Interview with Zero-Waste Chef Anne Marie Bonneau

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Today’s blog post is an interview with Anne-Marie Bonneau from San Francisco Bay Area who is a zero-waste chef, editor and a mother to two kids. Concerned with the planet’s plastic pollution problem, she went plastic-free in 2011, which led her to go zero-waste as a next logical step. In this interview I take you through her zero-waste adventures where she tells you how going zero-waste is not that difficult and how you can do it too!

My first question to you is – What do you mean by a zero-waste chef?

Anne-Marie Bonneau: I run my kitchen without producing waste. So I don’t buy anything in packaging. That means I don’t eat any processed food. (All the processed stuff comes packaged in plastic.) And I don’t waste any food. Another thing, I’m not actually a trained chef. I like to point out to people that anyone can do what I do. You don’t need special training to cook your dinner.

I see. The way you define zero-waste chef, that’s a pretty high standard to live by given the busy and rapid lives we live, don’t you think? Someone like me who’s just beginning to understand something like this must feel awe.

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Well I always tell people I’m not perfect. If you aim for perfection, you might give up. You can start out small. My older daughter and I started all of this when we decided to go plastic-free. That took several months as we adopted new habits like shopping at the farmer’s market with reusable cloth produce bags and making more things from scratch. And actually, I think zero-waste is easier than people think. Unless you’re a huge consumer, you probably produce most of your waste in the kitchen—packaging and food. So I cook food from scratch but I don’t cook anything very difficult. I buy staples at the bulk bins and produce from the farmer’s market. My intention when I started all of this was to cut the plastic but I inadvertently cleaned up my diet as well. I’m much healthier now as a result. All the bad food is processed. If you cut the processed food, you cut a big part of your waste.

When you put this idea in small digestible bites like this, it starts to seem possible.

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Well you start off small. If you try to do it all at once, you may feel overwhelmed. It takes a little while to adjust to the new routine, but it’s all very doable, you just have to get used to it. So I have some suggestions for starting small. First, cut the bottled water if you drink it! While you’re at it, cut all beverages that come in plastic containers. Make water your drink of choice and get a reusable water bottle. You can also try to do one zero-waste meal a day. I started with breakfast. After I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan I vowed I wouldn’t eat cereal anymore. So I started making granola. I love steel cut oats (I had them for breakfast this morning) topped with fruit, seeds, nuts and some plain yogurt. I make them the night before, so that’s super easy. I also make sourdough pancakes a few mornings a week. Or I’ll eat eggs. There are so many choices. Fruit and yogurt…I can get yogurt in glass jars that I can return to the vendor at the farmer’s market I buy it from. Yogurt is also pretty easy to make. I think most of us are used to taking our reusable shopping bags to the grocery store. You can make or buy reusable cloth produce bags. I sewed some and they are very simple, just a rectangular bag the same size as the plastic ones. So, get some of those and tuck them into your shopping bags. That’s an easy thing to do and you’ll eliminate probably hundreds of plastic produce bags every year from going into landfill. So those are easy steps you can take. To take it to the next level, take containers and jars to the grocery store. Depending on the store, customer service will weigh them before you fill them up at the bulk bins. That way, when the cashier rings you up, you pay only for the weight of the food in the jars and not the weight of the jar. This is very important when you buy tea at $40 a pound and you use a heavy jar!!! You can also take containers to the butcher counter. So the first time I did this (in 2011), I confused all the butchers and they thought I was crazy but now they actually thank me! They may still think I’m crazy though ;)

I’ve never taken a heavy jar to a grocery store. I would get the same reactions I guess and somewhere those reactions are scary. There are some things that are becoming increasingly common with changing lifestyles, irrespective of where you come from – such as drinking bottled water. We can definitely carry a reusable water bottle. The organization I worked with had organized a waste management conference for capacity building. A colleague had requested the participants to not take the bottled water given to them and instead use the refillable jar placed in one corner of the conference room. It was a great idea!

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Well it depends on the store. I’m in Northern California, so it’s hard to be weird here ;) And people are pretty green here too.

Speaking of weird reactions, what challenges did you face when you decided you want to cut waste from your kitchen?

