Culinary Canvas

The Swedish Chef Serving Award-winning ‘Food Waste’

2020’s Stella Chef of the Year Elvira Lindqvist explains why each piece of food waste presents a new opportunity for creative thinking.

Words by Sophie Miskiw. Photography Johan Ståhlberg.

Just last year the UN released a report revealing that 17% of all food in restaurants and shops ends up as waste. As it so happens, a third of food never even makes it to the restaurant to begin with, having already been lost on farms or in supply chains.

The idea of food waste doesn’t make sense to Swedish chef Elvira Lindqvist. Brought up in the countryside, in a house in the forest 20 minutes outside of the town of Enköping, Elvira was raised to respect food - a learning that is still central to her own creative philosophy.

“My mum has always done everything from scratch. She tried to never throw anything away and she taught me and my two older sisters to do the same. She always cooked with the things that we had around us - there was a farmer nearby who grew potatoes and another neighbour who had bees and made honey, and so on. Living in that environment, cooking with what’s around you is something that just comes naturally.”

Elvira describes her parents - a clockmaker and kindergarten teacher - as creative people who enjoy working with their hands, qualities they tried hard to instil in their daughters. Growing up in a rural part of the country afforded the family plenty of opportunities to be creative, and is what Elvira believes shaped her into the person - and chef - she is today.

“I came home from school when I was around nine or ten years old, and told my mum I was going to be a chef when I grew up. It was my dream to work in London and drive a motorcycle! I never got the motorcycle but I did become a chef and work in London for a year when I was 18.”

“Like coming home”

Like many young chefs, Elvira enjoyed exploring different ways of working before finding her niche. For several years, she experimented with more exotic ingredients often imported from half a world away. It was exciting for a time, she says, but it didn’t take long before she found herself drawn back to her roots. She resolved to work more sustainably and has done so with increasing commitment over the last eight or so years.

It was almost by coincidence (or so she humbly says) that she landed her current role at the award-winning restaurant in photography museum Fotografiska. With its zero-waste focus and commitment to sustainability, Elvira says beginning to work at the restaurant felt like “coming home”.

The fundamental philosophy at Fotografiska is to reverse the classic method of building a dish by putting the vegetable front and centre. Meat and fish may be used as an additive, although are limited to 100 grams or less.

“One of the best things about working this way is that there really are no rules. If, for example, you’re making a Beef Bourguignon, someone a long time ago decided the best way of doing it. But with vegetables, there aren’t that many rules. So you can be really creative and find for yourself the best way to do it.”

She adds that this approach has opened up a whole new manner of working. She now looks at vegetables in the same way as meat, factoring in the evolution of taste and texture as the vegetables age.

“If you want to do something with beetroot, there’s a big difference if you do it in autumn or spring. The vegetable changes throughout the season, especially with root vegetables that you preserve. In September, there’s loads of water in it and it’s very juicy. By February or March, when it’s been cold and the beetroot has aged, the texture and flavour are different.”

Coffee crispbread

Fotografiska’s zero-waste concept isn’t exactly unique but it is still far from the norm. Like all restaurants, they produce waste, explains Elvira, but the idea is for there ultimately to be as little as possible. Each piece of food waste instead presents a new opportunity for creative thinking.

“Instead of looking at it as a problem, we try to see it as an opportunity to be creative and have some fun. We all get together to see what we could do with, for example, some leaves leftover from broccoli, and see how it can be used to create new dishes.”

These challenges have led to some of Fotografiska’s most notable innovations. Around two years ago, the team resolved to seek creative ways to use leftover bread - a repeat offender of food waste in the restaurant industry. They’ve since used it in everything from pasta to beer, and even recycle bread crumbs to bake new bread. They faced a similar challenge with wet coffee grounds leftover in the coffee machines, which are today turned into cookies or added to the dough to make knäckebröd (the ubiquitous Swedish crispbread).

By approaching food in this way, Elvira feels she is doing her part to contribute to a better world. She’s part of a network of people who are inventing new ways to steer the industry towards a more sustainable future. She only hopes the current momentum will continue to increase, and that chefs become more open to collaboration.

“When you’re working in this way, you’re never alone. There are a lot of other people who are doing good things and you can help each other. I really hope that in the future different restaurants can also be part of that and chefs can use each other’s experiences instead of seeing each other as competition.”

Elvira describes her years at Fotografiska as incredibly formative, but the time has come for the next step on her journey. She’s planning to head up her own kitchen at a new restaurant opening in Stockholm this summer, where the focus will be on sustainability with an augmenting element of local Swedish craftsmanship.

“I will never be able to stop working in the way I do now. It’s a new dimension of working with food that isn’t only nice and fun and creative, but it has meaning in a way that it hasn’t had before.”

Words by Sophie Miskiw. Photography Johan Ståhlberg.