Locavore, low-waste dining: Ubuntu Canteen nourishes a community

“Waste is a product of negligence,” explains Ubuntu Canteen’s Executive Chef, Dave Gunawan, when I ask about his restaurant’s low-waste practices. “There’s no waste in nature, and it’s not in our vernacular either.”

But he’s talking about more than scrapping plastic water bottles and single-use coffee pods. “We need to take a multifaceted approach. We can see it through the lens of ‘Zero Waste,’ but it’s more holistic.”

Recently I was invited to dine at Ubuntu Canteen, and of course my husband Scott and I leapt at the chance. With our son at home with his grandma, we were thrilled to have a night out and experience the restaurant we had heard so much about.

Gunawan describes how the restaurant’s menu changes daily and is dependent on seasonal and organic foods available from their suppliers—local farmers and producers. He explains that they’ll sometimes receive free food, or nearly free food, that would otherwise be wasted. If they receive a mass shipment of surplus cucumber that no one else wants, that’s what they’ll cook with, and they’ll use it in different ways. The close relationships that he has with the suppliers means that sometimes they’ll exchange food both ways: if the restaurant makes jam, he’ll give some back to the farmers who grew the fruit.

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Even the restaurant space was designed intentionally, to foster community values and interaction. Being a mom, my eye goes straight toward a box of toys at the back of the restaurant. “I know that toy!” I laugh, spotting a wooden activity cube. Gunawan tells me that the modular play space for kids during the day converts into a dining table at night. Then he points out cubbies between the tables that I hadn’t noticed previously. “Stroller parking!” he exclaims.

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And then there’s the “self-serve” process, and large communal tables, which are all meant to involve the customer as an active participant in the meal, rather than simply being waited on. Scott is particularly enthused about this concept, and he refills his water glass from the customer bar refill area (still or sparkling water!) several times. “We’re happy to serve you, but we also want you to be able to set your own pace if you like,” says Gunawan. You can even make your way up to the counter and check out the wine selection by holding each of the bottles and reading the labels.

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Finally, there’s the bread subscription service. The restaurant’s bakery is now offering two loaves of bread per week to subscribers, complete with cloth bread bags handmade locally. They use ancient organic wheat varietals, rye, red fife, oats, marquis, and bishop flour grown and milled nearby.

Gunawan was a respected chef in the community long before he started this new venture, and it’s clear that he knows what he’s doing. The food is amazing. Scott and I both sampled the fresh bread with butter and jam, and then shared a melon and heirloom tomato salad that had a delicious chili kick to it. Next up was a fish dish with a creamy mushroom sauce (Scott is a huge fan of mushrooms, but even I loved this sauce). Then we tried a cavatelli pasta dish with beans and almond crumbs. Finally, poached peaches for dessert.

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It’s the sort of food that you read about in books about French cooking or Mediterranean cooking: where the food is simple but the ingredients are so high-quality that you’ll marvel at how good it can really taste. How are these tomatoes so delicious? Have I ever eaten jam this good? How can I ever go back to eating store-bought bread?

Of course, we purchased a loaf of bread to take home with us, but it disappeared far too quickly. I can’t wait to go back—and this time we’ll bring our son too.

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