The Parisian Chefs Taking on Food Waste
A French revolution is brewing in its capital — to the great benefit of the city’s foodies and the planet itself.
Photography by Martin Bruno
Before setting foot in their kitchens to turn parsnips and butter into creamy velouté, Paris’s best chefs head south to Rungis, the world’s largest produce market. The 578-acre space is bustling by 5 a.m., full of fruits, vegetables, fish, and meat brought in by farmers and producers. Until four years ago, much of the produce that was considered too ugly, misshapen, or imperfect-looking to sell (though still edible and delicious) was actually discarded. Then former squatter turned restaurateur Aladdin Charni conceived a way to put the abandoned food to use.
A self-described vegan who, at the time, was surviving on castaway items from grocery stores, Charni realized that partnering with wholesalers directly could rescue enough food to feed a dining room full of people. “In the beginning, I wasn’t thinking about a political project. It was more pragmatic: If there is a lot of food being wasted and a lot of people who don’t have access to healthy food, let’s do something about it,” he explains. That idea blossomed into Freegan Pony, a pay-what-you-can vegetarian eatery where ingredients that would otherwise be thrown away are transformed into French classics like crêpes à la crème d’orange.
Four nights a week, the first 100 people to line up outside the restaurant are invited to dine in an atmospheric warehouse on the northern edge of Paris. The restaurant (which will reopen on April 25) also partners with organizations such as Secours Populaire and La Cuisine des Migrants to save 50 seats for migrants. “We try to involve diners. They’re not just consumers; they’re participants. Many come back to volunteer,” says Adrien Joubert, who manages Freegan Pony’s cultural projects. “There’s been a conscious effort among French people to reduce their food waste.”
“If you want to eat well in Paris, whether you are vegan or gluten-free, the possibilities have tripled in the last few years. There is a real consciousness of what we put on our plates and in our bodies.”
— Natasha Black, an Airbnb Experience host who runs a Paris market tour
According to the United Nations, one-third of food produced globally is wasted, accounting for 8 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. France’s government has taken a leadership role on the world stage. In 2016, France was the first country to make it mandatory for supermarkets to donate unsold products to charitable organizations. (Since then, Italy has adopted a similar law.) The legislation, which followed a grassroots campaign led by shoppers and anti-waste activists, has helped France become the world’s least wasteful country, according to the Food Sustainability Index, and has allowed more restaurants to embrace the Freegan Pony model. At Simone Lemon on Rue Le Peletier, for example, unattractive fruits and vegetables are used to create healthy meals at a lower cost. Also popular is Too Good to Go, an app that enables users to purchase almost-expired meals at a discount from restaurants and bakeries.
Even in Faubourg Saint-Germain, an upscale neighborhood that has been home to the French upper class for centuries, traditional chefs are spearheading sustainable fine dining. Alain Passard of the plant-focused (and three-Michelin-starred) restaurant Arpège was one of the first to redefine haute cuisine by shortening the distance between farm and table. Produce is handpicked from Passard’s own organic farms outside Paris, where tractors and pesticides are eschewed for horse-drawn plows and insect-eating frogs. Any leftover restaurant waste is sent back via train and used as compost.
Passard’s process has inspired other chefs, including François Pasteau of L’Épi Dupin, to showcase the possibilities of using sustainably caught seafood and seasonal local produce. “Before putting anything in the trash, I always ask my team: ‘Can we make anything with this produce before we throw it away?’” says Pasteau. “This gives me new ideas and allows me to keep prices low.” L’Épi Dupin is now offering “doggy bags” — a rarity in Paris — and dishes such as chickpeas with turmeric to appeal to the city’s growing number of vegans and vegetarians. It’s a trend that can have lasting effects: Recent research has established that meat, dairy, egg, and fish farming take a massive toll on the environment, producing up to 58 percent of agriculture’s emissions, greenhouse gas and otherwise.
“One of the major shifts was the opening of VG Pâtisserie, the city’s first gourmet vegan pastry shop, in 2017,” says Airbnb Experience host Thomas Tieyre, who leads a vegan walking tour. “The shop showed vegan cuisine in a new light, piquing people’s curiosity, and spurred similar businesses.” Today, Paris has nearly 65 vegan establishments, with many focusing on reducing waste, adds Thomas. Among his favorites are Le Faitout for its vegan “veal” ragout, and Le Potager de Charlotte for its signature chickpea and rice pancake topped with cashew cream and Espelette pepper. Neither is your typical French indulgence, but one of these just may be the dish that converts a traditionalist into a lover of vegetables — even the imperfect ones.
About the author: Julia Eskins is a freelance writer, editor and contributor to Architectural Digest, AFAR, Airbnb Magazine, Bloomberg Pursuits, Lonely Planet, and ELLE Canada, among other publications.