The Real Junk Food Project in Brighton – a radical reinterpretation of the problem of waste.

Odo, adored revolutionary in Ursula Le Guin’s ‘The Dispossessed’, in her manifesto for a new world, envisions a system of perfect efficiency and diligence when she proclaims, ‘waste is excrement’. Closer to home, Doug McMaster of Silo, chef wizard of waste would agree – albeit in less crude terms – when he insists, ‘waste is a failure of the imagination’. Both perspectives may be read as a meditation on the devastating failure of our global food economy – which, corrupted by the cold pursuit of profit, creates a vast polarity of scarcity and abundance, and which brings only discord and disease to our communities, and to the intricate ecologies on which those communities depend.

Indeed, waste in the context of our globalised food system is no small thing – each year, 1 billion tons of the stuff gets wasted, whilst 805 million people go hungry. In the UK, we waste an average of 7 million tons per year, with half of this waste being perfectly edible. This amounts to about £60 worth of food, per month, per household. 50,000 of those tons are produced by Brighton alone, 11066785_337837106411999_2620144285110076773_n20% domestically.

This excessive and wasteful production of food has significant environmental costs too – the global food economy emits a third of global greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, food waste alone is the third biggest contributor of GHG’s to the atmosphere. Set against a backdrop of a rapidly expanding population and runaway climate change, we have a situation that threatens not just the health and dignity of the individual, but the survival of our species.

The political situation in the UK is grim. The false flag austerity agenda of our incumbent government persists in forcing millions deeper into poverty – the fact that ‘food poverty’ is an issue in the 7th richest country in the world speaks to an endemic economic and political corruption, where the rich as ever continue to gorge on a privileged and spectacular cuisine, whilst millions are destitute to the handouts of charities, and the goodwill of food activists throughout the UK. It is estimated that over 20 million meals were 11096391_337836696412040_6075739430478836594_ngiven to the hungry between 2012/13 by three main food providers, a dramatic 54% increase from previous years – a figure that likely pales considering the added handouts from fringe community projects.

The Real Junk Food Project in Brighton (TRJFPB) is an example of the kind of creative resistance and grassroots transformation of the problem of waste that is emerging in the UK. Hoovering up our food waste in Brighton and putting it in peoples bellies, where it belongs. Last week, I visited the project and the launch of their new crowdfunding drive to raise funds for a permanent junk food cafe in Brighton. Although, looking around the ‘one church’ – pop up home to the project every Friday afternoon between 1 – 3PM – resistance seemed an unlikely word to describe the chirpy collective busying themselves around food prep and service, or sat grazing over their salvaged tucker.

I arrived early to an almost empty church hall, not expecting the place to pack out so fast and with such numbers (the project has fed around 150 people a week since its launch in January, fluctuating to a whopping 300 for the crowdfunding launch). It takes a while for the significance of the abundance and diversity of the food on offer to sink in – community members of all ages ladled steaming goodies from huge trays down one side of the room, for omnivore, vege and vegan alike; with at least six or seven different salads on display. To the other side of the hall hissed and 11032763_337837129745330_8446880961472547821_nwhirred a well outfitted coffee station and at the back, two little islands, one packed with sweet treats and another with raw juices churned through a proper masticator.  A veritable food utopia – all destined for landfill without the ingenuity of this plucky tribe.

Sitting down with my meal, a turkey round and stuffing with a trio of dressed salads and some dried mango, I tried to suss out what felt so peculiar about the atmosphere. The capitalist doctrine of profit and transaction doesn’t hold here – the usual web of relations that make up an eatery were dissolved. I wasn’t a consumer here and the lovelies running the ship, weren’t staff either. We were participants – kin to a counter-culture of food making a radical statement of ‘not in our name’. At the end of the servery, a modest collection box stood stating ‘pay as you feel’, the slogan that has come to embody the egalitarian philosophy of the junk food movement. Pay in ideas if you want, volunteer, contribute a song or a poem – and if it’s one of 18402_337836263078750_8788323449661410477_nthose days where you just have nothing to give, your presence and smile will do. This radical principle of equality and mutual aid creates diversity, and therefore a resilient and capable community – people are brought together despite their ‘status’, to sit, eat and dream together, to go on to create a different world.

