In the Kitchen with Chef Maximus Thaler

December 05, 2014

Chef Maximus Thaler Thaler talks about the challenges of reconnecting with the source of our food.

Originally published on Food, Nutrition & Science.

While a resident at the cooperative living Crafts House on the campus at Tufts University, Maximus Thaler started cooking for large groups of people. He later opened The Gleaners' Kitchen, an underground restaurant and grocery store in Somerville, Massachusetts where waste from dumpsters (a unique take on “dumpster diving”) is turned into meals and given away at no cost. Thaler’s recent book, The Curious Harvest, focuses on ingredients rather than finished dishes. We talked to Thaler about the challenges of reconnecting with the source of our food.

What is the main focus of your cooking?

I strive to cook delicious, nourishing food outside of the capitalist paradigm.

Is there a particular nutritional focus of your menus?

Yes. I ensure that every meal I cook contains a generous amount of carbohydrates, protein, and fresh, colorful plant food. The details can vary considerably (i.e., kale or strawberries, steak and potatoes or bread and cheese) but I make sure to keep a broad nutritional balance in mind.

What is your relationship with local farmers?

I am a local farmer.

Are you incorporating locally grown foods into your dishes? How?

Yes. In addition to dumpster diving, I often find myself at farmers markets at the end of the day, taking home their excess produce they could not sell at the market and using it to feed my community.

What are the major concerns today of your readers when it comes to preparing tasty, nutritious meals without preconceived notions or shopping lists. And how are you addressing them?

The problem with food in America today is that it can be distilled into one sentence: We don’t have a relationship with our food. Most people today don’t know where their food comes from. Food comes out of the dirt, and life and death are inexorably intertwined. For the majority of human history this fact was intimately understood. Most people were famers whose lives revolved around the creation of food. But in our modern times the connection between food and dirt, life and death, is systematically hidden from us. Like the young Siddhartha, whose gardens were pruned so that he could not discover a single wilting flower, we are paraded through grocery store aisles that are meticulously scrubbed of any signs of decay. Our food comes wrapped in plastic logos insisting that it should be nothing other than sterile and pristine. And ironically, the result of this process is our partial death. Never before has food been so abundant on this planet – and never before has so much of what we eat been so harmful to us. When we forget that food comes from dirt, and life comes with death, we also forget how to tell good food from bad.

This is the problem I try to address in A Curious Harvest. The major issue confronting a person who wants to eat healthily is how to tell good food from bad. This discernment cannot be made by reading nutrition facts labels or counting calories. We can only tell the good food from the bad by cultivating an active relationship with what we put into our bodies. This is largely an aesthetic relationship. We should eat what we find beautiful, and find beautiful what we eat. This is why illustrations feature so prominently in the book. There are no recipes. Instead, each page features a single ingredient, and presents information relevant to understanding what that ingredient is, where it comes from, and what can be done with it. 

How important is sustainability?

Extremely important. Our food system as it currently stands is linear. Input seeds, fertilizer and pesticide, output $$$. Our food system should be cyclical, because life and death are linked. This is why I eat out of dumpsters.

What steps does you take toward conservation in your meal planning?

Nearly all of my ingredients are gleaned from dumpsters or Farmers’ Markets.