Naomi Toilalo (centre) with chefs Kārena and Kasey Bird in Food Rescue Kitchen (Photo: Supplied)
Naomi Toilalo (centre) with chefs Kārena and Kasey Bird in Food Rescue Kitchen (Photo: Supplied)

Pop CultureApril 27, 2024

Waste not, want not: New series Food Rescue Kitchen turns food trash into treasure

Naomi Toilalo (centre) with chefs Kārena and Kasey Bird in Food Rescue Kitchen (Photo: Supplied)
Naomi Toilalo (centre) with chefs Kārena and Kasey Bird in Food Rescue Kitchen (Photo: Supplied)

Tara Ward talks to presenter Naomi Toilalo about the new TV show that turns food waste into a three course feast. 

Naomi Toilalo is standing in the warehouse at Good Neighbour Tauranga, helping unpack the two-and-a-half tonnes of rejected food that will arrive at the community support hub that day. She offloads trays of nectarines, oranges, asparagus and rice, all perfectly edible but deemed unsellable. “True fact: we got two bins of carrots that were too orange,” national food rescue chief Gavin Findlay tells Toilalo, as a team of volunteers packs community food parcels with fruit and vegetables that would otherwise go to waste – including some very orange carrots. 

We’re only a few minutes into new television series Food Rescue Kitchen, and it’s clear that New Zealand has a problem with food waste. Presenter and talented baker Toilalo is on a mission to change that. Over the next six weeks, the host of Food Rescue Kitchen will challenge chefs like Peter Gordon, Mike Van de Elzen and Chantelle Nicholson to create a meal for the local community, made only from ingredients that Toilalo has rescued. The show hopes to expose the $1.2 billion of food waste each year in New Zealand, while also highlighting how we can make a difference in our own homes.

Episode one sees Toilalo visits Maketū in Bay of Plenty, where she challenges Masterchef winners Kasey and Kārena Bird to make a three course meal from locally-sourced, rescued ingredients, including fruit collected by community “gleaners” and venison rescued by hunters culling pest deer. “What they could do with rescued food blew my mind,” Toilalo says of the Bird sisters, who, like all the chefs, fully embraced the challenge of cooking with the surprise ingredients. “They had 10 minutes to suss out the menu – we didn’t give them any clues about the food they were getting. We just handed it to them and watched them create magic.” 

Kārena, Kasey and Naomi prepare the dessert made with ingredients that would have otherwise gone to landfill (Photo: Supplied)

As a viewer, it’s astounding to see the kinds of rejected food that Food Rescue Kitchen helps divert from landfill. There’s bags of rice that can’t be sold because they’re near expiry, leeks that are “too big” to be sent to market, and boxes of white chocolate flakes that are no longer needed. Toilalo was similarly shocked by what companies were prepared to throw away. “We went to one place and they had crates and crates full of beautiful mushrooms that would have originally gone to waste, because their stems were one to two centimetres too long.” 

We’ve become conditioned to the idea that the produce we buy has to look perfect to taste good, says Toilalo, who talks about food as tāonga – something to be valued and treasured. At the end of every episode, there’s the heartwarming moment when the groups working behind the scenes to divert food from landfill come together to share a meal. The Bird sisters turn that random mix of rejected food into a feast of fried bread with creamed watercress, venison patties with courgettes and spring onions, and a banana upside down cake with white chocolate. Simple ingredients, saved from landfill, turned into something to savour and treasure.  

Food Rescue Kitchen doesn’t want to shame people about that rotting bag of lettuce in the back of their fridge, nor does it come across as preachy. It’s a warm, light show about community and kai, and for Toilalo, it’s about showing how little things can make a difference. “What are some tiny changes you can do in your kitchen and pantry that stops you from wasting food, or looking at it differently?” she wonders. 

Above all, Toilalo hopes people enjoy watching the talented chefs and inspiring communities that feature in Food Rescue Kitchen, so they feel encouraged and confident about tackling food waste in their own lives. “You know what? You can use simple ingredients, bring them back to life and make something amazing.” As for all those wonky looking vegetables, Toilalo reckons we should embrace them. “After you’ve chopped up that carrot, who cares what it looked like?”

Food Rescue Kitchen starts on Three on Saturday April 27 at 7pm and streams on ThreeNow. 

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