Nick Balla

October 4, 2018

Cooking with the abundance of nature

After opening and running Bar Tartine, a Hungarian-Japanese fusion restaurant, Nick Balla is currently opening Duna Kitchen and Smokebread, a processing kitchen and restaurant concept solely focused on repurposing and eliminating food waste.

Let’s talk a bit about your heritage and passion. Your childhood influence from Hungary and early interest in Japan. What are some of the challenges in preparing these kinds of fusion dishes with local ingredients and retaining their authenticity?

It’s true, a lot of my cuisine stems from a diverse upbringing. Born in a working-class Michigan family, we used everything when it came to food. Coupled with some time spent in post-Soviet Hungary, I instinctively live with the same mentality now. Pragmatic, no waste, use everything. Talking about authenticity is a slippery slope though - nothing I’ve ever cooked has been authentic. When working with different produce, it’s hard to keep things authentic, especially when incorporating dishes in a very different part of world. It’s not possible to recreate, but it is possible to pay homage to a certain cuisine, its styles and flavors.

You have experience opening or managing restaurants that serve something other than the normal dish. What’s the biggest hurdle in opening a restaurant concept like Duna Kitchen that has this risk associated, and what’s your feeling when it works?

It’s tricky. Getting away from the term “waste” and using positive terms is imperative. Otherwise people think you’re sourcing food by going through garbage bins, which is not the case. “Nature’s bounty” or “abundance” - these are terms that get people excited about our movement. It’s something that has generated a huge amount of attention and is becoming a national trend. This collective energy makes our job a little easier.

Your sustainable (or anti-food waste) restaurant will operate thanks to food waste. Of course, food waste exists and will for a long time, so we need to do something about it. How do you explain the contradiction of reducing food waste globally as a goal, but needing wasted food to operate?

We have a processing kitchen called Duna Kitchen, where large quantities of anything can be turned into something. Smokebread is our fast-casual restaurant concept, that sells our food from Duna through a variety of outlets. We are located in the hub of food produce in San Francisco, so we’re right at the source. And this area has an insane amount that can’t be given to charity or processed by food banks. There’s too much to produce (let’s say 500 kg of mushrooms, 2000kg of melons… per day!) so others can’t do what we do unless they have specific equipment and knowledge. I want to build a solid foundation, so that we can always exist due to the sheer quantity of ingredients produced. Regardless of whether it’s food waste or not, we’re willing to pay more or even premium for produce that we can turn into products. We will develop products for people, companies, campuses, and teach people to process stuff in the kitchen themselves. Getting to zero food waste is not necessarily a goal, since depending on soil quality or weather conditions, some ingredients will simply not be delicious. There are times when ploughing produce to re-fertilise fields makes sense. We still have to make delicious food.

Your menus depend on the produce you’re given, and although you can choose what to prepare for human consumption, menu consistency may come into question for your guests. How do you tackle this?

I hate consistency. In culinary school, we were taught that consistency is everything. I completely disagree. In my perfect world, menus consistently shift. I get the demand, but nature doesn’t work that way, and I have a lot more fun working with what is available. It’s important to learn and respect techniques, but not always apply them. I cook from instinct instead of set recipes.

In an article from Eater SF, you say that this concept “should benefit everyone through the supply chain, from farmers all the way up to us.” How will Smokebread benefit or bring value to farmers and others highly impacted along the food supply chain? We want to create value for products, we don’t want them for free, we want to pay for them. This way, we can build a number of different relationships. In Japan last week, we visited a tomato farm, where if the tomatoes are too thin-skinned, the farmers prefer not to pack and transport them because they know the tomatoes won’t be sold.

These are the people we want to create value for, incentivise them to think and sell differently. For example, pay distributors to pack it and sell the food, maybe not for profit, but to cover the farmer’s expenses.

Any last thoughts?

There has never been a time in human history where we’ve had such plenty, such bounty from the Earth. This is a very recent phenomenon that we don’t know how to handle. And it’s a phenomenon that I hope will eventually benefit all of society.

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