Food & Drink

Silo: Closing the Loop

In an industry plagued by excess, Douglas McMaster’s zero-waste restaurant is an exercise in imagination

Douglas McMaster, all photography Sadie Catt

The lampshade above me is made from mycelium, a branching fungus grown with used brewing grains. Underfoot, the floor is carbon-negative cork, and the bar is comprised of leather shoe pulp. My plate was previously a plastic bag. This up-cycling reverie is the site of Silo, the ambitious Hackney restaurant, perched next to the River Lea, by Douglas McMaster. It quietly states that there is another way to run a kitchen, namely, producing zero waste. In practice, this means hard graft: butter is churned by hand; retired beasts are consumed nose to tail, and anything not eaten is fed into an aerobic composter. There is no bin. “It all matters because everything comes from nature, therefore it has value,” McMaster tells me over coffee on a grey May morning. “We need to honour these materials in every way we can, every bit of energy. They deserve respect.”

Originally from Worksop in Nottinghamshire, the head chef dropped out of school after years of struggling with dyslexia, dyscalculia, and being lost in an education system that was “as homogenous and sterile as a cardboard box”. Disillusioned further after placements in a string of masochistic Michelin kitchens, he would go on to find solace in the “safe haven and original expression” of Fergus Henderson’s St JOHN. Joining in 2008, McMaster was named Great Britain’s best young chef by the BBC a year later. A brief stint at NOMA soon followed, before he travelled and cooked in Australia, crucially meeting the artist and farmer Joost Bakker (pronounced like ‘toast’ with a ‘y’).Together they launched the world’s first entirely waste-free café, quickly winning hearts, minds, and awards. At the start of our talk, McMaster is keen to stress the creative concept of present-day Silo is indebted to the Dutch-born eco-activist, now one of his closest friends: “Zero-waste is because of him. He had the vision and gave it to me on a plate – I ran with it.”

Returning to the UK, he was determined to realise the circular vision he’d crafted down under. Though with no business plan or money, he was laughed out of every bank he tried. McMaster rolled the dice and remortgaged his family home in 2014 to secure a warehouse in Brighton that he’d chanced across. “I wasn’t ready for London,” he confides, “so this first iteration of the restaurant acted as a seaside training dojo.” Silo made immediate waves by “swimming against the current”, employing what the chef dubbed “pre-industrial” systems. Wasteful, carbon-heavy suppliers were cut out – no middlemen meant trading directly with farms. No single-use plastic was used in-house or for transporting produce, only reusable containers such as urns or pails. Staff were trained to mill flour, bake bread, and the art of whole-food preparation, so that no flora or fauna was wasted. And, crucially, the dishes were delicious.

Silo, London

The exhaustion from maintaining this operation, all while winning over critics and a loyal following, often led to McMaster sleeping on the floor. “There’s no rule book about how to open a restaurant,” he reflects. “And there is certainly no rule book about how to open a zero-waste restaurant. It pushed me to the brink of sanity. I fell many times, but every trip has given birth to what it is now. I wouldn’t change that, but I wouldn’t go back. My attention to detail is meticulous now because I felt an overwhelming burden of shame for every single one of those mistakes. Through not being good at school, I have this burning desire to prove somebody that doesn’t exist wrong, this imagined shadow.”

For a proposition founded on a tightly closed loop, it’s noteworthy that the chef sees creativity – which the Brighton restaurant had in abundance for its five-year lifespan – being fed by missteps and improvisation: “I was in an absurd flow, making sense of nonsense, stumbling across miracles. Vegetable treacle, plates made from plastic bags, sourdough miso – it was special to have somehow survived all that, and for those things to live on to tell the tale.”

