The first thing you say in WASTED! is that when you heard the idea for the documentary, you hated it. How was it first pitched to you?
Well, it’s intended to change hearts and minds, and I like the idea, I just didn’t think I was right to be in it. I mean, I’m very reluctant to be thought of as an activist. It goes against my nature! But the idea of wasting food is something that has always been sort of beaten into me from my first days working as a cook and as a chef, that it’s abhorrent. Wasting food is sin. So, I was instinctively sympathetic to the idea, I was just not sure whether I was the right guy for the job.
Food movies with a message have been around since Super Size Me in 2004, but are seemingly getting bigger and bigger. Just this year, What the Health was the biggest craze for a minute there. Did you look at any of those movies to decide what you did or didn’t want this to be?
I’m not sure if the directors, Anna Chai and Nari Kye, did. I’d seen Super Size Me and I thought it was pretty effective, but no, not really. Not for me, personally.
There isn’t explicitly a message in the movie of, This could be healthy or good for your diet, though obviously there are economic and environmental reasons, among others, to care about food waste. How do you get people to pay attention to this film and this message?
Well, it’s a pretty horrifying statistic when you realize we’re wasting, like, 40 percent of the food that we produce. Especially in a world where so many people do not have the food they need, that in itself is something that I’m glad we could get out to people. And then to show some both innovative and very traditional ways in which we can at least mitigate that, that’s both a challenge and interesting to me.
How have your travels and personally seeing, firsthand, people living without food affected what you brought to this movie?
I think when you’ve traveled for 17 years all over the world, often in developing nations, often in countries and communities that people are really hungry and really struggling every day to live, to have access to water and food they need, that changes one’s perspective and stays with you.
But what also stays with me is that over the years, I’ve been treated so warmly and fed so well with such delicious food often by people who have very, very little, who have a tradition out of necessity of making every little bit of what they have into something that’s deeply satisfying and delicious and that they’re proud of. That’s inspiring, and I think maybe that’s kind of what we’re asking of the viewer: Treat your food like any Italian grandmother would. Make the most of what you have. Make it delicious. Cook it well. Enjoy both cooking and serving it to people you care about.
Is there one of those dishes that stands out in your memory?
One that everybody will be familiar with is the classic Sunday gravy, an Italian ragu in sauce. It’s a delicious dish. It comes from poverty and was initially designed and served as two meals — it’s one dish served spread out over either two course or two entirely different meals. You cook a bunch of, you know, hooves and snouts and bony meat for a really long time in sauce and it makes the sauce delicious and meaty tasting, which you can then use to dress the pasta. Then you serve the tender braised meat on the side as either a second course or an entirely second meal. This is a staple of Italian Americana, and everybody — many, many millions of people — have very fond connections to that dish. Just because it’s cheap and makes the most use of relatively inexpensive ingredients doesn’t mean it can’t be a powerful, emotional experience and a deeply satisfying one.
Nowadays, it seems like everyone fancies themselves a foodie and thinks they know everything there is to know about eating clean or eating green. What is your read on the current state of food culture?
I think we’re more aware of food, of what we’re eating, and we’re willing to try new things than ever before, and the way we value food has never been more arbitrary or more promising, in some ways. Because, look, people used to have to eat pig’s feet, pork belly, veal cheeks, oily little fish, pig tails– These things only used to be available in impoverished communities with very little. Now, in order to find those dishes, you gotta go up to Brooklyn to some hipster restaurant and pay 32 bucks a pop. So, we’re willing to try those things. We understand that they have value, that they can be deeply satisfying. Those are hit foods right now, ironically enough.
Besides our wastefulness, what is one thing you think people are constantly getting wrong when it comes to our current culture of food?
The insistence on enjoying certain things 365 days a year, when they’re clearly not in season or not particularly good is something that I’d love to see change. I don’t know. I think we’re getting better. There’s plenty of silliness out there and hypocrisy, but we’re an emerging food culture. Only in the last two, three decades have we really started to step up. We’re so much more sophisticated and knowledgeable about food and demanding to know about it. I’m hopeful.
What is your hope?
I hope we will hold fast food and snack food in less and less regard every year and insist on learning to cook a little better ourselves, valuing basic cooking skills in both boys and girls from very early ages, so that all of us, we can create a society where everybody is able to cook for themselves and a few friends, if called upon to do so. If I could live in a world where everyone who’s planning on having sex with another person is capable of preparing them an omelet in the morning, properly, we would definitely be living in a better world.