Adam Buckingham, progenitor of TRJFPB, seems to take all this in his stride. He glides around the church hall like a waste guru, greeting people with hugs and smiles; one of those guys that your Mum would love. In political debate, he’s principled, alert and engaging – you can see how, with his sheperding, the project has established itself. The other volunteers, with obvious care, stop him in mid flight to nourish him with ‘junk’ food and juice. Adam 10389427_337836043078772_574006537719531771_nis one of six ‘directors’ of the project who are driving forward an ambitious plan to secure a permanent commercial residence in Brighton; building on the success of other waste cafe’s in Bristol and Leeds they are trying to found a full-time creative outlet for Brighton’s food waste, and a hub for food-activism and learning.

In Brighton, we’re lucky that waste-activism is pretty well established thanks to a network of dedicated activists – and the success of Silo here, the UK’s first zero-waste restaurant, has helped even more to popularise the message and encourage a strong community ethos around food. A RJFPB cafe in Brighton is important beyond its utility in reducing and redistributing waste of course – it creates a radical space of alterity, where a community comes together to think differently about society through food. In short, it’s much more utopian than full bellies – it’s about a different way of life: eco-conscious and from the grassroots up, potential that you don’t get served up in starbucks. Beyond that, its success will mean a full-time hub of inspiration that serves to influence (agitate?) the ethos and practices of Brighton’s wider food enterprise.

Positive appropriation and transformation of waste, full bellies on a ‘pay as you feel’ tariff, skills exchange and learning, community development and empowerment, and radical politics all under one roof – all run on voluntary steam, for 15K?

That’s a steal in anybodies books – Odo, would be proud.

(Photos by Louiza Hamidi of CURB: Southampton’s Junk Food Kitchen).

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Milk No Sugar – Pho-licious.

I’m not a fan of cringeworthy double barreled words – but for ‘Milk No Sugar’, the quirky little Viet-styled cafe on Trafalgar Street, I’ll put up with the discomfort. Pho-licious is the word.

After lamenting only a few weeks ago about how ‘Pho’, the chain of Vietnamese street food restaurants, had the monopoly on Viet-cuisine in Brighton – on my way to the train station I noticed a sign outside of ‘Milk No Sugar’ (which has a pretty unassuming shop front) declaring their sale of Pho – how had I missed this? I ventured in a few days later and have since eaten there four times and thought it was time to put a few words to their operation.

If you’ve eaten at ‘Pho’ on Black Lion Street, you’ll know how consistent their taste is and how uniform their dishes (and don’t get me wrong, that’s not always such a bad thing at the level of taste and expectation), as is the nature of any chain where only homogenisation will do. You’ll also probably notice the tired character of their staff. Put it one way, I wouldn’t venture into that kitchen uninvited.

But at Milk No Sugar there’s a different vibe and that’s all through the smiles of Hugo, who I’m assuming is the cafe’s proprietor. He’s bouncy, chatty, says awesome a lot and falls over himself to tell you about their food.

The first time I dined there, just recovering from a few days of feeling under the weather, I demolished two bowls of their Pho: large, meat stock but with tofu (£5.50 a piece). I also sat for Milk No Sugar, Brighton.a few hours writing, soaking it all up: the little cafe has a wicked style – quirky signage hangs from a ceiling that resembles a chalky upside down ice-cube tray, like the interior of some cafeteria chiseled into a starship hangar on some hollowed out moon somewhere. Plumen light-bulbs float over the counter and low-lying sun-scorched metal chairs, characteristic of the smoggy road side tuck-shops in the East, host bums from every walk of life. The eyes glance over the curious beverages and treats on sale – like the ‘nutella-latte’ for instance: sure to make your teeth ache.

My Pho brings all the boys to the yard.. Okay, I'll stop it now.

My Pho brings all the boys to the yard.. Okay, I’ll stop it now.

But the grub is pleasing. The stock of the Pho is well rounded and warm, with tones of cinnamon, roasted ginger and star anise brought out from a well tended stove. Garnished simply, but maybe with not quite enough fresh roughage, it’s nevertheless a dish you’ll return for and a taste you’ll want to share with friends. Hugo took great pride in boasting about the vigour of his vegetarian stock next to the meat and after trying both I agree, they’ve put some thought into getting the tastes right.

