Photography courtesy of Justin Warner.
Chef Justin Warner is a science-oriented, self-proclaimed food rebel. When he was chosen to compete on Food Network’s 24-Hour Restaurant Battle in 2010, his only professional cooking experience had been making bagel sandwiches at a small shop in Hagerstown, Maryland. But he had service experience at a Michelin-starred Manhattan restaurant, where he became fascinated by high-class, scientific cooking techniques. Warner went on to win the restaurant battle, as well as the eighth season of the Food Network Star competition, in 2012.
Since then, Warner wrote The Laws of Cooking: And How to Break Them and ran an experimental, yet highly acclaimed, Brooklyn restaurant called Do or Dine, which was open from 2011 to 2015. He now regularly serves as a judge on shows such as Guy’s Grocery Games and Cooks vs. Cons.
Food Tank spoke with Warner about his experiences with the food system and sustainability as a celebrity chef.
Food Tank (FT): You’ve cooked all around the country and the world. What have you noticed about food systems, where food comes from, and how it gets to your plate, across different states and countries?
Justin Warner (JW): One thing that truly I’ve found fascinating, once I broke into the world of really being obsessed with food and where it comes from, is that a lot of the food in our food basket of America does not get consumed by the food basket. For example, I was in Colorado—they have western slope peaches there, and everybody loves western slope peaches. And that was the only real thing that I saw people eating locally, aside from farmers market stuff. Everybody was excited about the peaches or Olathe corn from Kansas, but it’s wild. That’s the thing that constantly baffles me. My wife is from South Dakota, and you’d be surprised at how little local stuff there is, when they are one of the best beef producers. They’re like our Argentina. They make great beef. They grow wheat that gets shipped to Italy to be made into Italian pasta to be sold back to us. Mario Batali should open his next restaurant in South Dakota!
FT: Why do you think it happens that way?
JW: Farmers need to make money, and if the audience isn’t there to pay a premium for goods, then it’s not going to happen. And it’s depressing, for sure. I think it all comes down to audience, and whether people do things out of art or out of profit. And unfortunately, we all pretty much have to consider profit, otherwise we can’t do things anymore.
FT: When you ran Do or Dine, and now as you visit other restaurants and continue to cook, how important is the origin of the food? Is sustainability an important factor for you when it comes to what you eat?
JW: It’s difficult. We were in a very unique position in that we had no money to open the restaurant, and we had to do whatever we could to survive. So yeah, it was important to us, but not more important than keeping the lights on. If there were an option, say, of duck breasts, of course we got Hudson Valley duck. Of course we had Long Island fluke. All of our fish was locally caught. We might have had Norwegian mackerel once, but for the most part, on our standout dishes, we tried to stay as local as possible. But at times, we wanted to make steak tartare with beef tenderloin—something tells me that that cow was not locally harvested. So we had to draw the line. We didn’t say “when possible,” but we said “when appropriate.”
We just tried the best that we could. And we had a bunch of cool purveyors. One thing that we were really into was supporting our purveyors who were community-minded. So we bought our fish not from Sysco but from a dude named Freeman. And I know Freeman, and Freeman knows me. And we bought our meats from Paisanos, which is a local butcher shop. We really wanted to focus—because New York is not known for its cows and whatnot—if we could not do a local thing, we at least wanted to support local companies.
FT: Restaurants and individual households throw out a staggering amount of food every day. What do you think we can do to reduce this issue of excessive food waste?
JW: Really, it starts with finding a grocer that either understands packaging on a per-person, per-serving level, or has things loose. The other day, I saw a tiny cabbage, and I was like, whoever engineered this to be tiny is very smart, because when was the last time you needed a whole head of cabbage? What were you doing? Maybe making cole slaw for a barbecue or something like that, or a picnic. But 99 percent of the time, you do not need that much cabbage for a family stir fry. And you can inform yourself, as a shopper, as to where and what works for you. I think we just look for the thing in the package, and that’s it. Spinach, for example, the washed convenient spinach—amazing, but a lot of that ends up going bad simply because it gets left in the bag in the crisper drawer. But if you buy loose spinach, or if you buy spinach that’s bundled and not washed, you can control the spoilage of it just a little bit better.
As far as protein goes, protein is something I will do my absolute best never to waste, and that’s because it takes so many resources in order to make protein happen. At least in my house, we rarely ever let any sort of meat or fish or anything go to waste. We pound it or freeze it or vacuum seal it—that’s another thing. I have no idea why your household comes with a microwave that can radiate something, blast it to the moon, and we don’t have vacuum sealers built into our house. One simple, US$800 appliance has saved me so much, so much in spoilage waste. Things freeze better, you never get freezer burn, so on and so forth. I could go on and on about how glorious a good vacuum sealer is.
There’s also not enough knowledge on how to prepare things. So people make food, it comes out bad, and they throw it away. I think that’s another source of wastage. People don’t love what they created. Which is weird, because cooking is, at least in my opinion, an art that we all have three opportunities to practice every day (breakfast, lunch, and dinner), if not more. I think half of waste and spoilage is simply about respect, and respect for your time, and respect for the ingredients and the people who brought them to you. But look at our country. Obviously, respect is an issue.
FT: Most people know you from Food Network, where you’ve judged and competed on several different shows. What kind of discussions, if any, do competitors, other judges, or producers have about sustainability and/or food waste, especially for big-scale competition shows that have so many ingredients on hand?
JW: Yeah, absolutely. So for example, Guy’s Grocery Games—people ask me, is all that food real? Yeah, it is all real. Well, how do they do that? What happens? How do they keep a massive meat section going and it doesn’t go bad? Well, every couple of shows, they simply clear out the things that have a potential to spoil, and they straight-up give it to a local shelter. They compost everything. It is the most insane operation. And the amount of care and time they put into it—it’s definitely the greenest set that I’ve ever worked on.
And in general, here’s the thing: The reason that we’re making television is because we’re super passionate about it. There’s a reason I don’t play or commentate on lacrosse, and that’s because I don’t know anything about it. So you would hope that if we’re going to be enthusiastic enough to get on TV, we’d be enthusiastic about all the issues surrounding it. We all try our hardest not to mess things up. When you’re making a dish in 30 minutes or less and you’ve got a big red clock on your head, maybe I’m not going to take the time to put the apple core into a smoothie. But that being said, I at least know that on that set, they’re going to compost it. And nothing goes to waste.
Half the crew ends up eating the food that we make for camera. I can’t speak for all sets, but most of the ones I’ve been on are super sustainable. They try to break as few eggs as possible to make omelette, so to speak.