World Bank on Turning Trash into Tempting Tastes

The World Bank is on a mission to end poverty and hunger by 2030, and it’s looking for chefs.

Yesterday (April 16), Bank President Jim Yong Kim and Superchef David Chang of Momofuku Restaurants kibitzed in the Bank’s sleek steel-and-glass atrium in Washington, D.C. about how the world’s toques can stop world hunger.

Remember, just a decade ago, most kitchens were closed off from dining rooms because guests didn’t want to see the people making their meals. Much ink has been spilled over the out-of-control celebrity of celebrity chefs, but one thing the World Bank knows is how to leverage resources.

The conversation took place in front of delegates from around the world, to highlight the Bank’s Ending Poverty and Hunger by 2030 report, so invoking chefs was not the obvious choice and was not without risk. At times dogged by criticism that it disregards indigenous cultures in its pursuit of economic stability, the Bank knows it sticks its neck out whenever there’s a whiff of luxury. (Although his more than a dozen eateries have price points along the spectrum, Chang’s ko is prix fixe for $175 without drinks.) The world will benefit because the Bank stuck its neck out.

Chef Chang has arrived in a place that many who gain success in a field know well–wanting to increase his scale and reach. “I make food for very few people…comparatively to the people who need to eat well. The more I’m in this business, the more I want to feed everybody, because the people who really need to eat well in this world have the worst access to it and that just doesn’t sit well with me,” he says. Amazing food, he notes, is available at every dollar amount.

And chefs may be exactly the right people to advise on sustainable food-system strategies that work for the poor. After all, with restaurants’ razor-thin profit margins, chefs (yes, even the Michelin-starred ones) must use every available scrap of food and make it delicious. They take trash and make it not just edible, but desirable.

Example: After the program, the World Bank cafeteria (one of DC’s best, by the way) served dishes made from food that would otherwise have been thrown away. Spent barley malt from Brooklyn Brewery became Rye and Spent Malt Miso Broth with Soba Noodles, with help from Arielle Johnson, an international flavor chemist. The dishes were a collaboration between momofuku, the Bank’s food service provider Restaurant Associates, and MAD, a Danish nonprofit with the mission “to build a better world through a better meal.”

You’ve probably heard of the trend of making delicious food from “garbage” because food waste has become the topic du jour. We throw away about 30 percent of the world’s food.

Food concepts now based on cosmetically unacceptable food—ugly, bruised, orphaned, spent, or trashed—include high-end restaurants like WastED at Stone Barns, grocery stores in tony areas like The Daily Table in Dorchester, Mass, and a cafeteria by Michelin-starred Chefs at the World Expo on food. The Bank’s cafeteria itself now has a program, Imperfectly Delicious, which purchases ugly produce. (Remember when we all thought Freegans seemed fringey a decade ago? It all seems so chic now that we can pay for leftovers at a top restaurant, in a Boston grocery, or in Milan.)

What’s most important about all of these projects, and especially the World Bank’s work: They are normalizing the eating of “trash.” Chang calls it “redefining edibility.” He points to Chef Rene Redzepi of Noma (which has been voted the best restaurant in the world), who challenges what we all think of food with the line “you could be stepping on food right now.”

What we consider inedible is simply about our cultural boundaries. Mark Hermansen of MAD notes that it used to be common for Danish to eat blood, and once lobster was verboten. Chefs form food culture by showing us what is delicious, and therefore “edible,” so we now have to enlist chefs to shape a new food culture of what is delicious. “The world around us is edible. The delineation between the edible and inedible is deliciousness itself. This is the food culture of the future,” Hermansen says.

Kim committed the Bank to supporting a coalition to examine “social gastronomy” by the time of the Bank’s next annual meeting in Lima in October. “We promise that over the next six months we will engage with you [MAD] very deeply and see if we can start a movement that really will guide us with feeding everyone on the planet.” Kim also promised to bring a coalition of chefs and food people together to address food system problems.

And lest we forget that food touches every part of society, one speaker told this story: Orphaned at age seven, she struggled to feed herself until at 10, she was offered marriage to (and guaranteed meals from) a man who was 40 years old. She refused and at 11, she saved her own life and fed herself by learning to cultivate mushrooms. “Food is linked to violence,” Chido Govera said. “Food production has to be in the hands of everyone.”

At the end of their conversation, Kim jokingly asked Chang if one of his Momofuku restaurants could be a new kind of golden arches to serve the masses, Chang didn’t demur. “Probably ten years ago I would have laughed at that and probably said no. But if we can do it right and make it better than what’s available out there, I’m not going to say no because something has to improve.”

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Continuing the Discussion

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