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Well I think the biggest challenge right now is people giving me stuff. They are trying to do something nice, but I wish they wouldn’t. Also let’s just say my younger daughter hasn’t fully embraced the zero-waste lifestyle. Her sister is the one that got us started and the younger often says to the older, “Why did you do this???!!!” She thinks her sister created a monster :P So that’s my biggest challenge, trying to control what comes into my home. But most people are really excited. My neighbours and friends have changed some of their habits. My one friend started making bread and kombucha and using less plastic. My boss started buying milk in returnable glass bottles. And a colleague threw her son a plastic-free birthday party. I try not to preach, people hate that and it doesn’t work, but I find when people see what I’m doing they get excited and want to adopt some of my habits. Just yesterday when I was filling up my jars at the bulk bins, a woman asked me about it and said “I’m going to do that!” after I explained how to do it.

Ha-ha, that’s adorable. To clarify has your daughter taken up after you or did you follow her? She’s found her own niche in the zero-waste chef adventure. It is interesting to see how we pass the concept of sustainability on to the next generation. Jamie Oliver is transforming the way we feed ourselves, and our children too. He wants us to teach every child about food. And by every child I mean girls as well as boys, a non-biased way of teaching, because hey some things make you independent, irrespective of your gender. Tell us more about your daughter and her adventures.

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Well my older daughter was tired of hearing me complain about plastic. This was back in 2011. I had banned bottled water from our home and had used reusable shopping bags for years. I felt bad about buying stuff in plastic but really didn’t know how to stop. She found Beth Terry’s blog http://www.myplasticfreelife.com and we started to do what Beth does. So then MKat (my daughter) started her own blog when she was 16, The Plastic-Free Chef. I LOVED her blog. But then she went away to university in Canada (we’re Canadian) and she couldn’t keep it up. I asked her if I could take it over and she said no way, start your own, so I did.

It’s amazing what leading by example does to our society. Does the concept of zero-waste extend to the other parts of your life outside kitchen? I wish I was your neighbour, it’d be easier to learn from you.

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Oh yeah, I’m plastic-free and have been since 2011. I don’t buy stuff in plastic. I make my own deodorant. I ran out of homemade toothpaste and so need to make some more tonight before bed :)  I am not a huge consumer, so the kitchen was the biggest generator of waste. If all you buy is food (and maybe books…), you don’t produce much waste outside of the kitchen. Well I’d be happy to teach you if you were my neighbour.

I see. What about stationary?

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Well that can be recycled. So I should clarify, I do recycle paper. That’s not so bad. It’s the plastic I avoid. Recycling plastic isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

I understand your concern about plastic.

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Yeah it’s pretty bad. The oceans are a mess. It breaks my heart that so many animals are dying from eating the stuff. Like albatrosses. They feed it to their young, thinking its food :( The baby birds feel full but starve to death. It’s a huge problem. Mind boggling, it’s so huge. Oh and I compost too. That helps a lot too. I love my compost piles. The one is ready. It smells so good.

It is good to know that you compost too. Reminds me of a greenhouse a family built around their house. Do you plan anything like that as an environmental conscious person?

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Well I live in an intentional community so I can’t really build anything here. I would love to have a greenhouse. We have a hoop house on the property that extend the growing season. It gets very warm in there.

There was this blog I read the other day. It said ‘technology is making us greener’. I wish the companies could make it easier for us. Is it too much to ask for?

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Corporations play a huge role. Every November, we celebrate America Recycles Day in the US. Corporations dreamt that up. They want us to keep consuming their products and by making us feel that recycling solves the problem of clean up, we continue to buy. It’s a sham. They make a big mess and leave it to us to clean it up. They should have to.

Although in a nascent stage, there are technologies coming up that can convert any kinds of plastic to oil again. What are your thoughts about it?

Anne-Marie Bonneau:  Well I am not an expert but I’m not too thrilled about plastic-to-oil conversion. I would rather cut the plastic. Most food (and other products) packaged in single-use plastic are things that not only do we not need, but are bad for us. I think that at the bottom of it all, we need to change how we live. We can’t keep consuming the way we are. We keep trying to change the product design but not the consumption pattern. Electric cars are better than cars powered by fossil fuels but we need mass transit and decent bike lanes.

What do you think about bioplastics?

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Well again, I’m not an expert. Do they really break down? I doubt it. I’m always a bit leery of claims like “biodegradable plastic.” So instead of ordering a drink in a bioplastic cup, why not just bring your own? It’s not hard to do. I don’t like single-use items. They are a waste even if some are made of less harmful materials. And isn’t it much more pleasant to drink a cup of tea from a real, ceramic mug, than from a paper one? And those paper ones are lined with plastic, plus they have the plastic lid on top. So that’s one thing I would like to point out to people. This isn’t about denying myself. I eat better food. I’m healthier and I’m happier. I don’t feel like I’m missing out by not consuming so much stuff.

