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Douglas McMaster on sustainability, St. John and his London revival of Silo

After five years in Brighton, Douglas McMaster is moving Silo – claimed to be the first zero-waste restaurant in the UK – to a space above a brewery in Hackney Wick. He tells us about his plans for the restaurant and sustainable eating

Douglas McMaster; photography by David Harrison

David Foster Wallace once asked his readers to consider the lobster. Douglas McMaster is asking us to imagine a world without waste. While the former implored us to explore the moral dilemma of killing another being for one's own carnal satisfaction, the latter has his sights set on a slightly larger casualty than a singular crustacean: the planet. As the owner and chef of Silo – which claims to be the UK's very first zero-waste restaurant – McMaster is better placed than anyone to describe what a waste-free future might well look like.

"We want to change the way that people think about sustainability and sustainable restaurants," says McMaster, as he shows me around the cavernous space above the creative-friendly Crate Brewery, set to be transformed into Silo's new home, in East London. "It doesn't always have to be rough and ready," he says. "I want to prove that zero waste can be high-end."

Although Silo shut its doors for good after five years in Brighton this April, the sustainable venture is set to be reborn in Hackney Wick before the end of 2019. A far cry from its previous pared-back premises, Silo London will house large round tables and a classy 18-seater bar.

Expect plenty of natural light and a projector displaying a real-time menu on the walls to let customers know when a certain dish is running low. In short: it'll be just as swish as any hot new restaurant opening you'd see in the capital. Except, of course, for the rather large difference that Silo won't have any bins. Or single-use plastic. In fact, it won't produce any kind of waste at all.

We want to change the way that people think about sustainability

According to McMaster, Silo's ethos is all about closing the loop of production, employing what he calls a "cradle-to-cradle" process by which everything from flowers and seeds to flesh and skin is given a purpose.

Food waste, for example, is fed into BERTHA, a compost machine capable of turning 60kg of organic waste into compost in just 24 hours. Empty wine bottles are ground down and turned into plates.

McMaster has already embraced his new big-city ecosystem, and the menu at Silo promises to make the most of London's local produce and producers.

One of those producers helping to shape the cuisine on offer at Silo is Dr Johnny Drain. Drain (who previously worked with McMaster at Cub) is a fermentation specialist with a PhD in Materials Science. He also happens to live on a houseboat moored on the canal opposite Crate Brewery, which is about as local as it gets.

"He's got a game-changing way of looking at the waste that comes from a kitchen," McMaster says of Drain, "even taking something simple like buttermilk, he's been able to make this buttermilk garum. And, honestly, if there's anything I could ever describe as liquid gold, it's that. It tastes absolutely mind-blowing."

As we talk, it's clear that working in that liminal space between the everyday and the spectacular is where McMaster feels most in his element – foraging from his immediate, ordinary surroundings to create the extraordinary. McMaster's sourdough miso – a beautiful, butterscotch-flavoured miso made from the excess waste produced by freshly milling and baking sourdough bread – is a testament to that fine line.

Shiitake mushrooms, ricotta and mushroom garum
Rhubarb, fresh spruce and yoghurt
BBQ white asparagus, fresh goat's curd and elderflower oil
Chargrilled sea kale dressed in waste vegetable treacle and wild garlic

McMaster has gone over Silo's entire supply chain with a fine-toothed comb to ensure that nothing is left to waste at any stage of the process. "London is harder to get into but there are more brilliant suppliers that can deliver to London than Brighton," he says, "and there are some really spectacular producers who we're going to be working with, so I'm very excited about that."

As if the excitement levels about Silo's opening weren't already high enough, the restaurant's arrival (scheduled tentatively for "some time in October") has coincided with the release of McMaster's book, Silo: The Zero Waste Blueprint. It's a concise – if occasionally terrifying – insight into how industrial processing of food is destroying our planet, and what we can do to change that.

"Do you remember in school when you did a science project?" posits McMaster, as we sit by the canal outside Silo's soon-to-be-home. "You'd gather some research, you'd create a hypothesis, you'd find a formula and then have a conclusion? That's the concept of the book, with Silo as the main case study."

Along with serving unorthodox plates of food such as potato-skin ice cream and carrots cooked in compost, McMaster's spent the last four years of his life writing this blueprint, crafting his manifesto on what a feasible and sustainable future could look like. "I've not really thought about selling copies or what people will actually think," he says. "I've just been so engrossed in the project, down a rabbit hole so far that it's only really now that I'm coming up for air and thinking: 'oh shit, this is an actual product that's out in the world and people are going to be sat there reading it.'"

And they really should be. A statement like 'waste exists because of humans' might sound simple enough coming from McMaster's mouth but it's a sobering realisation that can be hard to fully get your head around. A bit like finding out that you're the villain in a Disney film. It's not easy to admit one's own culpability in the damage you've inflicted on the planet, but that introspection is a good place to start. "Hopefully this is just the beginning," McMaster says of his larger vision for Silo, "and in years to come there will be more advanced looks and perspectives."

