When you first step into Helsinki's Nolla, in the city's Punavuori neighborhood, you don't notice the industrial composter at the back of the dining room or even the microbrewery next to the bar. It may look like all the other minimal Finnish restaurants on the street, but Nolla (which means ‘zero’ in Finnish) has a radically different concept – it's said to be the Nordic region's first-ever fully zero-waste restaurant. Every ingredient brought into the kitchen is precisely tracked with software so that Nolla produces no waste, and it's the data from the software that shapes the monthly menu. Each dish is created with by-products of something else, from the crusts of old sourdough that infuse the ice cream to the bathroom hand soap that's made with leftover frying fat – nothing at Nolla goes in the bin.
‘We input all the data and our software monitors everything from leftover bones to the coffee grounds,’ says Luka Balac, co-founder and chef at Nolla. Taught to cook by his grandmother in Serbia, Luka moved to Helsinki more than 10 years ago and opened the restaurant in 2018. ‘We make our operations so limited and our lives much harder by choosing to be a zero-waste restaurant, but these are the boundaries that we chose and we want to be as true to it as possible.’ This means that the staff's uniforms are made from old hotel bed linen, the electricity is run on wind power, and the tableware – from butter dishes to candle holders – is shaped from leftover wine bottles. ‘We try to find the most sustainable option for everything that we can interfere with,’ he says.
Luka and his co-founders met in the kitchen of a neighboring restaurant and bonded over their obsession for sourcing local Finnish produce and the impact it can have on the waste a commercial kitchen creates. ‘None of us are from Finland: Carlos Henriques is Portuguese, Albert Franch Sunyer is Spanish and I'm Serbian, but we were all drawn here because it has some of the best produce in the world. The only downside is that it can feel like summer is just a few weeks long, so preservation is key.’ Nolla's kitchen sources from more than 15 farms in southern Finland and also looks for ingredients that are going to waste in other industries around Helsinki.
‘There is such an incredible food scene in Helsinki right now and interacting with other businesses is really important for us in how we view being a zero-waste restaurant. We use the cocoa pods that are discarded from a local vegan craft chocolate factory, Goodio nearby. These pods would normally be fed to pigs, but they're still so full of flavor, so we use them to infuse things like our stout beer that we make in-house.’
This attitude towards waste and making the best of what's left is intrinsic to the Finns' attitude towards cooking at home. Luka says that some raise an eyebrow at sitting beside the composter but, adorned with plants and pottery, it almost blends into the candlelit dining room. ‘We want our diners to see the tools that we use to run Nolla – it's the bridge between us and our customers.’