Meet Adam Handling: The Chef Behind London’s New Food Waste Restaurant

In a heart to heart from chef to chef, Antonina Parker meets Adam Handling to talk about his lastest restuarant, Ugly Butterfly. An initiative to raise awareness about food waste among the community, the new eatery showcases creative ways to use commonly discarded ingredients, donating a percentage of all profits to The Felix Project. 

I’m waiting to meet up with Chef Adam Handling at The Belmond Cadogan hotel in Chelsea. He runs their restaurant, Adam Handling Chelsea, as well as Frog in Hoxton, Frog in Covent Garden, Cafe Bean and Wheat, Eve bar and his newest offering, Ugly Butterfly. The latest opening is a zero-waste, sustainable restaurant and champagne bar on King’s Road, and although it only opened in mid-November, it has already been inundated with press features. I’m not sure I could get my head around running so many eateries all over town, but he manages it in a seemingly effortless way.

When Adam arrives, he is eager to explain the concept of Ugly Butterfly. Here, the menu is pretty much determined by The Belmond Cadogan Hotel’s leftovers, and this can be a resourceful system as, being a hotel, it sometimes it does naturally have to over order. His ingredients can be anything from breakfast croissants to leftover blue cheese from the cheeseboard and avocados that would otherwise be thrown away. The whole concept is about showing that there is “no such thing as waste” and that these “ingredients should be celebrated.”

The leftovers are cycled down the road on a bike with a little cart, and delivered to the restaurant in a little touch that makes sure even the movement of goods is eco-friendly. The chefs will then create a delicious menu around these ingredients, and favourites staple dishes include ‘left-over cheeseboard doughnuts,’ ‘broccoli stalk Caesar salad’ and the intriguing sounding ‘banana bread and chicken butter.’ He liked the idea of pairing this concept with champagne, and all 30 on the list have green and ethical production. Iconic brands such as Ruinart live alongside smaller unknown eco companies who are brought to our attention. 

I tried the doughnuts and the burrata, along with some pickled spring courgettes with avocado. They were both divine and looked stunning when they arrived at the table. Adam told me that they had an abundance of courgettes on their farm in the spring, so he made sure that they were pickled in his food laboratory. This meant that they could continue to be enjoyed throughout the year.

Even the decoration in Ugly Butterfly is low waste: the restaurant has a wall covered in recycled wine bottles, and old water bottles are used to hold paper flowers at each table. There are pickling jars behind the till and the table settings are elegant with crisp white napkins, green table tops and dramatic ceramics for the food. He later tells me that the furniture is made with recycled wood found in skips by a charity that employs young offenders. You can see how much thought has gone into the space and into promoting a positive message on some of the tough issues we are all faced with today. As a chef myself, I was overwhelmed and inspired by this project. I felt a strong sense of wanting to improve the food waste in my own kitchen, and to let people know that it is possible to create amazing dishes with surplus and wasted ingredients

There are some great philosophies that are spread over all over Handling’s restaurants. Much like many of the environmental changes to which we all have to adapt, it’s about learning new tips and rethinking old ways. For example, when it comes to serving meat, Adam will only buy the whole animal across his restaurants instead of always picking select cuts. The jobs are divided between the chefs, so one might make cutlets while another makes a stock and the third creates a stew. He says it’s all part of the creative process and it’s about “respect and knowledge” for the animal. This avoids food waste in its simplest form, and yet, I wonder how many restaurants actually take this approach?

Adam works with many incredible British ingredients which is quite common as our own market is pretty good these days. He will also rethink ingredients that would usually be bought abroad – such as a London-produced burrata. He uses a Borough Market supplier for her version, and it is less than 24 hours old when it gets to your plate at Ugly Butterfly.

When I ask Adam about making a commercial kitchen more sustainable, he simply says, “You teach!” He makes a point of employing junior chefs and students to show them his resourceful ways. He says this goes beyond the commercial kitchen, right through to household kitchens where people are used to buying pre-cut vegetables or ready meals. We need to think about where that waste goes and try to take our time back in the kitchen. “Skills are getting lost,” says Adam. “It is just about getting people to think a little bit more about where the food is coming from. 

My training was in restaurants and so I have experienced first-hand at how wasteful they are with food labels or cling film. Adam pays more for the labels that go on his Tupperware, but they last for 20 more washes than the standard kitchen label which might rub off after one use.  He also uses biodegradable cling film by JMSW which of course isn’t available in the supermarkets. He uses Scottish thistle instead of flowers on the table or sometimes beautiful weeds or floral branches that last longer. These are just a few ideas where restaurants can make a huge difference and still continue to function as normal.

When I ask him about his plans for Christmas cooking and how he likes to serve his Brussel sprouts, he firmly says “I never like to boil vegetables! Cut them in half and roast them in the oven. That’s it!” When it comes to the boxing day leftover turkey, he says that he would turn to his “bread and chicken butter” recipe that he has in all of his restaurants which is made from surplus ingredients from the Sunday roast and served on a Monday.  When talking about this popular sandwich he says, “The reason I think, the bread and chicken butter works is because every time they eat it, there is a nostalgic memory from someone’s childhood on that table…and what’s the difference between a turkey and a roast chicken on a Sunday?” If you’re looking for something festive in his Chelsea restaurant then look out for the turkey ballotine with fresh cranberries.   

I found the whole experience meeting Adam and hearing about his restaurants so uplifting. He really is starting a movement in a positive direction and I believe has already greatly improved the London food-waste-scape. He’s a firm believer that his generation needs to act now otherwise the future children will suffer. I couldn’t agree with him more and I know he is paving the way for more restaurants to follow.