Five Minutes with Anne-Marie Bonneau, the Zero-Waste Chef

As part of the new newsy plan, I’ll be popping in the occasional interview with people who are living conscientious lives in various shades of green. What are their hot tips? What do they prioritize? How do they balance eco action with the rest of their life? Let’s move from the theoretical to the personal.

To round off a month of focusing on shrinking our food waste, who better to talk to than Anne-Marie Bonneau, the Zero-Waste Chef. I first upon Anne-Marie, I think, from wanting to de-smell my jar lids for reuse, and I found myself returning to her site again and again for all the wisdom she has to offer on baking, fermenting, low-waste living, and more. I regularly turn to her sourdough crackers, kombucha flavours, and apple scrap vinegar. Anne-Marie has so much wisdom to share that she has a zero-waste cookbook coming out this April, and I can’t wait to get a copy. (You can pre-order in the U.S. and Canada — the editions have two very different covers, which is always fascinating.)

Anne-Marie generously answered my questions about food waste, her activism, and the joy of living sustainably.

JK: This month at FMFP we’ve been focusing on reducing our own food waste. What’s your number one strategy for cutting waste in the kitchen? For me, for example, it’s meal planning. I’m an unapologetic meal-plan evangelist.

AB: My number one rule is to let the food on hand dictate what you’ll cook for dinner, rather than leaving the menu up to a recipe craving. If you feel like eating eggplant parmigiana tonight, for example, and don’t have any of the ingredients on hand to make eggplant parmigiana, you’ll have to buy a bunch of food to make that dish. After you cook and eat your dinner, in addition to any leftover eggplant parmigiana, you’ll likely have random leftover ingredients to deal with. Pick a different dish a night or two later, and you’ll increase your stash of leftovers and random ingredients. After a week or so of shopping and cooking this way, you’ll have more food stashed away than you can probably eat.

If you can squeeze one or two meals out of the food you already have on hand, you’ll slash your food waste because you’ll eat more of the food you’ve already carefully bought (and paid for). Shopping your kitchen will also reduce packaging waste because the less food you buy, the fewer packages you’ll bring home.

JK: Do you have a favourite scrap-to-snack transformation? It could be a meal or just a key ingredient that you integrate into something else, like candied citrus peels.

AB: This week, I’ve been developing a gnocchi recipe. I will eat mashed potatoes with the skins on but to make pillowy gnocchi, I peel the potatoes. So I save those potato peels, toss them in olive oil, salt, and pepper and roast them in the oven (frying on the stove also works). [Recipe here!] Since I already have the oven on, if I have saved any cauliflower leaves, I’ll cut those into bite-size pieces and roast them the same way. 

JK: You’ve been plastic-free since 2011, and that move brought all kinds of other changes, like avoiding processed food. When you embraced your low-waste lifestyle, what were the non-environmental benefits? What surprised you?

AB: After a couple of years of living plastic-free, one day I suddenly realized that I hadn’t been sick for at least two years! There may have been other factors at play (my kids were a few years older and bringing home fewer germs, for example), but when I cut the plastic, my diet improved immediately. I started eating more fresh produce and more fermented food (which I became obsessed with making). This was a complete surprise to me. I also save a lot of money because, well, I rarely buy stuff besides food (and books).

JK: Though “zero waste” is in your name, I love that you realize that zero waste isn’t an absolute destination but a valuable direction. One of my favourite things you’ve written is “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.” How do you think we get more people started?

AB: We need many different approaches, such as:

  1. I think we have to show people what’s in it for them. Who doesn’t want to save hundreds of dollars every year? Here in the U.S., the average family of four wastes about $1,500 a year on food they buy but never eat. For the health-conscious demographic, we can talk about the health benefits of eating more whole foods (which come with their own natural packaging) and fewer industrially produced foods (which almost always come in plastic packaging, often containing toxic chemicals). For the religious, we  can talk about how we have a moral responsibility to protect the planet and all of its inhabitants.

  2. Serving as an example will also get more people on board. I’ve had many friends and coworkers tell me over the years that they noticed something I was doing — perhaps using reusable cloth produce bags — and decided they wanted to give it a try.

