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Chefs transform ‘ugly’ produce into beautiful dinners: How Kanbe’s Markets is taking food waste off the menu

DATE POSTED:May 6, 2022

From lumpy apples to a spotty potato, foods with cosmetic flaws are still edible and nutritionally dense, said Ali Curbow. 

“People turn away these types of produce because it is considered ‘ugly’ — but we’re hoping to showcase that these ugly produce can be made into something beautiful,” said Curbow, marketing manager at Kanbe’s Markets, a Kansas City-based nonprofit battling food insecurity.

Kanbe’s Markets is a non-profit organization founded in 2016 with the mission of building an equitable future of food. Through its innovative food delivery system, Kanbe’s Markets delivers and provides fresh food access for over 250,000 Kansas City residents, according to its website.

Kanbe’s Markets is partnering with six restaurants to launch its Ugly Dinner Series. A chef from each establishment is set to create a four-course meal and cocktail featuring produce that would have otherwise become food waste, Curbow noted.

“When we proposed the idea to our partners, they were immediately taken by it,” Curbow shared, noting that every restaurant she reached out to responded with excitement. “I know a lot of the chefs are creating menu items featuring food waste in their kitchens as well.”

Chewology, a gyoza bar in Westport that was the first restaurant featured in the Ugly Dinner Series, created a dessert centered around the extra dough from their bao buns.

The dinner at Chewology in early April quickly sold out, Curbow said, noting that several Chewology attendees have already purchased tickets for the second event — set for June 8 at The Campground.

Click here to get tickets to Kanbe’s Ugly Dinner Series at The Campground.

Ugly Dinner Series at Chewology; photos by Anna Petrow

Ugly Dinner Series at Chewology; photos by Anna Petrow

Ugly Dinner Series attendees must be up for an element of surprise, said Maxfield Kaniger, founder of Kanbe’s Markets, as guests are not given a menu beforehand.

“We are working with ugly produce — and it depends what we have on hand,” Kaniger explained. “… Ali also did a really good job at letting the restaurants be a part of the storytelling. We gave them a general idea of the story we’d like to tell, but then each restaurant connects it to their own story on a more individual level. That means each dinner is going to be really different, so someone could go to all six!” 

The other four restaurants in Kanbe’s Markets’ Ugly Dinner Series include Fox and Pearl (July 20), Hotel Kansas City (Aug. 3), Heirloom (September) and Affäre (October).

Maxfield Kaniger was one of Startland News’ 2021 Community Builders to Watch. Click here to read about his journey as a community builder.

Along with raising awareness about food waste, the Ugly Dinner Series is a fundraiser that will benefit Kanbe’s Markets’ Healthy Corner Stores program, Kaniger said — noting that its 43 locations are stocked every day with fresh, affordable fruits and vegetables in food deserts throughout Kansas City. In 2021, Kanbe’s Markets redirected more than 218,000 pounds of produce from landfills to those experiencing food insecurity in the community.

Curbow and Kaniger encouraged all those interested to grab a ticket before they sell out. 

“There were a lot of new faces, not just for us, but also for the restaurants — and that was something we were really excited to hear from Chewology,” Kaniger said. “I’m hoping that’s a little bit of what we can offer back to the restaurants because they are giving us so much.”

Whether someone was a new or familiar face, the dinner at Chewology felt intimate in the way one would gather with their family, he continued.

“It feels good to get back in front of people and connect with them over food,” Kaniger shared. “It is the heart and soul of why we do what we do.”

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