Leftovers On The Menu, The World's Most Sustainable Restaurant
Using donated same-day bread and soon-to-expire food from supermarkets, this volunteer-run Copenhagen restaurant then turns proceeds over to needy African students.
COPENHAGEN — If you call the Copenhagen restaurant Rub & Stub to reserve a table, you may hear some unusual things. "In principle, with pleasure," a friendly Sophie Sales, one of the restaurant founders, might say in response to your request, "but you need to take into account that we might not be able to serve you dinner."
Luckily, it doesn't happen often, but it is entirely possible that on the evening of your reservation the restaurant can't round up enough staff. "Then we can't open, and you have to eat somewhere else."
No less unusual are the guest reactions. "It doesn't matter," most say. "We understand!" They often make a point of adding how great they think the project is. The benevolent attitude carries through any evening spent at Rub & Stub, regardless of whether waitstaff mix up a couple of orders, the vegetables are overcooked, or the kitchen is a little bit grimy. You can pretty much count on everybody being satisfied.
It's been a little over a year now since Rub & Stub opened in the Huset alternative cultural center in Copenhagen's Old Town. "We never expected" the rush to get in to be as big as it has been since the opening, Sales says. Guests most certainly do not come because they expect perfection or want to eat fantastically well. What they come for is a cozy evening with solid cooking, and a good conscience.
Nothing goes to waste
For years, sustainability and related issues have been one of the major trends in gastronomy. Regional cuisine, a selection of vegetarian dishes, organic products, fair trade ingredients and traceability have long become standard mentions on the menus of many establishments, if only for marketing purposes.
But Rub & Stub — the name translates loosely as "absolutely everything" — far exceeds such expectations. And if the people that operate it tended toward using superlatives, it could certainly be described as one of the most sustainable restaurants on the planet. That's because they only use food that otherwise would have been discarded, because nearly all staffers work completely free, and because any profit is used to give young people in Sierra Leone computer training. You can hardly do more with a few bowls of soup, a little salad or a few plates of couscous.
The restaurant is located on the second floor of a former cattle shed with oak beams dating back to the 18th century. It has room for well over 100 guests. Anybody who wanders in here during the afternoon would think they'd stumbled on a bunch of students sharing a flat. In one sofa corner sit Sophie Sales, 28, and cook Soren Grimstrup, 33, talking to a couple of others about the evening planning.
How it all began
In three hours, a good 70 guests are expected, but there's nothing stressed about this little meeting. The restaurant's décor has mostly been thrown together — lamps from the 1970s, second-hand chairs, old cable drums used for tables. "We collected what we could get for free," Sales explains. "A year and a half ago, we didn't even know we would be opening this place. And we didn't have any money." Starting capital was little more than 1,000 euros.
Sales is a joyful woman with semi-long blonde curls. She laughs often as she recalls their beginnings. Everything went so quickly, and she knows most people who hear the story are a little bit incredulous. She's actually a PR consultant, and Grimstrup the cook is straight out of university where he received degrees in statistics and nutrition. What all eight restaurant founders share is a history of working in restaurants as students and being shocked at how much food is wasted.
Western Europe and the United States are top-ranked in throwing out food, but the Danes lead the pack. "We've lost contact with our food," Sales says. "For example, instead of smelling something to decide if it's fresh, we look at sell-by dates."
Rub & Stub's founders originally intended to collect leftovers, which are often used in soup kitchens, and to create a non-profit catering service. Then the plan made the rounds of the million-inhabitant village that is Copenhagen, and an aid organization that ran two charity cafés suggested they should work together.
"We'll support you if the money goes to Africa," they said. The people at the Huset cultural center said the second floor was freeing up and that they could have the space if they moved in within three months. "At that point, we didn't have a lot of time to think," Sales says.
A strong embrace
Once it launched, the project's momentum was difficult to control. It has been hugely popular, and the BBC expand=1] suddenly came knocking on the door, followed by journalists from the around the world. Everybody seemed to entertain different ideas about what sustainability meant. One Asian paper wrote indignantly, "Unbelievable. European gastronomes are now taking leftovers from the poor and turning the idea into a business model."
A French news agency recently insinuated that the Danes had started serving garbage in restaurants and illustrated the item with a picture of a trash dump. "We were constantly explaining ourselves, but were nevertheless often misunderstood," Sales says. Yet when they started out, the Rub & Stub team itself didn't know how it was going to round up what everybody was calling "garbage," even though it was actually food that had not yet perished but would soon be thrown out by stores and producers.
Our meeting having reached its end, the tables must now be set. Grimstrup heads for the kitchen and peels carrots or stirs a Moroccan meat stew as he continues talking. Staffers carry in crates of bread, including unsold loaves baked that day at some of the finest bakeries. They always get enough bread, which is why fake couscous made of dried baguette crumbs is being served with the stew. For starters, there are also nachos made out of sliced, gratinated rolls. An event company has sent 80 liters of salsa over that it wasn't using.
Menus are mostly created spontaneously, as the team often finds out what ingredients it has at its disposal on the same day. Improvisation is par for the course. When they recently received an unexpected 500 eggs with a looming expiration date, they spent hours making crêpes to use both as dessert and in soup the next day. When ground meat comes in, it has to be cooked and frozen immediately. When they started, the public health department was a little skeptical, but it has come around to being "completely persuaded" by the concept, Grimstrup says.
At the beginning, they only had 25% food donations. A year later the figure is some 40%. "Our goal is 60%," the cook says. "Anything more than that is unrealistic. The rest will be bought," he says, adding that otherwise he couldn't really turn out decent meals.
Getting things was tough in the beginning. Supermarkets didn't want to be associated with the restaurant, and the best bakers still ask them not to let on where their bread is coming from. One large dairy factory offered them 10,000 liters of milk with an expiration date of the next day. Rub & Stub only needed 30 liters. "Not worth it. We'll throw the whole thing out," was the factory’s reply.
There are often logistical problems, but the restaurant has started working with food banks that ensure distribution. Other food comes to them because it doesn't meet norms. One farmer brought in a half a ton of new potatoes which were slightly too big to sell in supermarkets.
The cook has now sped up his preparations, stirring, delegating, distributing ingredients, stirring some more. The first volunteers for kitchen and front-of-house service have wandered in and have to be given instructions. Four will stay in the kitchen, five will serve. To help out here, the only condition is to commit for six months and work at least three shifts a month. Only the two cooks and restaurant manager are permanently employed (and paid little).
With some exceptions, the volunteer system works well. Many students work here, and when asked, all say it's because they wanted to be involved in something that has meaning. Grimstrup says the volunteers "are highly motivated." The dishwasher's day job is as boss of a small computer course company. He puts in five hours every Friday night and has done so for a year.
It's early evening, and the restaurant is slowly filling up. People wear everything from hand-knitted sweaters to business suits. There are tourists and students alike. Politicians and people who work in city administration also often eat here and like to bring visiting foreigners since it makes a good impression. The Ministry of the Interior has a reservation for 20 a few days from now. By the end of the evening, guests will be expressing satisfaction with slightly gluey nachos and industrial salsa and a surprisingly good Middle Eastern stew.
The Rub & Stub team have long realized they don't need any marketing for their concept, because there are plenty of advocates without it. Grimstrup is working on a book of recipes for leftovers. And soon a team delegation will go to Amsterdam to check out a Rub & Strub imitation that just opened there.