Silo in Brighton churns its own butter, makes cheese from steamed milk remnants and has its own composter. Georgina Wilson-Powell, editor of the ethical lifestyle mag pebble magazine, meets the chef whose zero waste restaurant is the birth child of recycled food waste and anti-industrial anarchy.
Plant terrorists. Pirate ships filled with coffee. Sourdough Jedi training. Silo owner, Douglas McMaster’s mind is a breath of fresh air in a ‘seasonal’-littered fog created by hip looking restaurants desperate to find an environmental USP.
McMaster looks like a young radicalised artist not a restaurateur, let alone an award-winning restaurateur. His passion plea for a zero waste economy, Silo in Brighton, scooped Observer Food Monthly’s Best Ethical Restaurant award in 2016, something that has left the talkative idealist feeling rather ‘chuffed’.
Silo isn’t just any old, drinks in jam-jars, millennials on macs restaurant. As Britain’s first zero waste restaurant or ‘pre-industrial food system’ it walks a fine line between being genuinely boundary pushing with a social and environmental agenda and being a place where you not only want to eat, but where you want to return to.
Nothing is wasted; steamed milk remnants from coffee making are turned into cheese, mushrooms are grown in coffee grounds, nettles and ‘plant food’ are elevated to high cuisine and even a simple dish like slow braised venison on lentils garners high praise from restaurant critic Marina O’Loughlin who said of it, “It has a thrilling, throat-tickling resonance, like a low note played on an old cello.”
“It’s just eat nature,” McMaster says. “Eating food in its natural representation, that’s simply it.”
There’s a composter in the middle of the floor, sacks of flour sit higgledy-piggledy having just been milled on site, butter is being churned in buckets out the back. This is a return to a more primitive diet in essence, with modern technology making ancient processes possible within a restaurant environment.
“Moon jellyfish invaded a Scottish power plant and it had to be abandoned. How mad is that?”
“If it comes in a packet, there’s probably something wrong with it,” exclaims McMaster with his infectious conviction. “In nature there is no waste, so being zero waste is being as close to nature as possible, that’s the key. I like to think in circles.”
That he does. A former chef at St John’s Bread & Wine in London, McMaster underwent a ‘global food pilgrimage’ ending up working in Melbourne on a former incarnation of Silo before setting up in Brighton two years ago. He’s defiant and disarmingly knowledgeable on everything from closed loop systems and circular economies to natural processes and the perils of industrialisation.
Silo is a long lesson however.
“During my cooking career I’d butchered animals, churned butter and milled flour on a small scale but by no means to excess. It’s doing it on a larger scale and training other people to do it that’s hard,” he explains. “Teaching someone about sourdough doesn’t happen overnight, your brain has to change. Training people to be intuitive and grasp it and be able to teach others – it’s like trying to be a Jedi.”
A restaurant as a radical act
Food wise Silo sits between paleo, vegan and nose to tail approaches to food, focusing on small producers who help McMaster keep to his packaging free ethos. Whole foods arrive by reusable containers or milk pail. Ingredients like coffee he imports by sailing ship or ‘pirate ships’ as he likes to call them.
“Using sailing boats is a radical example that starts a train of thought that could lead to something commercial. I don’t think shipping will return to sailing by any means but you never know what sort of businesses might spark up if they want to work with wind. Sail it by ‘pirate ship’, it’s a nice thing to do and there’s some value in that,” he says.
Radical isn’t a dirty word at Silo, rather an empowering one. McMaster, the son of an artist, embraces his love of an anarchic alternative.
“I’m not commercial, I want to be radical and can’t help myself. I sometimes think I need to be more commercial but my biggest passion are big ideas that are expressed in an anarchistic way.”
That problem solving defiance is the perfect prism through which to tackle food waste.
“Someone told me Silo couldn’t exist so I think that it can. I love a challenge. If someone says it’s hard then I put more energy into creative solutions,” he says. “When there’s a hunger gap we get creative with pickling and fermenting. There’s so much to learn about the worlds of bacteria and fermentation, we become like an organic machine.”
While anything fermented has the risk of sounding trendy, Silo’s commitment to recycling and reusing runs deeper than making kimchi, hence the jam-jars, plates made from plastic bags and a huge composter in the middle of the restaurant which supplies nearby neighbours and friends. McMaster also never stops thinking about unusual ingredients, specifically those he terms ‘off-grid’.
“I want to tap into food resources that are taboo or forgotten about. I’m fascinated by Japanese knotweed. It’s the world’s most invasive plant species, it’s a crazy pest that can puncture tarmac, a plant terrorist if you like. I love the idea of cooking it as a poetic way to resist the invasion.”
“Moon jellyfish invaded a Scottish power plant and it had to be abandoned. How mad is that? They don’t taste of anything but you can add flavour to them. Or American Signal Crayfish, they’re evil bastards. They’re so well armoured that nothing in British waters stands a chance. They’re cannibals, they eat their own young and will destroy anything. I love the idea of wiping them out of our waters by eating them, using them instead of tinned tuna.”
Finding a natural rhythm
Much of McMaster’s passion for resurrecting and reinventing natural systems can be traced back to a book he can still quote, called ‘One Straw Revolution’ by Masanobu Fukuoka. Written in 1975 it traces one man’s life long battle to create a natural system for growing rice that was better than industrialised processes.
“I don’t want to grow rice but I use that as a guide and find my own way to respect the natural systems,” says McMaster. Silo is so industrial looking and urban but it’s deeply rooted in a respect for the natural world and how that is going to help us to survive. Our food processes have been traumatised by industrialisation and capitalisation so how do we get back to natural solutions that help us and the planet?” he explains. “I think about the diet implications of Silo. If we all ate as ecologically and environmentally as the restaurant, how much ill health would be avoided?”
While it’s unusual to hear a restaurateur rail against capitalism, McMaster’s passion for sharing Silo and its philosophy means he has to find a ‘sweet spot’ – some expansion but not too much. A London outlet looks set for next year, but don’t expect Silo to become the next Leon. It needs to find its own natural rhythm, he says.
“I wouldn’t want a Silo in Dubai or anything like that. It would be nice to have maybe a maximum of five but I don’t want to run five restaurants. Fuck that. I want my freedom and as little responsibility as I can so I can be creative.”