Pho @ Milk No Sugar

The rice paper rolls are everything a rice paper roll should be: sticky and crisp for all the right reasons, and shot through with fresh mint and fresh leaves – and not served in bloody cellophane, which is nice. The accompanying condiment, a syrup of heat and tang to drench the dinky rolls in is a treat and Hugo’s obvious pride and joy, as he stood encouraging us to dunk, saying ‘yes, homemade – awesome, yeah?’.

At the end of my meal I turned to my other half and speculated about the ingredients and their quality – for a food-politico, good food means food with Rice Paper Rolls @ Milk No Sugarintegrity at every level, not just in the mouth. But I have to say I don’t think I could bear a reveal of some MSG additive, or some questionable supply chain – which undoubtedly exists: it’s a high street munchery trading at killer prices after all. On leaving, one of my friends muttered along the lines of: well, there’s a lot of love there innit – that makes the food okay, even at the molecular level. He’s woo. I was wooed.

I think for now it’s got to be my guilty little pleasure, my little starship hangar of smiles – coz if it’s sci-fi, it’s okay isn’t it?

Don’t answer that.

Itsu: Food oasis or dangerous mirage?

Itsu

Eat, beautiful.

Some months ago, Itsu opened in Brighton. Apparently, the opening was a red carpet affair, inviting food writers and local businesses from around town to gorge upon their novel food stuffs and to mingle, network and whatnot. Of most reviews of Itsu I can find, they are mostly reproductions of the menu on offer (which for a fast food store, is undoubtedly impressive) – but other substantive reflections on the venture are noticeably omitted. In fact, the trend of reporting on Itsu borders on the sensational – whether celebrating the entrepreneurship of Julian Metcalfe, CEO and co-founder of the ubiquitous ‘Pret’’ or applauding the array and craft of exotic treats on offer. Itsu has fast become a veritable takeaway Eden in a nexus of otherwise stale, dull and redundant alternatives.

I nipped in to Itsu quite unconsciously a few months back. Not really taking the experience in I ordered a ‘detox miso’ and slurped it whilst jogging on to the next event. I mean, I definitely wasn’t expecting anything too robust, with any kind of live ecology or anything – but I do remember a kind of treasure-hunt glee, digging past my fragrant soggy dumplings into its misty depths to reveal a sparkling wormery of glass noodles and seaweed entrails. Obviously, I didn’t touch the soybeans – that’s like dropping marbles into the gut. But nevertheless, much like Will Self’s first time – I felt soothed and satisfied. Like I’d stumbled on a little food oasis in the middle of dessert-storm.

Afterward, I was determined to do a little reading around Itsu. Despite the mirage of rhetoric around health and complete overkill of the phrase ‘eat beautiful’, I resisted its manicure and allure to remember some politics. Health in the context of chain stores is a complete misnomer after all: whether that’s about individual health, health of the producers that support it, the staff that work it, the animals that stock it or the environment that sustains it.

Armed with a litany of reasons why Itsu was just another corporate monster, set to gobble up the planet, I ventured out once again to sample its Asiatic delights. Doing so, in full knowledge that my resolve could crumble at any moment, faced with what equates to my soul-food: Sushi.

The day had been a testing one by all accounts, so wondering into Itsu off the damp and raucous North Street was disarming – you’re suddenly propelled into a sharp, glassy, neon cube; ‘world music’ spinning in the background and hanging bamboo-style lamps down-light smooth wooden islands, topped with familiar Asian-eatery condiments. Looking around at the clientele, young hipsters with over-sized specs and pale complexions, I felt suddenly transported into a kind of sci-fi sushi shop – living out the strange feeling of reading my own experience in a copy of ‘all tomorrows parties’.

After cruising the brightly lit cooler spanning the left hand wall of the shop, and the array of uniform and very deliberately looking nutritious treats, I went for an ‘Itsu Best’. I approached the counter and the beleaguered looking serving person with my prize, and almost automatically, splurted out: ‘oh, and a detox miso too’. I asked the person on the counter about pasteurization; whether the miso had its proper ecology of bacteria live and present (the sachets of powdered miso on sale at the counter suggested otherwise). They didn’t know – neither did the ‘expert’ chef behind the McDonald’s style servery.

