Butter papers: A lesson in less waste

There was a time in the olden days when worked in a Michelin starred restaurant. It was a short time, and a very hard time, but I’ll tell you about that another time, because the story is LONG. For now I want to talk about butter papers.

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I learned a lot it my short time at what we will call “The Michelin Restaurant”. A lot of cooking and preparation skills, a lot about discipline and also how to clean windows properly, at 1am. But I also learned about waste.

You see we kept the butter papers. Every time we finished a packet of butter the paper was wiped and stacked in a pile to keep for service. Then, when a piece of fish needed to be steamed we’d put it on a butter paper instead of a fresh slice of parchment. Or if a small piece of meat needed something to cover it, or something between it and the tray it was cooking on, it was half of a butter paper and the point of all of this is coming soon I promise.

Disposable plastic piping bags are a thing by the way. They come on a roll. You tear one off, fill it up, snip the end, pipe your choux buns and toss the spent bag into the bin. Here at The Michelin Restaurant there was just one. One single disposable piping bag hanging up to dry because it was used over and over again and washed up in between.

Are you getting it yet? One more…

We had chef jackets too. One each. We wore them for the day and popped them all in the wash at night before we went home. Then the following day we’d wear it again straight from the machine. No laundry service, no man in a van, no pickup, no drop off, no starch, no hot press, no nothing. Simple.

This was a while ago, like 13 years ago, but the principle holds true that sometimes we don’t need to “use-up” a lot of things. If we are clever about it we can keep things simple and waste less at the same time, and it’s not even hard to do.

At this point in time we are ALL trying to use less plastic. Because it has been made more obvious that it’s important. That everything ever that was made of plastic is still somewhere NOT biodegrading. Just sitting in a pile, or floating in the ocean, or buried in a hole in the ground or whatever. Everyone is talking about it and it can’t be missed.

There have been times in my life and career when I’ve been in the habit of using-up things without even thinking about it. Like rolls of clingfilm, piping bags, blue gloves, food bags, even disposable aprons (a legal requirement in some places!) because it’s easy and that’s just the way things are done. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The remnants of some of these habits that have remained become very evident when I’m in class, doing what I do, with people around me, watching. In that scenario, I’m very aware of them. And so, I’ve started to use more containers and less bags, parchment paper can be folded and re-used, epecially if it’s only been used to bake biscuits or bread, and even cling film used to cover you’re bread dough can be dusted and folded ready to use again next time. I spoke about that in a recent video.

Sometimes it takes others to point out the things I no longer see. Things that have just become “normal” and could be made better if only I’d noticed. And sometimes a 13 year old memory about butter papers might pop into my head with a very important lesson buried inside it that I hadn’t noticed at the time, and prompt me to question “why” I do things the way I do them. And whether they are really necessary.

So thanks to those that have pointed out the seemingly obvious because often things aren’t as obvious as they seem. I continue to try to look at things with fresh eyes and make small changes as I go along that make a big difference. That’s the new normal.

I’m not saying save up your butter papers but take this as an example to think about. If we use one disposable piping bag ten times, we’ve just saved nine piping bags from going onto the pile forever. Multiply that by your lifetime, and that’s a lot of plastic saved, so why not use that bag twenty or fifty or a hundred times? Just imagine the power of that one decision, and the size of the difference you could make on the world from one simple change. It’s huge by the way…

I hope this thought remains present and as important as it seems now for the rest of our lives. Then the small things will continue to change the world forever, for the better.

Oh, and I cleaned the windows with old news papers by the way. It’s the proper way.