“WASTED! The Story of Food Waste” is an artfully told documentary produced and starring author and chef Anthony Bourdain. 

But coming from Bourdain, a self-proclaimed “non-activist,” you might be surprised to learn that it’s also a story of solutions to issues like hunger, the environment, and sustainability. 

The documentary features top chefs Danny Bowien, Dan Barber, Massimo Bottura, Mario Batali, food waste experts like Tristram Stuart, and others. 

Innovative projects such as food waste pig farms in Japan and complex compost systems in Korea highlight the future of fighting food waste that is beginning to spark across the globe. 

Global Citizen spoke with the Emmy-award winning directors of the film, Anna Chai and Nari Kye, who are also the directors of the hit show “Mind of a Chef.” The two women completed the ambitious project with support from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Yield Wise initiative in about a year — a short time that shocked other filmmakers at the TriBeCa Film Festival, where “WASTED! The Story of Food Waste” premiered this year. 

Here’s what they learned, how they did it, and what you can do help end food waste. 

Tell me about the process of making the film. 

CHAI: Some other filmmakers here, they’re like, ‘We spent four years filming, in India, and two years editing. How about you guys?’ And we started in May of last year. So it’s been accelerated but we’ve been very lucky. Most people wouldn’t do it this quickly. 

We also lucked out because food waste has become much more of an issue than people are aware of. So it was kind of a happy turn of events that this all came together at the same time. It was also motivating once more research was available to us. A lot of people reached out to us too. We were able to film a lot of amazing people in a lot of different places.

From a film perspective, this is a very serious issue. It’s one that with a little bit of effort could have a very big impact. But it was actually fun, seeing all this innovation. There are a lot of people out there trying a bunch of crazy stuff and that kind of worked in our favor. 

What inspired you to make this film?

KYE: I think because we’re surrounded by so many great chefs and we work with chefs from all over the world this project was a really organic creation. For years we’ve been filming with these chefs and we realized they get obsessed with garbage and eliminating garbage from their lives. We realized, wow, this is a big issue for them. 

We saw that and then teamed with the Rockefeller Foundation. They launched the Yield Wise initiative and it became this collaboration and they were able to support us by funding the film. We had this pool of great chefs and different organizations that we found. I think a great story emerged out of that because it was something that was already very existent in the food world. We wanted to bring it to a large audience of consumers to show how they could make a big impact on food waste. 

CHAI: Chefs look at it as an opportunity. They look at like, ‘Oh what can I do with this? I’m buying a whole pig and I know this will go on the main menu, this we’ll use for stock, this will make sausage.’ So that’s one way of looking at it. Then we started researching and realized that food waste happens on all levels of the supply chain. Chefs are doing a lot of interesting work that speaks to them on a creative level but food waste also has an effect on the environment. It’s related to climate change, and 90% of the food we throw away ends up in landfills. People don’t realize what that damage is: there’s a lot of food insecurity and hunger, not even just in the US, but in the world. 

And we realized there are a lot of different motivations, whether moral, environmental, or financial from a chef perspective to prevent food waste...As we started digging into this we realized ‘Wow, people are taking food waste and turning it into energy.” There is a town in Quebec powering their cars with food waste, it’s like “Back to the Future.” Kids in New Orleans are getting gardening education and clamouring for fruits and vegetables.

There was a lot of inspiration because there are a lot of people already working in this space. So a lot of the solutions are relatively painless and easy to adopt. 

Was Anthony Bourdain a supporter from the beginning? 

KYE: We knew that Tony would be an important voice for this because his whole career is based on the idea of exploring new cultures, seeing how they do things, and how they’ve been doing things for long periods of time. He is a big proponent of peasant cuisines (going back to how people have been living and doing things for sheer necessity) and he sees so much of that firsthand. It became a very personal project for him because he knows that in certain parts of the world, you would never throw out a fish head or scraps because that’s how people survive. So for him, it was a very natural fit. 

We didn’t have to reinvent things for him. You know he always says he’s ‘not an activist,’ he’s kind of a cynic when it comes to a lot of issues, but this was something he could really get behind...From the beginning, he had some reluctance because he didn’t want to be painted as an activist, but we said, “Hey! This is your message and it fits right along with what we’re trying to do with this film.” 

It seems so logical but people have become so removed from the idea of how food is produced. Because it’s so cheap, people are very nonchalant about throwing pieces of food away. 