It's not easy to admit one's own culpability in the damage you've inflicted on the planet

That self-critique seems to come easier to McMaster than most. Then again, he has also had a bit of a headstart in the realm of sustainability. Cutting his culinary teeth at St. John when he was just 20, McMaster was thrown into the deep end of one of the country's most innovative and pioneering kitchens. "St. John was the most important establishment that I've worked at because of their philosophy and approach to gastronomy. Fergus [Henderson] and Trevor [Gulliver] were very much like: 'there's a rulebook, but we don't believe that rulebook, so we're not going to use the rulebook. We're going to make our own rulebook.'"

St. John was – and still is – what McMaster refers to as a "blue ocean business". Whereas a "red ocean business" is full of "sharks eating each other – all doing the same thing and competing for the same water and territory", a blue ocean business does the exact opposite. It was restaurants like St. John that swam in the face of the current and inspired Silo to do the same.

Glancing at the sharkless River Lea and its luminescent film of algae, McMaster is reminded of a Desmond Tutu quote he finds himself often coming back to: "There comes a point where we need to stop pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they're falling in."

So, why is it that we're all tip-toeing in the deep end, up to our metaphorical necks in the waters of a slowly dying planet? McMaster's answer is simple: apathy.

"There's a lot of things that I've seen in the industry that don't make sense to me," says McMaster. "Obviously waste, but the lack of respect to origin and farmers and fishermen as well. There was a particular kitchen that I worked in – which I won't name – which was just so disrespectful to the produce. It really was some of the world's best produce but the way they prepared it, and wasted it, there was just no love of the person who made it. It was all just money, money, money. There's a lot of things that I've seen along the way that have made Silo exist the way it does."

One of those "things" was a move to Australia. Following the death of a close friend in 2010, McMaster experienced a crisis of faith and made the decision to travel to the other side of the globe in search of, well, life. "I went to travel and have fun – to get my head straight. But within no time I'd run out of money and I was in Australia at the time and there were all these amazing restaurants, so I thought: 'well, I'm here now, I might as well'." McMaster underwent stages at some of Australia's finest restaurants including Attica, Vue de monde, and an extended six-month stint at Quay Restaurant. "It was all very fine dining-y and experimental and enlightening in different ways," he says.

While it's clear to see the impact that high-end tutelage has had on the refined plates of food McMaster is known for magicking up, the chef's time in Australia was just as important in starting the chef on the path of his zero waste odyssey.

It was in Sydney where McMaster met Joost Bakker – a man McMaster has namechecked as the "zero-waste messiah" and the sustainable shaman who first tempted McMaster down the rabbit hole to a waste-free world well before he opened Silo's first iteration in Brighton."Sustainability was always a bit of a dirty word. It's kind of shedding that now but, especially at the time, it was as if everything that was sustainable was unattractive. Joost was a game-changer because everything he did was beautiful. His buildings and his art were so extraordinary that you'd just want to be a part of them. And then of course they were zero waste and sustainable."

McMaster admits he wouldn't have been interested in sustainability at all if not for Bakker's handling of the subject in such an attractive manner. It was only then that McMaster started to think he could "make world-class food without a bin". Bakker's influence further inspired McMaster to throw caution to the wind and start his own 'Wasted' concept – a zero waste pop-up restaurant in Sydney and Melbourne.

The pop-up only lasted six days but cemented the seed in McMaster's mind that a zero-waste restaurant was something people were, at the very least, curious about.
Customers came in droves."The first one in Sydney, we had no money, no sponsorship, we just winged it basically. It was a cafe that could sit 20 and we somehow got 33 people in there eating a ten-course fine dining menu. It was insane. It was such a raw event. The ideas were at such a liminal stage where now it makes me cringe a bit. We went to a load of landfills and we found this stack of frisbees and thought it would be a good idea to serve food on that. It was a bit cringey when you think about it now but it got people talking." McMaster's food, as it often is, was another one of the major talking points.

"There was one dish we did that was a bit St. John: poached brains that'd been panéed in dehydrated pig's skin so they'd puff up like a quaver. I served that with a blood sauce. Yeah, it was pretty out there," he laughs.

It was selling such an "out there" idea to a UK audience that proved the first of many obstacles that McMaster had to surmount to achieve his vision. Opening up a restaurant in the UK is hard enough as it is. Opening up a restaurant as a militant chef who insists on using a coconut shell as a scouring pad is practically impossible. "It was such a young, infant idea that even five years ago it was super tough," says McMaster, "we got loads of attention for doing it because it's so easy to get attention when you do something radical but then it's like a double-edged sword because there's an equal amount of skepticism for what we do."

So how did McMaster manage to convince the fat cats of the financial sector that Silo was a concept that could actually be profitable? "I didn't," he says. "I tried and miserably failed. I went through six potential investors – people who were just interested to hear what I was talking about. They saw my business plan and they all quite rightfully said 'eh… no thanks, I'll see you later'". Getting the funding needed to open up Silo in Brighton meant McMaster had to remortgage his mother's house. "Me and my mum had been paying for this house since I was 18," he says, "but there was literally no other way, so we took a remortgage out for an extra £30,000 and opened Silo on that. Which is absolutely outrageous looking back now. For a space as big as Silo was it was nothing."

