Douglas McMaster: “My naivety is matched by my determination”

September 8, 2021

Douglas McMaster’s Hackney restaurant Silo won the Sustainability Award at this year’s Estrella Damm National Restaurant Awards for its uncompromising approach to reducing waste and promoting better practices.

A restaurant that describes itself as always having the bin in mind might not sound like the kind of place you’d want to eat, but in the case of Silo you should make an exception. Launched at the tail-end of 2019, Douglas McMaster’s ‘zero waste’ restaurant is the result of painstaking work from the ambitious chef/restaurateur to open a restaurant that not only has full respect for the environment, agricultural practices and nutrition but which can also stand shoulder to shoulder with fine dining restaurants across the globe in terms of decor and food.

With Silo he has achieved this. And in impressively, too. The restaurant has its own flour mill for ancient varieties of wheat, churns it owns butter, produces its own oat milk, and practices nose to tail cooking that uses the whole of every animal killed. This approach continues throughout the restaurant, with the beautiful crockery made from plastic bags and tables from reconstituted food packaging, with the furniture either up-cycled or made from materials that would otherwise have been wasted. Anything that isn’t eaten isn’t thrown away either, but instead turned to valuable compost.

In essence, Silo is a restaurant that doesn’t have a bin. Between lockdowns McMaster reopened Silo as a wine bar serving small plates and also opened the White Building Market. Located at the White Building, in which Silo sits, the market showcased artisanal pioneers selected for their approaches to sustainability within their respective sectors as well as selling all the things that McMaster says guests at Silo have been amazed by, including plates and chopping boards made from recycled materials and knives from waste steel.

It’s an approach that has contributed to Silo winning the Sustainability Award 2021, sponsored by Estrella Damm in partnership with the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA), at the National Restaurant Awards.

“Doug McMaster and his team leave no stone unturned, or indeed any item used just once, in a constantly evolving quest to leave the most minimal mark on the planet, while serving up creative and inspiring dishes,” says Juliane Caillouette-Noble, managing director at the SRA.

“While not every restaurant has the space for an anaerobic digester or flour mill, Silo’s ethos is one every single restaurant can and should emulate as our great industry looks for ways to play its part in finding delicious solutions to the climate crisis.”

During lockdown McMaster also launched the Zero Waste Cooking School on YouTube, publishing weekly videos to demonstrate how to create sustainable dishes at home and to spread his zerowaste ethos beyond the confines of Hackney.

“I thought to myself ‘how many people am I reaching with my idea? – and the answer is not many,” says the chef/restaurateur. “An East London restaurant where the average spend per head is around £80 is not that accessible to people who care about what we are doing – it’s not just about zero waste but about looking after nature and the environment and addressing climate change.”

“Waste can be seen as art and function. There are so many creative industries that are so excited about using waste creatively and the cooking school in an online manifestation of all these ideas. Everyone can watch and the reach becomes more global.

“It reminds me of the first days of Silo Brighton and of how naïve I am. But my naivety is matched by my determination.”

With the restaurant now back up and running, his focus is on the continual improvement of Silo, not just its sustainable credentials but on making it the best possible restaurant it can be. “I am obsessed with making everything we do exquisite,” he says.

“I don’t believe in perfection, it’s a fool’s errand, and everything I do has sustainability in mind. I will never compromise on sustainability in pursuit of perfection as that is toxic – it’s the illusion of perfection at the expense of creating waste, such as perfectly shaped vegetables. But quality is always at the top of the agenda.”

Despite the strides he’s made so far, Silo remains a work in progress. “The pandemic has brought into focus how important what we do is,” he says.

“It has reassured me that what we are doing is absolutely critical – with all the record high temperatures in Europe and the flooding it is a code red situation, and a zero-waster restaurant is part of the solution.

“Food waste is one of the biggest contributors to climate change and Silo is not a part of that. But there is still much more I want to do. I have itchy feet, I don’t stand still.”

The Sustainability Award is sponsored by Estrella Damm, with thanks to the Sustainable Restaurant Association