Silo, London

These small marvels now have their home in London thanks to a crowd-fundraiser greatly exceeding its £500k target. Opening at the end of 2019, the sleekly designed space by studio Nina+Co had its grand arrival disrupted due to the pandemic, but is now back to serving imaginative, thoughtful food. Standing on the shoulders of Brighton, an immense amount of discipline is evident in Hackney. Chefs work quickly and diligently, the coal-black kitchen extending out into the dining area like a ship’s bow. There is a formula for everything. How much salt goes onto the smoked Pink Fir potato, how long the tomatoes are brined for – all is preordained and fixed down to the exact gram and second. McMaster concedes it may not sound like the most glamorous way of cooking, but it has proved to be the most effective zero-waste hymn sheet to sing from.

Balancing this control, the hyper-seasonal kitchen is at the whim of whatever is available from nearby farms. For example, a recent drought considerably altered its opening menu (projected onto the wall and updated in real time), and such limitations are embraced, encouraging experimentation. A vein of Asian techniques and flavours runs through its palate. Humble Lisbon onions are elevated with a richly aged fish sauce, while bavette steaks sing with Sichuan pepper. Koji, miso, and amazake recur throughout – due to their circular preparations that maximise resources – while delivering decadent hits of umami. “If I ever opened another business,” McMaster notes, “it wouldn’t be a restaurant, but a fermentation studio. I want to up-cycle all of that surplus into liquid gold.”

The 34-year-old has realised, late in life, that his brain is wired differently. “I’m a neurodivergent, which isn’t a disability,” he tells me. “It’s simply an alternative operating system. Now, I bask in that difference. I’m proud of it. I feel I’ve got this macro lens that allows me to detach from the nuance and look at the whole landscape, the entire ecosystem.” Indeed, McMaster’s sights stretch further than Silo. During the pandemic he launched an online cooking school, short videos ranging from how to transform Japanese knotweed into something edible, to making a sous vide alternative without plastic. A couple of days after our conversation, he will be delivering a lecture at Copenhagen’s MAD Academy, the school established by René Redzepi that aims to reform hospitality and our (currently broken) food systems. His talk will be a schematic of sorts, outlining how Silo’s structure can be applied to any restaurant if they are prepared for the added labour. This thinking was cogently laid down in his 2019 book – Silo: The Zero Waste Blueprint – and I ask what’s needed to establish a healthier relationship between rapidly multiplying humans and the natural world? “Sustainability isn’t enough,” he replies. “We can’t sustain what we’ve got, because it isn’t enough. We need localised agrarian societies feeding people in the immediate area, as well as regenerative agriculture, to fix what we’ve done. Every person, chef and non-chef, needs to realise that the natural world is being depleted. Before we learn how to do simultaneous equations, we need to understand that nature is not an endless resource that we can keep pillaging. Composting, natural materials – these are all choices. When we buy new plastic, we’re choosing for nature to be suffocated.”

If McMaster’s words sound dramatic, it’s because the situation demands it. Our lives are plagued by waste. Ten per cent of global carbon emissions are linked to unconsumed produce, and the enormity of the problem often leads to eyes glazing over – how do you compute 931 million tonnes of food waste per year? While the majority comes from high- and middle-income households – those with the material means to make the choices McMaster cites – a quarter of that figure derives from food services, highlighting the significant and untapped role restaurants must play in the coming years. What is the most effective means to counter this inertia and encourage zero waste? “Make it better than the alternative,” he states. “Make it beautiful, delicious. If it was the optimum way to live hedonistically, more people would be attracted to it. I don’t believe zero waste or Silo is a trend. If it is, it’s also the future. It can’t be anything else.”

‘Silo’ comes from the Greek σιρός, meaning ‘pit for storing grain’, and doubles in business jargon as an insular cell withholding information. McMaster’s creation, as a storehouse and celebration of natural materials, is a poetic reimagining of the former, and a rejection of the latter. Because although the restaurant is in many ways standalone in its singular vision, it is concerned with our whole ecosystem – of how and what we eat – and the intricate play between these channels. It shares its learning because it truly believes in the alternative: that waste is a modern, man-made invention, and ultimately, “a failure of imagination”.

Photography Sadie Catt

This article is taken from Port issue 29. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here