It started as a dare between friends. Could the Montreal chef, take a dumpster dive and create a gourmet meal from the waste he found?
Working in restaurant kitchens for 17 years—he started at age 15 and worked his way up to chef, winning the first season of Radio Canada’s Les Chefs!–and always up for an epicurean challenge, when his friend, Thibault Renouf, suggested the idea in 2016, Cantin (literally) dove into the adventure with relish.
“I went behind a grocery store and jumped into the dumpsters,” says Cantin. “I wasn’t surprised as much by the quantity of food I found, but I was surprised by the quality. If something isn’t edible, it’s understandable to throw it away, but what we found was beautiful food, still in the package.”
Cantin won the dare with gusto. From two dumpsters at separate grocery stores, he found so much quality food that he was able to prepare nearly 100 meals. Since there was an abundance of fruits and vegetables, the menu Cantin created reflected the bounty. He prepared a red pepper soup that was garnished with spicy hummus and small dices of orange, red and yellow peppers. For the main course, the duo served roasted lettuce with a lettuce cream, quinoa, pomegranate and sage. And for dessert, he made a pan seared “pain perdu” (a type of bread pudding) with coffee-cumin yogurt and slices of yellow plums.
It was a veritable feast, sourced from two dumpsters.
That first dive into a dumpster opened Cantin’s eyes. Shortly thereafter, Cantin and Renouf sat down to more deeply investigate the food supply chain they thought they knew. With the addition of two other friends, Bobby Grégoire and Marie Gaucher, the appropriately named La Transformerie was born. Transformation. The non-profit started up in July of 2017 with a fact-finding mission, beginning by speaking with employees at grocery stores: What had they tried in the past to reduce food waste? What is the reality?
“They were very open with us because they saw we weren’t judging them; we just wanted to figure out a solution.” The goal of La Transformerie was to reduce food waste by using quality unsold food to help those in need.
The impact so far is massive. Cantin’s dive into a dumpster led to a company that takes food waste from grocers, donates 67 percent of it to food banks, composts any unusable items (about 7 percent) and then preserves and sells the rest back to the consumer. By partnering directly with grocers, Cantin saves himself a jump into the dumpster, and the grocers get positive marketing and an opportunity to show their employees that they’re doing the right thing.
Growing steadily since 2017, La Transformerie now has contracts with 17 grocers, from small independent stores to large local chains. They utilize a network of 1,200 volunteers who collect the food each week and help with distribution and processing. Once the food is picked up, it’s organized by type, then measured and cleaned. The largest portion is donated to food banks including any meat, bakery items, eggs or dairy. As the group gets more popular, it sometimes has two pickups per week.
“The grocers know we’re there to help them, so they see we’re serious—because of this, the partnerships are going well,” says Cantin.
The group has donated and repurposed 160,000 kilograms (nearly 352,740 pounds) of produce since 2019. Anything that doesn’t get donated or tossed out is put to use in its Les Rescapés (the survivors) line of marmalades, jams and sauces. Cantin makes an average of 800 jars a week, which are then sold at dozens of specialty food shops and grocers.
Although he’d worked as a chef for many years, canning was a new process, so Cantin took training classes to learn about preservation techniques. Now, he creates original recipes using the ingredients donated by the grocers. All of the Les Rescapés products are made using minimal ingredients and they are vegan and low in sugar.
People are surprised by the quality of the products, says Cantin, and that’s the goal. He wants to showcase that unsold food is still quality produce. “People think it’ll have mold or be inedible, but in reality, there may sometimes be a brown mark that needs to be cut off, but, otherwise, it’s ripe and beautiful—the perfect time to transform it and showcase the quality.”
Working out of the basement of a former church, Cantin created a lab and test kitchen. He keeps samples from each batch of jam and marmalade produced, and he is able to experiment with flavors based on the donated produce. The group currently has an abundance of apples, so it is featuring two apple products. It often receives tomatoes, so Cantin developed a barbecue sauce. The products are dependent on the unsold produce, so the group will often have an abundance of one item but a shortage of something such as grapefruit for the marmalade. Still, there are always seven or more varieties available at all times.
Although the four friends have made a huge dent in food waste in just a few years, Cantin says they always try to push themselves. Right now, they’re planning a limited-edition preserve using blueberries while they’re in abundance. They’re also working on a new project to educate organizations about food waste and what they can do to initiate change.
“We love food so much that we want to make sure everyone else is falling in love with food. Plus, we want to erase food waste, especially when there are those who aren’t eating enough.”
With the help of friends, volunteers and grocers, Cantin is finding a way to meet these goals. No dumpster diving required.