The Real Deal

After a series of pop-ups and temporary take-overs, the Real Junk Food Cafe is settling down in a place of its own. I meet its inspiring director, food waste activist Corin Bell.

The Real Junk Food Project Manchester’s ethos is simple: feed bellies, not bins. Their aim is to create healthy, high quality dishes using food that would otherwise have been thrown away. That doesn’t mean wilted lettuce and curly butties: this is fresh food that’s in no way second-best.

“The reasons for throwing away food are all about either money or logistics,” says Corin. “We were recently given 150kg of carrots – perfectly fresh, but a refrigeration fault meant that they’d got a nip of frostbite, so they couldn’t be sold. Products being trialled for supermarkets which don’t make the final cut are often binned because it’s cheaper to do that than to continue giving them high-value floor space.”

It’s this brutal balance-sheet approach to good food which inspired the Real Junk Food Project, a national network of projects, orginally founded by chef Adam Smith in 2013. Corin herself was inspired after meeting Adam and seeing the project in action in Leeds. She is now a member of the board of trustees.

The no-waste approach doesn’t end with the food: it’s the same for the furniture, the kitchen fittings, crockery and everything else. “The restaurant industry is very wasteful too: some commercial kitchens only last two or three years before being ripped out and dumped in a skip or sold for scrap.We upcycle kitchen equipment – and we’ve just been given 76 chairs from a restaurant refurb.”

The project has an initial six-month lease on its new HQ, so the plan is to create a moveable kitchen, should they choose to move elswhere when the lease expires. No ripping and skipping here – and their business funding model means an environmental and social responsibility they take very seriously.

A recent Crowdfunder campaign for the project smashed its £20,000 target, attracting supporters, including TV cook and food campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

“That Crowdfunder response was amazing,” smiles Corin. “It wasn’t just about doubling our funding target – we received offers of equipment, professional services and lots more. It’s fantastic to know that nearly 800 people believed enough in what we were doing to back us so overwhelmingly. We’re determined to get this right.”

A strong statement of intent was the recruitment of the multi-award-winning Head Chef, Mary-Ellen McTague, whose CV includes Aumbry, 4244 Edge Street, the Sharrow Bay Country House Hotel and Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck. This is no charity soup kitchen!

“I think Mary-Ellen and our other team members found the scope for creativity really attractive. There’s no set menu, no blue-print. We just look at what we have on the day, then use it to create restaurant quality dishes.”

The cafe-restaurant will operate on a ‘pay-as-you-feel’ basis, which may seem unusual, but it’s all about fairness.

“What we want – both in the restaurant and more generally – is equality of access to food. People of all walks of life can eat side by side. Food poverty is getting worse – society is heading towards a two-tier food system. Low-income, unemployed, homeless and other vulnerable people are becoming increasingly dependent on food banks and further isolated from the food mainstream. The more time people spend in that ‘charity’ environment, the more ‘normal’ it becomes and harder it is to break free. Food banks and soup kitchen projects are fantastic – what on earth would we do without them – but it’s terrible that we need them in the first place. I love and hate them at the same time.

“Pay-as-you-feel is just that: if you enjoyed the food, think about what you’re prepared to pay for it – what you might pay in a more conventional restaurant. We don’t buy our ingredients as a matter of principle, but it’s expensive running a professional and safe catering business, so every penny goes back into the project; either to cover overheads or to develop new intiatives.

“We want to shine a light on the brilliant things that can be done by intercepting food destined for waste, but we also want to combat that wastefulness itself. Our plan is to develop a consultancy arm which will advise the industry on how to reduce or eliminate it altogether. I guess we have a unique business plan in that we’ll know we’ve succeeded when we’re not needed any more!”

The consultancy is just one aspect of the brand expansion. Expect a range of Real Junk Food jams, chutneys and other preserves, all made with 100% intercepted fruit and vegetables.

“We’re also working with Beer Nouveau, a local brewer, to develop a beer made from stale sourdough and dried-up citrus fruits. Results have been a little mixed so far, but we’ll get there – experimentation is part of the fun. “I think it’s when you have your own beer that you know you’ve truly arrived!”

At time of writing, deals are still being done, but it’s hoped that Manchester’s first Real Junk Food Restaurant will open in the late spring in Ancoats.

Follow the project at @realjunkfoodmcr

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