It is a chilly Monday evening in March and I am sat in an Italian restaurant that has undergone a Caribbean makeover. Bird of paradise colours vividly adorn everything from the tables, walls, windows and waitresses. Spiced rum cocktails are flowing, while the smartly dressed and modestly named Alexander D. Great provides sweet sounds and rich tales of calypsonian life. Strangers are chatting, volunteers are smiling, the room is buzzing, the food is cooking. The grub? A four course, tropical tour de force of Caribbean cuisine, inventively created from surplus food that would otherwise be binned. Our bellies are being filled and the winter blues are being well and truly banished.
Clad in Rio carnival clobber, the woman behind this tropical supper club, Brigida Marovelli, delivers a speech as bold as her head wrap; “This is an occasion not to feel guilty about what’s going wrong but to make changes together. We need to fight food waste…but also keep the pleasure of eating and of conviviality. It’s very important to reconnect people to food.”
This is the defining ethos of Dinner Exchange East. For the last five years, food anthropologist Brigida and her team of cheery volunteers have been tackling the issue of food waste through the conviviality of communal eating by hosting fun, unique and ‘guilt-free’ supper clubs in a mix of places – from living rooms, converted warehouses, museums to a giant doll’s house.
Whether its been an exotic calypso backdrop, an immersive theatre theme, a large conference or a sophisticated opera dining experience, the mission of salvaging surplus food and culinary up-cycling has remained the same. “We call it culinary up-cycling because while most of the menu is made up of surplus food rescued from markets and wholesalers, a lot of the ingredients are bought to add flavour and taste – so it is not 100% freegan” she adds.
Most importantly, these events are concerned with re-establishing our connection with food and engaging people with food waste in an open, non-judgemental way. “It’s pleasure, its leisure and at the same time we will be together thinking about food waste”, Brigida affirms. “People are tired of unethical hospitality and our strength is that we cater and put on events in a sustainable way”.
Food waste and has certainly become more entrenched in peoples minds and imaginations. Brigida explains why – “since the economic crisis, people’s views towards food have changed – they are looking for more sustainable alternatives and are willing to take more responsibility. We are so disconnected from the production of food but now more people are actively finding out about this – particularly because of projects like The Gleaning Network“.
The process of putting on a Dinner Exchange event is both invigorating and challenging in equal measure. Brigida and her band of diligent volunteers are regular faces across the markets of London – particularly Stamford Hill – spending hours persuading food sellers to donate their produce for their cause. “We have developed a strong bond with our suppliers now, and they recognise us”, Brigida says. “It is really important that we build and sustain this relationship”.
After transporting their boxes of ingredients to the kitchen – usually on rammed bus – they get to work on devising a menu. With the unpredictability of the interception and the spontaneity of the ingredients, developing a menu aligned to their theme can be difficult, as they descend into haphazard, experimental territory of Ready, Steady Cook. “The kitchen becomes a room full of expletives on my behalf”, Brigida cries.
After the organising, promoting, interception, cooking – then comes the hosting, and its incredible to see Brigida and her team deploy such vibrant energy and irrepressible passion, tirelessly chatting and entertaining the throng of diners. “I usually fly somewhere far away after one of our events to chill out and recuperate!”
However chaotic and stressful these events are, Brigida and her team show no signs of ceasing their culinary up-cycling mission, stepping up their game in a number of ways. Firstly, by setting out to become a social enterprise to give themselves more status, control and efficiency in running their sustainable operation. “I want to get to point where I can pay my volunteers – even if its just a minimum wage – people commit a lot of hours and it will be nice if it could be recognised.”
And secondly by putting on a new weekly supper club, ‘Vegan Mondays’, taking place every Monday at Ombra, in Hackney. “Vegan Mondays is different to our previous supper clubs in that it is going to be an all-day cafe on a weekly basis”, she says. “We are still going to address food waste, but it is also a weekly occasion to reduce meat and dairy consumption, particularly as it falls on Meat Free Mondays”. Brigida continues, “the weekly pop-up focuses on three things – that it uses sustainably sourced surplus ingredients, that its vegan and that it encourages guilt-free pleasure”.
It seems that it is exchange by name and exchange by nature. This ‘exchanging’ sharing economy promoted by Dinner Exchange East encapsulates the entire collaborative anti-food waste network that is blooming in the UK, a network which is comprised of various campaigns, innovators, eco-chefs, social enterprises, community kitchens, entrepreneurs and bloggers – all unified in the same goal to fight food waste.
Brigida and her team have recently catered a large scale surplus menu for the food poverty charity Plan Zheroes hub launch event, as well as raising money and working alongside the food waste charities Feedback, FoodCycle and Growing Communities. When setting up their weekly vegan residency, Brigida called on the Real Junk Food Project pay-as-you-feel cafe in Leeds to glean some tips and business advice. “It really helps working with these projects because it builds networks – it’s an exchange – and that’s where the name comes from – that’s what we’re about”.
So, what are you waiting for? If you want to consume with a conscience and eat glorious vegan grub in a convivial setting with inspiring people or maybe you want to become a volunteer – get yourself down to ‘Vegan Mondays’ every Monday (09.30am – 10.00pm) at Ombra, Hackney, E2 9DG.