The state of the global food industry is not something I need bang on about here. Much has been written about over-production to feed a demand for fresh produce, depleted fish stocks and wasteful discards, rejection of ‘ugly’ fruit and veg, perfectly good in-date food being destroyed just because it’s cheaper to do that with undelivered groceries than put them back on sale. Almost a third of global food produced never reaches market. And there have been countless celeb-led campaigns raising awareness about each equally valid and equally depressing aspect. So, it’s refreshing when an initiative comes along which is as vital and appetising in its outlook as the dishes it creates.
The Real Junk Food Project (RJFP) is a global venture to make the most of food waste from a variety of different sources – farms, shops, supermarkets and wholesalers, to name a few – and there are cafés across the UK employing a ‘pay-as-you-feel’ system. The Manchester ‘branch’ has been operating through pop-ups in the likes of Northern Quarter’s Koffee Pot and at Red Bank (in Manchester’s Green Quarter), with the ridiculously creative hands and brain of Mary-Ellen McTague at the helm as head chef.
Since she closed her acclaimed Prestwich Aumbry restaurant at the end of 2014, McTague has been busy with top-notch pop-ups like 4244 in the Northern Quarter. She delighted the child in everyone who experienced her Alice In Wonderland-themed event at last year’s Manchester International Festival, and recently took a Real Junk Food speed-tasting menu of Northern classics down to Guy Garvey’s Meltdown Festival in London.
Without a permanent home for RJFP, an ‘at home’ version of the project has been trialled, and we were recently lucky enough to have McTague and her sous chef, Deb Burton, cook round at ours.
Having picked up the ingredients that afternoon, they arrived an hour before our four guests. The collective kids had happily arranged their own upstairs party with drinks and a snacks bar, complimented by Superman DVD, Lego and a dressing-up box – little did any of us know that our evening of gastronomic delights was also coming their way. With a modest van-load of food, tools and pots in tow, Mez and Deb quickly transformed our humble kitchen into a cauldron of smoke, scents and sound. The menu was decided while the prep was underway – main ingredients written on the back of an envelope, each dish taking shape as the night went on.
To begin the feast, we were served thin strips of succulent beef with ginger, chilli and spiralized cucumber. The dish was light, complex and packed with flavour. My wife doesn’t even like cucumber but I don’t recall seeing any left on her plate at the end of the course.
Two whole Gressingham ducks (let’s remember, they were going to be landfill) were the stars of the main course, the juicy legs accompanied by piles of shredded bird. Al dente French beans were in contrast to the most delicious potatoes I think I’ve ever tasted. They were sliced thinly and cooked with the duck, lying under the trivet so the fat dripped down and encouraged the spuds to caramelise. And by all the gods did they caramelise. Sensational. We’ve talked about the meal several times since and my mate Charlie just stares into the middle distance saying, “But those potatoes, Chris. The potatoes.”
I nod in agreement, eyes misting up, and reply “Yeah, the potatoes.”
The table was silenced by the pud. Dessert was a stunning pineapple muffin with caramel sauce. Already stuffed, I polished it off out of sheer greed.
Over the course of the evening, MacTague and Burton were happy to answer any amateur foodie questions launched their way (a sauce or gravy is ALWAYS made better by star anise, which has a subtle flavour but seems to bring the best out of all the other ingredients – thank-you Mez) and, while our palates were being treated very well indeed, the chefs also ran up and down the stairs offering the three kids taster plates for each course. Pretty sure a couple of the kids licked their bowls but, hey, it’s my house, my rules. Bowl-licking is perfectly acceptable outside the restaurant setting as far as I’m concerned. The next morning, when we cleared the debris from the inevitable kids’ sleep-over, we found the unopened tube of Pringles. Thanks to both for steering our kids’ evening towards fine dining. Burton even managed to find time to fight my son like a Jedi in the yard with a couple of garden canes. The Force is strong in that one.
Incidentally, RJFP has one hell of a strong ethos. As a movie man, it reminded me of the Dogme rules of the 90s and early 00s. Only food destined for the tip was to be used, so when I offered a lime for one of the dishes, it could only be accepted if I was able to swap it for an ingredient they had saved (a lemon). This applied to herbs, salt and pepper as well.
So what’s next for the Real Junk Food Project? More pop-ups are in the pipeline, including the Love Party Summer Social at First Chop Brewing Arm on July 9, 2016, and the launch of the Independent Centre for Actor Training Manchester in August.
If that wasn’t enough, RJFP has just been nominated in the Best Pop-Up, Event, Club or Project category at the Manchester Food and Drink Awards 2016.
They’re working towards a more permanent presence in the city but, until then, you’ll have to pop over to their pop-ups to experience this worthwhile, ecologically sound and, ultimately, delicious initiative for yourselves. Apart from anything else, it’s made us and our guests look at our store cupboards and fridges in a whole new light. The waste of food doesn’t only happen before you buy it.
Words and images by Chris Payne