I tried hard to maintain a critical gaze when sat down, eyes scanning suspiciously: an inner snort at Itsu’s ‘raw smoothie’ machine cashing in on the middle class obsession with ‘toxin busting’. But I began to soften. I cracked open the dead(?) ‘miso’ which was a basic clone of my one before it – nothing astray, nothing different. My plate of sushi too, was tasty: surprisingly so. Not a grain of rice out of place: a white and fleshy rainbow manufactured with precision. At under a tenner, the toasted sesame infusion on that rice just shouldn’t be so good. Neither should the tastes be so clean and present, the experience so ready and fresh. The salmon of course was a translucent pink perhaps too feeble to pass Itsu’s own panetone colour test – but dipped in the salty single serving of soy and sharp wasabi, it can be easy not to care.

And that’s the alarming significance of eating at Itsu – the ease at which the entrancing charm of a well styled brand, the infallible (violent?) uniformity and the call to health can fuse to create an impenetrable mirage. Eat now, ask no questions later. But there are questions to be asked of Itsu’s model – it’s cheap (too cheap) and fast paced, but still keeps up an appearance of grace, beauty and the extraordinary. Essentially it’s a metaphor for the food economy at large – bright, booming and plentiful on the surface, but without mention of the vast externalities it creates. Not a hint to the cascade of effects on workers, producers, our health and the environment at large.

To take just one example – Itsu’s salmon is farmed in Scotland. Scotland is the world’s second largest salmon producer, and exports have grown 500% in the past 20 years – making up 40% of Scottish food exports overall. The industry, set to serve the plates of an expanding middle class in China, is to expand 50% by 2020. Itsu imports 9 tonnes of salmon a week – determined in their literature that this makes more ecological sense than depleting wild fish stocks. However, the implications on wild fish stocks and the ocean ecology in general are astounding – wild Atlantic Salmon in particular are facing extinction because of diseases and parasites leached into the ocean from intensive farming operations. Farmed salmon themselves experience dire conditions: infectious diseases, sea lice infestation and mass mortality abound – conditions which are only set to worsen, with sea lice threatening to spiral out of control. It’s like the ocean equivalent of the plague of flesh eating zombies – but everyone would much sooner deny any problem exists. Itsu won’t even declare what these sea creatures eat. Apparently it’s legitimate and safe according to some bureaucrat. I’ve heard that before, haven’t you?

Intensive Salmon farming - destroying our oceans.

Intensive Salmon farming – destroying our oceans.

The nature of a business model like Itsu’s is both to expand, and buff up their bottom line – already they are set to conquer the American high-street. Their success will depend on a dictatorial line with producers and staff to ensure peak-performance and output at low-cost – totally out of touch with what human and animal resources, or the environment can afford. Indeed, for all its chiqué exterior and futuristic charm, it’s merely McDonald’s with a wasabi-coating – intent on fluffing the externalitiies of their trade and with a keen and predatory sense of their target audience.

Will Self, in typically acetone style, got the problem of Itsu in just a few lines: ‘that food should be subject to the most ruthless commoditisation under late capitalism is only to be expected, but that we should for one second allow ourselves to enjoy it is a miserable and gut-wrenching experience’ – And yes, I’m inclined to agree. But even critically loaded the mirage can be hard to deconstruct. This is about more than better informed consumer choices. Reducing the reliance on convenience means restoring our right to freedom and time – time to re-engage with our personal nourishment and its nuances, from plant to plate. In short, a new way of life for us all.

The question is, do Self’s ‘keyboard riflers’ and quick fix health connoisseurs, in fact any of us, have the appetite for this yet? My view is that it will take a collective interest in a menu for change much more subversive, one that offers potential beyond the lunch hour limits of ‘Itsu’s Best’ before we’re all ready to put our throwaway chopsticks down.

Helmston: A tiny tuck-shop packing a punch of taste.

Helmston is a small vegetarian eatery on the boundary of the North Laine in Brighton – an unassuming little place on the outside, you’ll miss it for some of the more superficially chique, but predictable cafes on Trafalgar Street if you’re not careful.

Tiny Tuck Shop Packing A Punch.

Tiny Tuck Shop Packing A Punch.

