow on their own doorstep. These include classics such as apples and pears, but also extravagant varieties such as the aronja berry. “This gives us a variety that cannot be found in the mainstream,” he explains, explaining why regional, seasonal cuisine is anything but boring.
Minimizing food waste means taking the goods as they come. It is the products that set the direction. Buri designs its menus depending on the offering. "It's almost a relief for me. Now I'm in the vegetables and have to be spontaneously creative."
It's not always fun. "Sometimes you have potatoes the size of garlic cloves. When you spend hours peeling potatoes to end up with a small bowl, you wonder what you're doing," he says. Doubt is part of it. “You have to go through it.” And if the faces in the kitchen get too long, there's only one thing that can help - conversation.
It is important that there is an understanding of the matter and the creation of the product. That's why Buri sends his employees into the field once a month. “Anyone who has ever helped harvest potatoes or sorted eggs understands why we do this,” says Buri. “You have to see it and experience it for yourself.”
The origin of the products is just one of three pillars of the “My Chef” concept. Because in Buri's kitchen, the food should be used as completely as possible. Where elsewhere, for example, carrot peels end up unnoticed in the compost, Buri uses them to make seasoning salt or a stock. Products that are now also sold through our own product line “Foodoo”.
Instead of just starting to cook, “My Chef” works according to a catalog of measures. In the 46-point work, the biggest causes of food waste are written: Am I planning correctly? How do I calculate the size of the dish? Am I paying enough attention to the regional offerings? A manual that is intended to help you rethink cooking and how to use products.
“It’s very simple once you internalize it,” says Buri – and effective. A study that he carried out together with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich proves him right. Accordingly, his restaurant produces around ten times less food waste than a conventional, medium-sized catering establishment.
Restaurant guests also do their part to reduce food waste. Albeit passively. "For example, we observed that women generally only ate half of the burger bun. That was a phenomenon," he says. These and other observations were gradually incorporated into work processes. The leftover plates were analyzed and weighed. This made it possible to determine the optimal size of a dish - optimal when it comes to reducing waste.
Because instead of accepting that there will always be something left over, Buri concentrates on eating it. This can be achieved with a simple change. The restaurant is no longer oriented towards those who eat a lot, but rather those who eat less. That's worth it. But it's a concept that many other restaurateurs wouldn't dare to try. That requires courage, because someone who gets too little screams louder than someone who had too much on their plate, says Buri. “Whether it’s a prison kitchen, a hospital or a Michelin-starred kitchen – everyone is afraid of running out of food,” he says from experience. "It's more convenient to throw something away."
Buri is no longer taking part in the overproduction. Everyone gets full with him. The way from too much to just right is through second helpings. In “My Chef” everyone can refill their meals as often as necessary until their hunger is satisfied. "It's a win-win situation for everyone. Those who eat less are happy because they finish their plate. And those who eat a lot can add more - word gets around," says Buri. Although of course this doesn't work 100 percent. "It doesn't always get eaten. There will always be children who sort out peas."
Working in a restaurant can only be planned up to a certain point. After all, the chef never knows at the beginning of the day how many guests will actually come and how many of them will have their stomachs hanging low in their knees.
But Buri has to calculate the guests' hunger in advance and adjust the amount of food consumed accordingly. Actually an impossibility. He uses a simple trick: he pre-cooks. A lot of things are pasteurized and preserved. This allows him to estimate more precisely how much food really needs to be used on each day.
And if he runs out of a dish, he doesn't shy away from Plan B, then he simply changes the daily menu. "I have no problem with changing the menu twice a day. Nobody holds it against us, people can be surprised."
Anyone who comes to Buri's restaurant doesn't put any waste on their plate just because they are using supposed waste products. A misunderstanding that he fights against and which is also reflected in the price. A daily menu currently costs 18 francs including a drink. It used to be 15. He raised it because he didn't want to harm the surrounding restaurants with his prices. 18 francs is not a bargain and for good reason.
"The crooked carrot caused just as much work for the farmer as the 'good' one. He also has to grow it, he washes it for me, packs it up. Why should it cost less?" asks Buri. He has chosen to reward this work the same way he would for other products. In doing so, he also wants to contribute to appreciation. "These products have the same quality, I'm happy to pay the price."
Buri's decision to campaign against food waste is six years old this year. While many initially viewed his plan with suspicion, the last six years have proven that the concept works. The proof has been provided. Buri says: "Now people are looking at us again and seeing that it works. After six years, it's now igniting for a second time."
And the oversized zucchini that don't want to become boats? “No problem at all,” Buri laughs. "I'll make this with pizza." The Swiss are no longer upset by stubborn vegetables.