  3. What would get many more people on board is government regulation. We need governments to implement more bans on single-use plastic and to pass laws that curb food waste, such as the French law that prohibits supermarkets from dumping perfectly edible food.

JK: You’re an advocate for individual change, but you’ve also started some community projects and participated in protests and direct actions. How did individual change lead to bigger involvement for you? What have been the personal benefits of participating in something bigger?

AB: A few years ago, I joined a zero-waste meetup group. I thought it would be fun to try to sew reusable cloth produce bags with the goal of making enough that we could give them away at a store or farmers’ market. The first time a bunch of us met, we made only a handful of bags. Over time, we worked out the kinks and streamlined the process. When we could still meet before COVID, we’d easily sew a couple hundred bags in an afternoon. We’ve now given away over 3,000 of these bags at our farmers’ market. And the bags don’t just give people a way to shop without plastic, they start conversations. So many people have told us things like “I don’t like using all this plastic but didn’t know what else to use” or “I have fabric at home and will sew some of these today” or “May I please steal this idea?” 

Then people on social media started to ask me if I knew of sewing groups in their area. One day, I connected a bunch of people in Atlanta who were interested in joining a group. It was fun to connect them, but I had to have a more efficient way, so I posted a map on my blog and asked people to send me their city and email information for the map. People living in their area could search the map for a group near them. Shortly after setting that up, an organization that runs a group of farmers’ markets reached out to me asking if I knew of groups near them — they wanted to have sewers on the premises at all eight of their markets! So that project just sort of snowballed.

Protesting gives me hope. Surrounded by a group of people (20 or 100 or thousands), you feel both less alone and more emboldened to demand change. A large and peaceful group all demanding the same thing invigorates you.

JK:  Sometimes environmentalism is depicted as so much drudgery and self-denial. What’s an eco action or habit that brings you joy?

AB: It all brings me joy! I love this lifestyle and won’t live any other way.

Fermentation brings me joy — and delicious food. My kitchen is like a laboratory. Right now I have beet kvass, ginger beer, and kombucha brewing. On the weekend, I hope to start some more preserved lemons (I’m low on them and they add a ton of flavor to dishes) and make a batch of kimchi. My sourdough starter turns seven years old next month (we didn’t have a birthday party last year) and makes the most delicious bread (among other things). Every time I pull a loaf out of the oven, I’m amazed that it contains only three ingredients: flour, water, and salt. 

JK: You’re well informed about the scope of the challenge we face. What keeps you fighting? What makes you hopeful? 

AB: I don’t feel like I have a choice but to keep fighting (perhaps because I am well informed). I also want to be able to tell my kids that I tried to do something.

Greta Thunberg, the youth climate movement, such as the Sunrise Movement, and the new Biden administration all give me hope. As a contender for the Democratic nomination, Biden had no climate plan. After he won the nomination, the Sunrise Movement (among others) pushed him on climate and we now have a climate president with an aggressive climate plan. We have the tools to make the climate crisis less horrible and as COVID has shown us, governments, industry, and people can alter course almost overnight.

Thanks, Anne-Marie! If you want to learn more from the Zero Waste Chef (and who wouldn’t?), preorder her book, spend some time on her immensely useful website, and follow her on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

Is there someone you’d like to see interviewed here? It might even be you! I’d love to feature people at various stages of their green journey — you don’t have to be a plastic-free black belt like Anne-Marie. Hit reply and let me know.

See you next week, when I’ll be back with our new group goals for the month!



P.S. Remember when we learned about the climate impacts of banks? FMFP reader Liz has highlighted a national day of action this Friday, January 29. She’ll be participating with her group, Grandmothers Act to Save the Planet (GASP). If you were thinking of writing your bank but didn’t get around to it (guilty!) set a reminder now to drop them a note this Friday. Climate Action Collective has useful templates from their BankSwitch campaign.

Five Minutes for Planet is written by me, Jen Knoch, and edited by Crissy Calhoun. Opening photo by via Unsplash.