CHAI: He eats everything. He knows way better than the average person ‘this part of the pig is the best,’ or that when a fish is presented to you nobody’s going to fight him for the eyeballs or the cheek in America, but in some parts of the world that’s reserved for elders or the guest of honor. Those are things that to him are, in some ways,  second nature. That was important to include and to show the chefs for all their diverse qualities. 

KYE: There were some things that really pissed him off...You never throw anything away in a professional kitchen. So when he sees people throwing away what he thinks are the best parts of an animal or a piece of produce, he’s like, ‘Guys, you’re looking at this all wrong.’ For him there are great, delicious solutions to food waste and we all need to focus on those. 

What are some common misconceptions between the parallels of hunger and food waste? 

CHAI: Making the film we learned a lot about food insecurity in places where people have access to food but not access to the nutrients they need to have a healthy life, or enough energy to get through the day. 

Also the fact that what we’re wasting no longer has value. That was definitely a misconception. For example, ugly fruits and vegetables or an apple that has a little bit of brown, those foods don’t have to be thrown away. There are people who can use that. You can cook it into applesauce, make apple pie, you’ll never see those brown parts. 

We talk about the chefs because they have this extensive training but there are a lot of things the average person can do. There’s also a lot that once learned, you can’t unsee. And that will give you pause thereafter. 

For me, the greatest hope is that once people know that, once the seed is planted, they will have a different interaction with food. 

KYE: There are 800 million people in the world who are hungry. We throw so much of our food away — 40% in the US — and that’s all completely edible. Tristram Stuart, in our film, says we do live in a global society and global food market. It’s not like you can send your leftover food to developing countries but the idea that we’re taking this food off the shelves of a global food market does have a direct effect on people going to bed hungry every night. 

You don’t even have to look far, one in five children in the US is food insecure. The idea that we are throwing huge volumes of such completely delicious and edible food away is something you can’t unknow. I do think people will shop, cook, go to restaurants differently when they know they’re about to throw food away. 

For me, the greatest hope is that once people know that, once the seed is planted, they will have a different interaction with food. 

What else did you learn? 

CHAI: Grain, for example, 75% is used to feed livestock. Cows aren’t even supposed to be eating grains. Pigs can eat anything, chickens too. Most people don’t know that.

KYE: And we don’t expect people to start raising chickens in their apartments or backyards. But the fact that these animals can eat anything, which is one of the stories we feature in our film, is important.

People don’t realize what that damage is: there’s a lot of food insecurity and hunger, not even just in the US, but in the world. 

In Japan, they realized, ‘Why are we spending all this money importing corn from the US when we have all this food waste that the pigs can be eating?’ Not only does this save money and is better for the environment but the product tastes better. There are delicious solutions every step of the way. That’s the great thing about incorporating chefs into this world. They care ultimately about flavor. It taps a chord with everyone. 

CHAI: If it’s delicious and it helps the environment, it’s a win-win. 

What can Global Citizens do to promote change in big systems, like supermarkets, to help end food waste? 

KYE: Consumers have huge power in changing supermarkets, farms, and big distributors because we make the decisions with our wallets. You can buy less food and be cognisant of what you’re buying. Then actually eat all that food once you buy it. And if you can’t eat it all — freeze it. There are so many creative simple ways that come before having to throw food away. 

It seems so logical but people have become so removed from the idea of how food is produced. Because it’s so cheap, people are very nonchalant about throwing pieces of food away. 

I think millennial and younger generations are demanding more information. You look at recycling, anti-smoking, seatbelts, these campaigns were successful and started with younger children, younger people in general, and I think food waste has become our next big push. It’s something everyone can relate to and something we can definitely have an impact on. 

What’s your hope for the the film and future of food waste? 

CHAI: This is pretty applicable: Nari and I joke about what we want the film to be, “Do we want people to cry or laugh?” Nari said, “I want people to watch our film and the next time they go out to eat be like, ‘Hey guys, you’ll never guess what I learned.’”

KYE: The film is a great conversation starter. When you go to a cocktail or a dinner party there’s no way that you watch our film and you’re not going to want to talk about food waste. It’s so omnipresent. It affects everybody. 

CHAI: It’s like “An Inconvenient Truth,” at the end you learn all these stats that are so horrific and at the end think, “What can we do? I can’t afford a Prius, I could write letters, I’m probably not going to run for office?” but these are much harder things to do. That’s the nice thing about food waste. There are things everyone can do and feel good about.

KYE: Or it’s like Tony said, ‘How often can you pat yourself on the back?’ And this is something we can do with food waste. 


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