With almost a million followers on Instagram, a debut cookbook dubbed ‘the most sustainable in the world’ and an irresistible smile, Max La Manna is emerging as the poster boy of zero-waste cooking.
“I was pretty much born in a kitchen,” he tells me, from his mother-in-law’s home in Gloucestershire. “My father bought his first two restaurants just two weeks after I was born. I grew up cooking meals at home, we rarely went out to eat. That in itself is a privilege, I consider myself lucky.”
“So you watched your parents cook from a very young age, is that where your love of food comes from?”, I ask.
“Yeah, we had a little thing a garden where we grew vegetables and herbs. I have always loved anything that allowed me to put my hands in the mixing bowl.
“Actually, my surname means ‘big hands’. So that’s interesting, this is what I’m about to do. I’m meant to be using my hands to cook and put food together.”
Using his hands led Max to the restaurant industry, where he did almost every job you can think of. His first job was at a pizza place, making fresh dough every day. From his hometown of Connecticut, Max then moved to New York where he managed restaurants, played host and even washed dishes, while acting and modeling on the side.
“I think if I had to run a restaurant today, I could,” he says proudly.
A change of scenery prompted a change of approach
It wasn’t until he moved to Australia, in his twenties, that Max realized how disconnected he felt from nature. “I was in this beautiful place, and yet I was trash everywhere – I would come across plastic bottles while swimming in the sea.”
“It made me think back to the kitchen, and that’s what I know, and the waste we create there. I thought, what’s happening to the food I’m wasting, where is it going – how can I shop smarter? I went down this rabbit hole thinking about how everything is produced.”
Over the next few years, Max’s passion for saving food grew and grew. He started making videos for YouTube before joining Instagram, where he showed people how to cook using “the whole ingredient”.
From turning carrot tops into pesto, to making a cake using leftover chickpea water, there’s nothing he hasn’t tried – and it’s all based on plantsas the name of his book suggests: ‘More plants, less waste’.
“We live in a linear economy where something is created, we use it and we dispose of it. It shouldn’t be like that,” he explains. “There are 20 million slices of bread wasted in the UK every day. Instead, we should freeze them to make croutons, or breadcrumbs, or bread pudding.”
Then there are potatoes, which are being wasted in droves according to Max. It is the biggest problem uniformity. People peel their potatoes because they want them all to look the same.
“Some potatoes will have bumps and bruises and blemishes, but we’ll all have bumps and bruises and blemishes. We are all unique and different, so why are we peeling that skin to look the same?”
In true form, he suggests baking those potato skins, flavoring them — “and then you have chips!”
What you eat can save the planet
But he’s not just saving food for the sake of it – Max is well aware of the role our eating habits play in the climate crisis.
“It causes food waste, all over the world, six times more emissions than air and land transport, according to a report from the Waste and Resources Action Programme,” he tells me.
Here are some scary statistics. So if it’s about food, doesn’t that mean there’s no benefit to living sustainably in other ways?
“See I’m an optimist,” he cried. “But at the end of the day, you can stop flying, you can stop driving, you can ride a bike – that’s all great, those are great steps to reduce your waste. But food, if you have the privilege of having it three times a day, you have to know what’s on your plate and you have to know where it’s coming from.”
He is right. In the EU, about 88 million tonnes of it food wastage generated annually, and the associated costs are estimated at €143 billion, according to the European Commission. Wasting food is not only an ethical and economic issue, it depletes the environment of its limited natural resources.
What follows is a metaphor I’ve never heard before, Max says he heard a scientist say once, and it’s shaped his view of climate change ever since.
“If you put a frog in a pot of boiling water – the frog will jump out. Right? But if you put that frog in water at room temperature and if you slowly, slowly, gradually increase the heat, that frog will die in the water.”
What is happening exactly that, is our planet warm up, he explains. Although it’s easy to get overwhelmed by it all, Max tries to rise above it because that’s the only way we’re going to move forward. By breathing new life into food scraps and leftovers, he is doing more than his fair share for planet Earth.
He leaves me with what he says we all need to remember when we sit down to eat each day. A simple but powerful sentence that has stayed with me ever since, and no doubt will stay with you too.
“Climate change is on your plate.”