How do the ingredients stack up?
On the night I visited, our meal started with ceviche (good enough to cost $21 on its own) with succulent and mild fish meat made tart and almost cured by an acidic lime juice. After that, there was a hearty tomato-based vegetable soup with pieces of zucchini and eggplant, followed by homemade spaghetti, thick and al dente, coated in a glistening chicken broth-based sauce and topped with ground pork, like an Italian dan dan noodle. A crisp and flavorful flatbread came next, before the big meat course: a stew, which was somewhat one-dimensional and could have benefitted from more flavor and a longer simmer time, but overall, was good. For dessert, there was a chocolate cake, made completely of crumbs, with a scoop of ice cream on top. The crumbs were decadent and moist, an ingenuous use of cake bits that otherwise would never have made it to the plate -- I would pay for this on its own.
The most impressive feat? An Instagram shot of any of these dishes wouldn't immediately out them as leftover compositions. Each dish was plated beautifully -- many were colorful and garnished in a way that could easily disguise them for much more expensive courses. As it turns out, making the food waste taste good is easy; making the dishes look appealing is the real struggle.
"The most challenging part about using all parts of an animal or vegetables... is to make it look nice on a plate," says sous chef Njec Seruga, noting that since guests can already be hesitant about the concept of eating food waste, it's extra-important for it to look appetizing. "It's easy to make a great-looking dish when you're using the perfect-looking vegetables and center cuts of beef fillet, but a little trickier with misshapen carrots, eggplant skins, and vegetable tops."
How does the tasting menu price stay so low?
Telo breaks down the basic restaurant economics as such: "If we were to do a regular dinner service or lunch service [on Sundays] and not sell these items, they're going to become trash, so their value goes down. It's much better to sell everything at a lower cost than to sell a couple things or a few things at a higher cost. That's the way we keep it down."
Though a mix-and-match meal of small-plate food scraps at Dan Barber's pop-up was at least $60 per person (before the price of sangria made with bruised fruits), and six of Mimi Cheng's food scrap dumplings cost $8.75, other than the operating and staffing costs of a restaurant, a food scrap is free. To pass health codes and serve food up to par with New Yorkers' palates, the scraps must be tasty, fresh, or preserved in the proper way (pickled, dehydrated, canned), so it's not a question of quality or quantity of food scraps when it comes to price, but branding. When April Bloomfield (or another celebrity chef guest) popped out at the Barber pop-up, gently setting a portion of fried skate bones on your table as if you were sitting at the chef's counter at an elite restaurant, the $15-per-plate price tag still felt like a bargain, but when the ingredients are essentially free, it's the marketing and the chef's talent that you're paying for.
Telo admits that the tasting menu is very much a marketing strategy to get new customers into 21 Greenpoint. "People are willing to come because it's such a great deal," Telo says. There are tons of restaurants surrounding 21 Greenpoint, but the fact that its tasting menu costs the same as a single menu item at a similar restaurant helps it stand out.
The menu-less concept for the Sunday dinner also helps keep customers excited, rather than disappointed that a dish sold out, something all restaurants struggle with during regular service.