Thursday, June 20, 2024

At New York’s First Zero-Waste Restaurant, Plants Bring True Circularity


With SCEN, New York gets another vegan Matthew Kenney restaurant and its first promising to be truly zero-waste in a bid to make the city more sustainable.

Chef Matthew Kenney opens vegan restaurants with the speed and gusto of a kid opening candy on Halloween. But the prolific restaurateur’s latest offering, New York City’s SCEN, which opens this week, aims to take the plant-based restaurant concept to new heights. It’s the city’s and Kenney’s first circular restaurant concept that promises farm-to-table dishes, a zero-waste kitchen, and as always, groundbreaking plant-based menus.

SCEN, which is Swedish for “stage” and pronounced like “zen” in Japanese, is a collaboration between Kenney and 23-year old entrepreneur, Maximilian Koenig. The science-based concept aims to provide the healthiest menus for humans and the planet. And like its namesake, the restaurant is positioning itself as laying the foundation for a global stage where sustainability and living in harmony with nature are the norm.

“My generation is tired of compromising the planet and our own health for convenience on a daily basis, however, the current options are limited and require a lot of critical research. We set out to develop every detail of our concept based on the health of humans and the planet. It is our mission to create a circular food supply chain for the cities of the future and make nutritional science available for everyone” Koenig told Gotham Magazine.


The restaurant, a ‘Japandi’ fast-casual concept, aims to bridge together Scandinavian and Japanese minimalism and nutrition. The new take on Nordic and Japanese cuisine, which leaves animals off the menu, focuses on local, seasonal produce and a nod to the Japanese shojin-ryori diet favored by Zen Buddhists. The vegan diet prioritizes conservation and sustainability as much as it prioritizes health.

The menu will run all day with breakfast, lunch, and dinner options from bagels and bowls to smoothies and sushi rolls. It will also include specialty tea offerings inspired by Japanese tea ceremonies.

Image courtesy SCEN

“This is a time of exponential growth for the plant-based market,” Kenney said. “People are realizing that they need to take care of themselves more than ever, in a way that is sustainable and pleasurable. We continue to see a real shift in the restaurant industry, which has been something I’ve been working toward for a very long time.”

SCEN will prioritize organic, local, and non-GMO ingredients. All takeaway packaging will be 100 percent compostable. The restaurant says the packaging is made from plant waste, colored with algae-based ink, and produced using wind energy.

The Total Resource Use and Efficiency program (TRUE) will collaborate with SCEN to make it the world’s first certified zero-waste restaurant.

Food waste by the numbers

Restaurants are inherently big waste producers. Amid the growing food waste problem—the USDA estimates as much as 40 percent of all U.S. food goes uneaten—restaurants produce as much as 33 billion pounds of food waste per year in the U.S.

Image courtesy SCEN

Cafeterias across schools, hotels, hospitals, and government buildings add between seven to 11 billion pounds. According to, four to ten percent of all food purchased by the restaurant industry is wasted before it’s ever prepared.

Efforts have been underway for several years to reduce food waste, namely the rise of “ugly” produce being turned into everything from chips to juice. At the beginning of the month, California’s new food waste law went into effect that brings penalties for failure to compost food scraps for both businesses and residents.

Matthew Kenney restaurants

While SCEN will be Kenney’s first restaurant positioned toward the zero-waste mission, the chef has long been driven by a sustainability ethos. The chef is behind more than three dozen plant-based restaurants worldwide. As vegan meat goes mainstream with McDonald’s, Burger King, and KFC lauding popular meat analogs from Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, Kenney has steered in the other direction, elevating vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.

“I think with plant-based eating, the biggest area of progress over the past few years is that it really is plant-based eating. It’s not about fake meats and vegetables trying to disguise themselves as meat. It’s about celebrating the plant. Look at kale: It was used to garnish the salad bar in a steak house. Now it’s tremendously valuable,” Kenney told Vogue in 2016.

Image courtesy Matthew Kenney Cuisine

Kenney has concepts across a range of cuisines from American to Italian. He partnered with the e-commerce platform Plant X, and opened restaurants in Four Seasons hotels. Last month he opened a new restaurant in Selfridges in the UK. Called Adesse, that launch was part of Project Earth, Selfridges’ sustainability initiative.

As Veganuary sees its biggest year of sign-ups yet, major plant-based launches have aligned with the campaign. It’s not just the vegan offerings at traditionally non-vegan restaurants. In the UK, Starbucks dropped its dairy-free milk surcharge after years of campaigns and complaints from customers.

For Kenney, these are interesting times. He doesn’t see meat or fish ever going away entirely, but the shift to make our diets and our planet healthier will see plants dominate plates.

“A few years ago I was just toiling away. Now we have professional sports teams looking to provide plant-based meals for their teams. Professional athletes are wanting to eat this way for better performance and longevity,” Kenney told Vogue. “A lot of major tastemakers in different industries are wanting to get into this from the investment perspective. Some of the biggest spa and hotel chains in the world—even major multibillion-dollar food conglomerates known for processed, non–plant-based food—they’re now reaching out to companies like mine to say they want to explore plant-based alternatives. I think it’s much more than a trend. I think it’s a new direction.”


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