Originally posted on the San Jose Mercury News
The invitation sounded like a joke: “A Night of Fine Dining in a Dumpster!”
A gimmick, maybe, but not a joke. Just blocks from Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto, the Salvage Supperclub made its West Coast debut last weekend, with more than three dozen people paying $80 for the privilege.
In an era when adventurous eaters are constantly on the hunt for the newest, coolest and most innovative dining experience — that they can, no doubt, tweet and Instagram — New Yorker Josh Treuhaft came up with the idea to educate diners about food waste via a multicourse, produce-centric meal served in a Dumpster, which has been outfitted as a cozy dining room.
A portion of each evening’s profits go to a nonprofit working on the issue; on this particular evening, it’s Food Shift, an Oakland organization that is working on sustainable solutions to reduce food waste and end hunger.
According to Food Shift, Americans are throwing away some 25 percent of the food they bring home from the grocery store to the tune of $165 billion dollars a year. At the same time, 50 million Americans are “food insecure” — they don’t always know where their next meal is coming from.
Treuhaft started doing these dinners in early 2014 as part of his Design for Social Innovation master’s degree thesis at New York’s School of Visual Arts and has hosted 15 so far. This weekend’s Berkeley supper clubs were the first held outside New York — in a Dumpster outfitted with a wooden table and benches and parked on the street outside the hosts’ home on Milvia Street. There were tea lights in glasses, wine bottles on the table and bar towel napkins tied with raffia.
Treuhaft talked about his inspiration in the living room before diners headed for the Dumpster, where the evening’s light drizzle added to the overall atmosphere.
“We waste 30 to 40 percent of our food supply in America, while at the same time, there are tons of people who are not eating square meals,” he said “There are significant environmental effects, as putting food into the landfill creates greenhouse gasses. While I didn’t want to do something heavy-handed, I did want to make people think about this.”
Treuhaft instructed the diners to find him if anyone walking by asked what was happening. “It’s debatable how legal what we’re doing is,” he said.
This was definitely an underground kind of affair, with most guests hearing about it because they were food waste activists already or they knew the host or chef.
None of the food served came from Dumpster-diving, and it was prepared in the hosts’ well-appointed kitchen. Chef Pesha Perlsweig sleuthed for donations on Cropmobster.com, where farmers and gardeners post when they have an abundance to share. In this case, excess pomegranates became borscht, and sunchokes were transformed into a bisque with truffle oil. Other donations came from Good Eggs, an online grocer that specializes in seasonal and local ingredients — the purple daikon that appeared here in a salad wasn’t a big seller, Perlsweig noted). And still more came from the Alameda County Food Bank and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul; perishable donations go to waste if nonprofit organizations like these can’t get the fare to needy people quickly enough.
Perlsweig, a former buyer for Williams-Sonoma, raided her own pantry for a few choice items, such as the decidedly non-dumpsterish truffle oil. A few items, such as eggs and ricotta, were purchased.
But nothing went to waste. Radish greens were transformed into flavored oil and drizzled over soup. Cauliflower leaves were pickled, and carrot tops became pesto. And a potato donation was turned into latkes for the first night of Hanukkah — and the previous night, too.
“I don’t think anyone minds if they get a latke a day early,” she said.
Perlsweig introduced each course as it was served, explaining ingredients and offering occasional asides on recipes and preparation.
“Carrot, beet and turnip tops usually get composted at home,” she said. “It’s so easy to turn them into a pesto with Parmesan and pistachios.”
By the time dessert was served, two women had offered to host a future event, and others were recapping their experiences.
“There’s such a huge opportunity to understand how much food we’re throwing away, falling prey to expiration dates or other non-truths,” diner Stephanie Lucchesi said.
Meanwhile Liz Kaplan, who only found out she was eating in a Dumpster when she arrived, had other ideas. “I’m planning date night next time,” she said.