This bountiful little trove has been trading for around 7 months now – growing from its humble beginnings as a food stall on Gardner Street’s Saturday market, it’s now tightly packed into a decorative sandwich-bar-style venue, and doing what looks like a good business. The punters who drifted in off the street seemed to know Jazz, the lovely counter man by name – which is always reassuring. Good eats make good community. My mate was already sat munching in the corner – she’s Israeli, knows life and gets food. It was a good sign.

The charming but pokey little venue is dripping in beautiful little oddities: hanging faux-wall lamps made of kitchen utensils, a rolling pin fixed as the door handle and hyper-colour menus draping the limited wall space promote a multitude of vegan / vegetarian fare that seems almost impossibly diverse and plentiful in a space so small. A small shelf in the corner boasts a wonderful selection of raw honey – some sourced in and around Sussex. With spices on sale such as sumac from Palestine: a fizz of a herb, that is tart, zesty and invigorating – apparently good for chicken dishes. In the background ‘chef Andy’, the progenitor of this exotic little tuck shop whistles cheerfully along to the radio as he tends to each meal by order in what looks like an immaculately polished kitchen.

Fun food and novel window displays. Very Brighton.

Fun food and novel window displays. Very Brighton.

But what about the food and beverage? On recommendation as a first-timer, I went with the ‘gado-gado’ (yum-yum) described as ‘hot saute potatoes with spinach, beansprouts, peanut-sauce, broccoli, coriander, tamarind, lime, chilli and more’. And what a recommendation! Served in a quaint little wooden-bowl, it was an opulence of flavour, perfume, colour and texture. Every mouthful was a variation on the one before: a literal firework display of sweet banana and pomegranate, complimenting the more earthy accompaniments of sprouts, spinach, brocolli and peanut – all carried by a kind of dark and rusty undertone of tamarind and pepper and excited by a bite of lime and popping of sumac. It made me sweat pleasingly – not so much from the heat, but from the startling complexity of flavours and texture that made me think ‘how the bloody hell can I put words to this?’.

Indonesian Lushness. Taste Explosion. Legendary Eats.

Indonesian Lushness. Taste Explosion. Legendary Eats.

Then on to the cakes – Jazz on the counter gave me a brief run down of the cakes and pastries on offer before I chose (most of them dairy and gluten free and some savoury too!). I’d reiterate the options, but was so lost in the visuals that I’ve forgotten the body of what he put across. Eventually, I decided on a spelt tart of rhubarb and custard and a raspberry, coconut and chocolate ‘bon-bon’.

Now you know what to do with your redundant kitchen bits. Very Marwood-esque (insider observation).

Now you know what to do with your redundant kitchen bits. Very Marwood-esque (insider observation).

For me, a more traditional grain used in baking shows consciousness and artisanship that encourages my trust as a wary participant in sweet and baked goods (damn food sensitivities). So I was pleased to see spelt used for the tart pastry – and the result was a predictably light, gentle but texture-ful case boasting a buttery summer-glow. The spelt basket was filled with a light custard that to be any more potent would have suggested some artificiality, and topped with a few delicate slithers of pert and cheeky rhubarb that had me sucking my teeth. The little bon-bon was encrusted in a jewelled-pink coconut coat, which when crisped open revealed a sunny yellow center – taste wise: sweet coconut with a hint of rose, which the silk and bitterness of the chocolate tempered well.

Drinks? I had a wheatgrass shot with ginger to begin with – great combination which softened the harshness of the wheatgrass and made me feel super-green. And in the end I finished with a coffee, with hemp milk (God I love Brighton), which was a pleasing finish and sent me well on my way.

Only pink shards remain. We hope Helmston will let us show you some food photos soon - but visit their facebook page in the meantime, it's all there!

Only pink shards remain. We hope the Helmston will let us show you some food photos soon – but visit their facebook page in the meantime, it’s all there!

Overall, smashing little place, intoxicating food and priced well for its location (you can eat well for £5.50 and if you have a tenner, you’re living the dream). Chef Andy wishes to maintain an “air of mystery” around the delights flowing from his kitchen and was a bit sensitive about pictures. To feast your eyes, you’ll have to feast in person. And we reckon that all things considered, that’s not such a bloody bad thing 😉

I asked Jazz about their supply chain ethics and organic considerations before leaving – he gave me his email! I’ll report back.

Overall Octopus Alchemy rating: 9/10

Visit the Helmston’s facebook page here.