I think bioplastics can be a softer transition for many people who are a lot dependent on plastic. Not all bioplastics are degradable though. They can either be degradable; biodegradable; or compostable.

Anne-Marie Bonneau: I think environmentalists have to point that out more. That all this over consumption isn’t making us happy. Going outside and enjoying nature does make us happy, however!

Sustainable consumption and production (SCP) as some have coined it, is a topic for another day. :) Mankind has always circumvented. To the plastic mess that it has created, I think it is more creative than ever. Take for instance WikiFoods. Its technology wraps a vast range of foods and beverages in edible packages made of natural ingredients = less packaging waste.

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Well I guess. But a corporation like Coca-Cola will use something like bioplastics to try to convince us that it has no impact. I have heard of edible packaging but not WikiFoods. I will look that up. Ice cream cones are basically edible packaging :) Thanks for the SCP acronym. I will look that up too.

As opposed to green disposable items, there are of course ones that stay for long – such as BuyMeOnce. It finds and promotes products that don’t break the bank, don’t break the planet… that don’t break at all!

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Oh yeah, I have seen her website. I LOVE my Le Creuset pots. They are basically indestructible. That site sells those.

Listening to you reminds me of how different our cuisines are. I wonder how Indian food can be made from scratch. That’s a thought I’ll take with me to ponder upon.

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Oooh I love Indian food! Are you vegetarian? I make dal and channa masala often. So good! My daughter has made paneer from scratch too. Vegetarian and vegan food make zero-waste easier. Meat and cheese are the most difficult things to get zero-waste, I find. But lentils, spices and vegetable, rice…those are easy to get unpackaged and the food is so delicious, that is doesn’t go to waste ;)

I’m Indian and I haven’t made paneer from scratch yet! Wow! I was a vegetarian for a few years but I now eat eggs mostly on a daily basis, and chicken once a week, no other meat.

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Well it’s actually pretty easy. You heat the milk and then add some vinegar. It curdles and you strain it and get paneer. I may have the recipe wrong. I will have to look it up. But I think it’s milk and vinegar. Maybe one other thing… I think most people just don’t think about the impact of these small choices.

I agree! There’s a conscious consumerism movement that we are all now a part of and should actively promote. Thank you for the recipe, Anne-Marie. I definitely want to try. Coming to shopping bags. After moving to US, I often visit Wegmans for grocery. All Wegmans stores have collection facilities for used bags which are then sent to a recycling facility and eventually are made into more bags. What do you think about that?

Anne-Marie Bonneau: I don’t recycle. I don’t buy stuff that needs to be recycled.

Why do you not recycle?

Anne-Marie Bonneau: Well, recycling isn’t the answer. We can’t keep consuming at the rate we are and think that throwing all that plastic in the recycling bin will make up for it. We have to cut the stuff off at its source and not buy it in the first place. Plastic eventually ends up in landfill. It gets recycled once or twice but each time, the material degrades until it’s garbage. So I just avoid it.

To wrap it up, here’s my last question to you. What is that one tip you’d like to give us layman on kick-starting our own zero-waste kitchens?

Anne-Marie Bonneau: I think if you do only one thing, cut out the processed food. You will reduce your garbage, eat better food and improve your health.

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Anne-Marie on the cover of the @mvvoice Weekend section

I thank Anne-Marie for taking some time out for the interview and I appreciate the candidness. You can read her blogs on The Zero-Waste Chef. You can also find her on FacebookInstagram and Twitter. Have you tried anything like Anne-Marie, please tell us about your experience; tips; challenges; anything that can help our readers gain more insights into a zero-waste journey.

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4 thoughts on “Interview with Zero-Waste Chef Anne Marie Bonneau

  1. Miss Anne Marie is a little crazy. Well! It is an admission or sorts in her own words :) But she makes good points and she practices what she preaches. And again what she does would not go over in many places. I am not an alarmist but what she says is correct that we need to cut down on waste. I feel that most environmental groups highly inflate the problem but there is no denying the problem. She has stepped up and made her life her statement while not being so overbearing and self righteous that she isolates herself and her cause. As in this interview she shows this trait. I respect that but will never talk politics with her :)
    Congratulations Miss Anne

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