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In Bold: Doug McMaster

Born and raised in a former miner's town near Sheffield, Doug McMaster grew up knowing not to waste food.

“If I left any food on my plate, I would know about it,” he remembers. “So I was quite rigorous in not wasting food, but it wasn’t because of the environment. I didn't know what the word ‘sustainability’ meant.”

Fast forward to the present day and Doug is an award-winning chef and owner of Silo, the world’s first zero-waste restaurant. So, how did he get there?

In our new series, In Bold, we talk to changemakers whose actions highlight hope and make what’s possible stand out – both for individuals and big brands.

We caught up with Doug to chat about the highs and lows of building a successful restaurant, while also developing an alternative food system that could change the future for all of us – including the mind-blowing shortbread that showed Doug just how good that future could taste.

Here's Doug’s story.


Growing bold


Doug spent a lot of time feeling like an outsider growing up. “I was terrible at school,” he says. “I’m neurodivergent and my brain is wired differently. That was not recognised by a system that used academic ability to discern who was smartest. And so I just felt really dumb every day.”

But things changed for Doug when he discovered a cause to be passionate about – food and the environment; “As I fell in love with something, I realised that I'm not dumb. You know, it just took a certain kind of environment to bring that out and then boom – I became an expert.

Doug can trace a lot of the motivation that fueled his journey with Silo back to that time; “My motivation came from a place of unrest and dissatisfaction with a system – with institutionalisation. And so that's why, with Silo, I created an alternative way of thinking and doing. But I’m not just doing this to rage against the machine. I do genuinely love food and I care very much about nature.”


A bold step


Doug went on to work at some of the world’s best restaurants, including St. John, The Fat Duck and Noma, and was recognized at Britain’s Best Young Chef by the BBC. However, eight years into his career, Doug started to look for a new challenge.

I was in Sydney and was a little out of love with the industry,” he shares. “I met Joost Bakker, a Dutch artist who was in the middle of a project called the Greenhouse. It was a building made entirely of waste materials. It felt like a piece of art to me and I fell madly in love with it. Joost asked me ‘Could you not have a bin as a chef?’ That seemed like such a profound question for me because I never really thought about the bin and what it represents.”

And that question set Doug on a journey of exploration and experimentation. Six months later, he opened an early iteration of Silo in Melbourne. Working late one night, he was hit by a revelation of what the future of zero-waste food and cooking could be.

There was a moment where everything made sense. I was alone in the restaurant making shortbread. I milled the flour and churned the butter. It took me hours. The second I tasted it, I knew it was the most delicious shortbread I’d ever had,” Doug remembers. “When you work with nature, the best version of nature, that’s when food tastes the best. With that shortbread I considered the future of food both in terms of flavour and from an environmental point of view and a zero-waste system made complete sense to me.”

"My motivation was born from a place of unrest and dissatisfaction. I wanted to find a new way of thinking and doing."

“Our mission is to normalise a zero-waste food system and that idea won’t survive if it doesn’t taste good.”

Bold, but bigger


Silo is now a recognised success. The restaurant has won a host of accolades – Britain’s Most Ethical Restaurant from Observer Food Monthly, Britain’s Most Innovative Restaurant from the Craft Guild of Chefs, and the Sustainability award at the National Restaurant Awards, to name just a few. But the journey there wasn’t easy.

We first opened in Brighton and one Saturday there was a queue around the building, but the financials didn’t stack up. For example, if we were to charge for the cost of milling flour, churning butter and baking sourdough then our toast would’ve cost nine pounds – and that’s not a good idea,” recalls Doug. “The next five years was a constant gauntlet of potential destruction, and we nearly went out of business so many times. It was such a struggle.”

Eventually, Doug set up in London and reopened Silo. To him, success felt like less of a sudden tipping point and more a growing sense that everything was working out; “I realised after maybe three years that people just kept coming and we were actually floating.”

As for highlights, Doug is particularly proud of The Silo Book – a blueprint for the waste-free food system of the future that he wrote during his turbulent years trying to make Silo work in Brighton. “I wrote that book like I was aboard a ship that was going down,” he explains. “I thought, ‘I'm not going down without a fight’. And then the book sold over 10,000 copies which is astonishing considering the circumstances it was written in. It’s one of the most meaningful moments of my career.”


Fueling bold


Clichés would have us believe that inspiration can only be found when we think outside the box, but in Doug’s experience, having to create within a defined circumstance – one which you create yourself – can lead to exciting innovation. “What’s interesting about Silo is that we’re working within a system, and it’s one we’re trying to make better. We’re a zero-waste restaurant, so how do we innovate and adhere to those principles? Working within those guidelines can really trigger our creativity – it’s like lights turning on across a map.”

And when it comes to inspiring change, the beautiful experience that Silo offers its diners shows just how good a shift towards a zero-waste system could be – and taste. “You'll never hear us talking about carbon emissions or fearmongering in relation to Silo,” Doug explains. “We’re doing this because we know it's right.

When you visit Silo, you’re spellbound, and you don't really realise that it has anything to do with the environment. But that’s the plan. Our mission is to normalise this food system and provide a product that’s beautiful, as the idea will not survive if it doesn't taste good.”

A bold future


So what’s next for Doug? Lots of things.

I’d like to work with Joost [Bakker] more”, Doug shares. “He has a project called the Future Food System, which is a house that’s an ecosystem, and I’d like to bring that to London. I’d like to write another book too. A really simple little book about how the whole world could be zero waste.”

I’d like to explore fermentation on a bigger scale too. Fermentation is the golden gateway to zero waste,” he continues. “Fermentation creates flavours that are some of the most exquisite on the planet, in my opinion.”

And exploring the possibilities of fermentation is one of the easiest ways we can all reduce our food waste, according to Doug; “Look into making a sauerkraut or kimchi. You don't need much, just the ingredients and salt and a jar - it’s so easy and you create this incredibly delicious product. Make it like a little Sunday morning ritual.

Doug’s advice to those looking to do something bold themselves? “Expect high innovation to be very hard. The higher the innovation, the greater the struggle – that's just the very nature of it. There's no manual, because it’s never been done before, and that makes things difficult. But if you adopt that stoic frame of mind, you'll invest so much more into the pursuit and it will come out far more fantastic.”

“Expect high innovation to be hard. It will mean you invest so much more in the pursuit – and it will come out far more fantastic.”


Thanks for reading


We hope you feel inspired by Doug’s story. Hearing about how Doug turned his radical vision for the future of food into a reality was a powerful reminder of how good the future could taste – and be – if we’re willing to make bold changes, both as individuals and big brands.

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