You might call this the ultimate virtuous circle: Igor Vaintraub, the self-styled “Food Waste Farmer”, collects waste from some of the country’s top restaurants and turns it into compost for his farm, where it’s ploughed back into the soil to grow produce for the very kitchens it came from. Indie Ecology, the company he set up three years ago, grows fruit, vegetables and edible flowers to order, using the customer's’ own composted food waste. The company provides the land (plots start at 1,100 sq ft), the farmers and logistics: the restaurants decide what type of crops they want, and how much they need.
Around 10 chefs are currently renting plots, greenhouse space and polytunnels at Vaintraub’s new six-acre site in Sussex, enabling London restaurants such as The Clove Club, The Ledbury, The Dairy and The Manor, which don't have space for their own kitchen gardens to grow bespoke produce, while using up the kitchen waste they can’t cut out completely. “We help address commercial kitchens’ food waste problem,” Igor says. “We’re looking at the whole carbon footprint of the food; cutting CO2 emissions through better land management, turning waste into soil and putting it back onto the land, increasing the biodiversity by adding beneficial microorganisms, and following the best organic practices.”
Vaintraub is uniquely placed to become such a pioneer: he trained as a chef, working in acclaimed London restaurants such as Elena’s L’Etoile and L’Oranger before giving up the stove for a career in soil science. “I understand chefs and wanted to find a way to help transform the way they think and act in terms of their impact on nature and the environment,” he declares, as we travel to his rapidly expanding farm in West Sussex where, employing purely organic methods, he uses his compost on top of existing soil. Creating the plot was a mission in itself: Vaintraub borrowed tractors and equipment from the local agriculture establishment, Oathall Community College, and deployed the expertise of farm manager Tom Morphew, who had apprenticed at the college as a teenager.
“It’s such a beautiful part of England: we call it a botanical garden for chefs,” says the foodie-turned-farmer. The site has another advantage: it was close enough to the capital to make the waste collection and the twice-weekly produce deliveries a viable prospect. “When the deliveries arrive, there’s a buzz in the restaurants - it all arrive with roots and leaves attached, covered in soi, the way it’s supposed to. Unwashed and fresh from the land,” Vaintraub tells me. The compost, rich and almost black, is produced using an anaerobic Japanese method called Bokashi; it's entirely organic, using a type of fermented molasses and naturally occurring microorganisms to turn kitchen scraps into a safe, nutrient[rich compost. “We don’t use water, there’s no smell, no flies - and it all uses much less energy than conventional green waste.”
Next, the family-owned champagne producer Laurent Perrier is considering coming on board in a communications tole, to help increase public understanding about Igor’s methods. There’s also talk of partnering with Mash Purveyors, a leading fruit and vegetable supplier: they’re working on a plan that might allow the service to scale up across the South East.
Those who are already part of the project clearly enthusiastic. Adam Handing who runs who high-end London restaurants (The Frog and Frog by Adam Handling) as well as Bean & Wheat, a zero-waste cafe, has rented the biggest plot on the farm, with two full-time farmers to look after it. “It was a big investment: you have to pay to rent the land knowing you won’t get anything for five to six months. But it’s exciting for us, a chance for our chefs to be inspired. It’s also challenging because you often have to change the menu depending on what Igor delivers. Half an hour before service last night I had to put a courgette dish on, because we had such a lot of them.” Handling says the quality of the produce speaks for itself. “We use a lot of small herbs and flowers - 20 percent of a punnet from a regular supplier will be damaged and goes in the bin, but Igor’s team really look after it. You can get him to pick a turnip or a radish at a specific size, so it’s exactly what you want.”
Vaintraub says it’s often a learning curve for chefs: “I tell them nature is not a fridge. We use what we get.” But that’s exactly what is exciting chefs such as Dean Parker, from The Manor: “You have to learn how to plan ahead rather than buy off a list, to work out what seeds will yield the best quality and make the most of a small space. We have 20kg [44lb] of tomatoes the other day, so we’ll preserve that we can’t use.” Parker is also inspired by the move away from the old mono-crop culture which was rendering farmland unusable, destroying the nutrients in the soil. “We now think about the weather and how it will affect what we've planted - it’s definitely taking the risk from the farmer to the restaurant. But we get better produce as a result, and it’s great to be able to say it’s been picked that day, directly from our farm.”
Vaintraub has big expansion plans: a kitchen garden in the agricultural college is being tended by students; he’s started recruiting more chefs outside London and is looking for a second site within the M25. “We don't sell by the kilogram, we engage with the seasons,” he tells me. “And because we turn everything into beautiful so, we get quality ingredients without tampering with nature too much.” Forget field to fork: it’s plate to farm and back to plate again.
Written by Felicity Spector for The Sunday Telegraph