By Jordan Figueiredo, Food Tank
A few years ago, Ankit Chopra of Sydney, Australia, left his full-time IT job to spend time traveling abroad in Europe. He became a chef in Paris (at Le Cordon Bleu and L’Astrance) and worked in Michelin three-star restaurants. While in Europe, Ankit also volunteered for Oxfam and worked in community dining rooms (used to be called soup kitchens) while learning about the global food waste crisis. A few years after Chopra moved back home to Australia in 2009 he founded Eat Me Chutneys and is now working with his family to fight waste and turn ugly produce into 200–300 jars of chutney every week.
At Chutney HQ, as Ankit refers to his home now, Eat Me Chutneys recovers some 30–50 kilos a day of ugly produce, mostly from small farms within a few hours of Sydney, Australia. His parents help him run the company. His mother, Jaya, has the chutney-making skills and heirloom recipes passed down from generation to generation, and his dad, Bhupinder, is Protector of Produce because he used to grow fruit and vegetables in India, and like most home growers he developed a greater appreciation for where food comes from. And the family also came to appreciate all produce he grew, whether it was near perfect, small, or misshapen. But when the family moved to New Zealand and then Australia after that, they were shocked to find that most supermarkets carried produce that all looked near perfect.
Ankit remembered this but he didn’t quite connect everything until after he traveled to Europe and returned home. And things really clicked when, last year, he took a trip with his mum to the farmers’ market to buy some produce for the tasty tamarind chutneys she loved to make.
At the farmers’ market, Ankit noticed some wonky-looking rhubarb that a farmer cast aside. When he asked the farmer why, he said it looked a little different so he couldn’t sell it and would have to compost it instead. Ankit then found out he could purchase the unwanted, but perfectly good and tasty, produce for a lower price, and not long after Chutney HQ was born. Ankit then started to talk to more farmers and ask them if they had similar ugly produce and, sure enough, they did.
They had so much, in fact, that they were leaving tons and tons of it in the field because it wasn’t even worth picking. In Australia, like most places in the industrialized world, there are very high cosmetic standards for produce. And some of the produce that made it to the farmers’ markets was not selling either because no one was interested in the cosmetically imperfect offerings.
Now, Eat Me Chutneys has become so well connected that farmers are contacting them all the time to buy their produce (some at a discount and some regular price) and they can’t keep up with the chutney-making magic. They recently ran a crowdfunding campaign to raise more funds for Chutney HQ, the commercial kitchens they share and the processing and other equipment, to reach their target goal of saving 10 tons of produce in 2016.
And the goals aren’t just to rescue produce that would have otherwise been wasted. They are employing people from the Sydney Local Asylum Seeker Center who are refugees. They are also the first fair-trade and B-Corp certified business in Australia. The fair trade component is very important to the company because they are buying spices from India and want to make sure that their suppliers are fair trade.
Ankit is also teaching cooking classes, where he brings the ugly produce to educate his students. But mostly, you’ll find the Chopra family at Chutney HQ (or not far away at a commercial kitchen)—Ankit spending a lot of time making connections and sales, his dad caring for the produce, and his mom whipping up some amazing recipes into epic and tasty food-waste-fighting chutneys.
Find out more about the growing “ugly” produce movement at my social media campaign @UglyFruitAndVeg on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.