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After getting off to an admittedly bumpy start, Silo spent five years in Brighton thrilling critics and customers alike. In spite of the restaurant's popularity, McMaster decided it best to shut the operation down in April of this year; the end of the venue's Brighton lease allowing McMaster to expand his horizons and set his sights on bringing his zero-waste mission to London.

Thankfully, funding for his latest venture didn't involve remortgaging family homes. On leaving Brighton, McMaster told hospitality industry website BigHospitality he wanted "to serve crazy dishes that are fit for the World's 50 Best Restaurants list", and questioned whether the city had the "contemporary food culture" needed to take Silo to the next level – a suggestion that displeased many who view Brighton as a hub of alternative ideas and ecological awareness.

Nevertheless, the bright lights of London beckoned McMaster, offering him a grander stage to perform on than ever before.

After meeting – and exceeding – its £500,000 crowdfunding target, Silo secured its new home in Hackney Wick, taking over a space previously occupied by Crate Brewery's taproom. "I think the success of that crowdfunding represents the fact that the world's changed. Maybe Silo's helped a little but I think people believe that the future can be better. There's a lot of goodwill behind a movement like Silo or a movement like sustainability. And we raised a lot more money than anticipated."

McMaster is keen to emphasise the pivotal role that Crate Brewery played in making it all happen. "The professionalism of the organisation is breathtaking. I'm lucky to have landed a position with them and I've got high hopes for what we can achieve with them as a support system."

The relationships and support systems that McMaster has built over the years made Silo what is it today. The partnership between Douglas and cocktail maestro Ryan Chetiyawardana (aka Mr Lyan) led to the creation of Cub – an innovative bar and restaurant that serves excellent cocktails and sharing plates to Hackney residents, with a commitment to cutting out wastage.

The chef's passion – some might say obsession – has damaged numerous relationships over the years

That's not to say McMaster is a saint. The chef's passion – some might say obsession – has damaged numerous relationships over the years. Writing about these difficulties in his book, McMaster cites his own manic behaviour as something that led to "many burnt bridges" and at one point resulted in the restaurant manager sending out a group email saying McMaster needed psychological help. While Silo provided the highest of highs, it was also responsible for the lowest of lows.

"When I wasn't disintegrating on life support, I was drunk on success," he writes.The one consistency throughout Silo's journey from conception to reality, however, has been McMaster's steadfast commitment to his cause. "I've always had this vision of this food system for the future. It's always been this idea on the horizon and I know I've got to go there. It's not been a smooth road but I guess the best things aren't. It was never going to be easy to do something this radical."

No other chef but McMaster would be brave or crazy enough to transform Japanese knotweed (one of the UK's worst garden invaders) into a delicious canapé, a functional straw and an ample olive-surrogate in the "world's most invasive martini". McMaster shrugs. "I just love to turn something with no value into something of great value."

Speaking of great value, Silo looks set to prove that sourcing ethically doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg. The menu will consist of 10-15 constantly rotating dishes with each plate costing between £9 and £12.

Pickles from Silo

Which is, taking London prices and the quality of McMaster's cooking into consideration, not bad at all. McMaster even intends to introduce an option where diners can split the entire menu between two or three people for a "super affordable" price.

Silo isn't as restrictive as you might think when it comes to the actual food, either. It's not vegan, it's not paleo, and it's not afraid to use "cow juice" (his words) in liberal measure. The food philosophy at Silo is one that adopts and embraces Neolithic pro-agricultural principles.

McMaster believes in the importance of foraging for our own food but he's not under any illusions about getting the entire world to eat that way. "It's just not rational to consider 9 billion people eating only wild food. So, to work with agriculture – not against it – is, I'm pretty sure, the only way forward."

Silo is proud to include sustainable meat and dairy on its menu as well as vegan dishes. "We can eat dairy, we can eat meat, we can eat fish. But it shouldn't be in excessive amounts," explains McMaster, "both for our own health and for that of the planet."

The wine list will, naturally, be natural, and packed with the world-class winemakers and producers that Silo worked with during its five years in Brighton. "The drinks are going to put me under pressure with the food just because they're so good," admits McMaster.

The list will include a rotating selection of specially made beers, cocktails and kombucha, including everything from the leaves of the fig leaf trees outside Silo to waste juice from a rejected fruit facility that sits across the road from the restaurant.

It's that bigger picture perspective – one that still recognises the bounty of nature that sits right in front of our faces – that makes Silo capable of living up to McMaster's vision of a "food system of the future".

Just as Henderson and Gulliver thumbed their noses (and tails) at convention by tearing up the rulebook at St. John, McMaster is eager for Silo to pave a similar path for chefs moving forward; one that doesn't involve just thinking outside the box, but questioning why the box was ever needed.

silolondon.com

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