Drawing portrait of Regina Tchelly - Copyrights : Peter James Field

Regina Tchelly or the art of preparing leftovers

Posted on 05 March 2015.

In the favelas, chef Regina Tchelly gives people tasty recipes using... leftovers. Banana skins or broccoli stems, nothing is lost, everything can be eaten!

When people eat the skin of fruit or vegetables, they change the way they buy, and start looking for better, ecologically grown products.

What made you think of anti-waste cuisine?

I come from Nordeste, in northeast Brazil, and specifically the state of Paraíba. There, rich or poor, we eat what the earth gives us. So there is little waste: farmers put any waste back in the earth as fertilizer or use it to feed animals. When I arrived in Rio de Janeiro, I was struck by what I saw on the markets: fruit and vegetables, meat and fish simply thrown away if they are not sold! For eleven years I worked in Rio as a maid, and for eleven years, I was outraged, because I knew that what was thrown out, I could use for cooking. I was very lucky because my boss helped me a lot: I worked for her Monday to Friday, and I had two days to develop my project without losing any pay.

How did you then launch your association, Favela Organica?

In Rio, I lived in a favela. Every year a youth assistance program funds a project with a grant of 10,000 reals (about 3,000 euros). The last year I was eligible, just before my thirtieth birthday, I decided to apply. Unfortunately, my project was not selected because it was considered too complex! Twenty days later, however, I decided to start my association, Favela Organica, with just 140 reals donated by friends. More than the money I was lent, the thing that most touched me were the six maids who agreed to help me - they worked all day, but at night, they were there with me. The first week there were six, the second ten, the third fifteen, and a month later forty. Two months later, I was a guest on the biggest TV show in Brazil, and BBC World, and eleven months later, I won first prize in the Brazilian women entrepreneur awards! After a year, I was giving a talk to 600 people in Italy. When I got home, I stopped being a maid!

How does your association operate now?

For three years, I have had a lot of work, and the demand keeps growing! Buffets, coffee breaks, food distribution, we organize lots of events: I work with seven markets that give me their unsold produce and with eighteen restaurants, and I advise chefs about how to reduce waste. I have always loved cooking, but I did not want to do it the way the top restaurants do - their dishes are distant – a distance created by money. I wanted my cuisine to be accessible to everyone. All my cooking is therefore 100% made from leftover food, but that doesn’t mean it is just for poor people...

What problems do you face in your work? How do you raise awareness about food wastage?

It’s a social responsibility issue: everyone, whatever their standard of living should learn not to waste things. I give a lot of lectures to inspire people to change their behavior. I often tell my life story - passing on the love for what we do is often the best way to raise awareness!

You defend the idea of total gastronomy – what does it mean in practice?

It's simple, it's a circle: we must give to the earth what we receive from it. And that goes from responsible consumption to composting waste.

How do you solve the issue of pesticides in food - often concentrated in the skin of vegetables?

I always work with what I have on hand, whether it is organic or not. Obviously you need to be careful to wash fruit and vegetables, and although there are still pesticides inside, they are ultimately much less harmful to health than fried foods, snacks and sodas! When people eat the skin of fruit or vegetables, they change the way they buy and start looking for better, ecologically grown products. It is not a question of cost: organic produce is now more expensive, but if everyone bought it, prices would fall.

Among the recipes you have invented, what is your favorite?

You can make very tasty dishes with very little. One day, I wanted to cook banana peel, but I didn’t have enough flour to make pastry: I had to go up and down the streets of the favela to buy butter, flour... It was a waste of time, and as I try to use the least amount of manufactured goods in view of the amount of packaging and plastic they generate, it still bothers me a bit to buy! I then discovered that I could make pastry with whole green bananas, a little flour and olive oil, that's it! French croissants are wonderful, but I think I still prefer my green banana dough, which has the advantage of using less butter! (Laughs)

So far is there any waste food you have not managed to use?

No, for the time being nothing has defeated me - for the simple reason that anything I can’t incorporate into a recipe, ends up being composted. I haven’t had a trash can in my house for two years. We learn about waste every day - when I was in France, I was told that egg shells stopped snails and slugs in vegetable gardens, and I thought it was a great idea !

Main picture: Drawing portrait of Regina Tchelly - Copyrights : Peter James Field