Max La Manna: pro-planet chef, award-winning author, social media superstar

We caught up with BBC Earth host and Instagram sensation Max La Manna on his mission to save the planet – one meal at a time

Max La Manna
Max La Manna

Food waste has an immense carbon footprint. Perhaps you know the figures, perhaps you don't.

*dons spectacles, adjusts tie, clears throat*

Roughly 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted every single year and around one-third of all food production never even reaches the consumer’s table. Therefore, wasted food not only means a missed opportunity for the economy, but also wasted energy, time, labour, packaging, transportation, marketing and so much more. This issue isn't talked about enough. 

The Max La Manna mantra, "It's often not what we say, but what we do, that can generate the largest environmental impact" is one that is growing momentum.

In just three years, La Manna has captivated 500K passionate and engaged food-saving foodies across his social media with easy, mouth-watering recipes and zero-waste life hacks. His BBC Earth food shows have been viewed by hundreds of millions around the world, and his debut cookbook, More Plants Less Waste, was awarded the Most Sustainable Cookbook in 2020 by Gourmand. This suggests that, while our small day-to-day choices may seem insignificant, if we all band together lasting change could be possible.

We spoke to La Manna about his ongoing campaign to show people that less is more.

Talk us through why you became a chef?

Having grown up in a food-obsessed French-Italian household, I’ve always been completely fascinated with cooking. My father owned a few fast-food restaurants, my mother worked in television and we grew vegetables around the seasons in our backyard. Therefore, I constantly found myself in situations where I was either watching my father put a meal together, or helping my mother make homemade sauces and wines.

At just 16 years old, I worked as a dough boy at a pizzeria, which, for an entry level role, was extremely difficult. Dough can be immensely complex to work with, often transforming in a matter of seconds; if you're too rough in one area and too light on another you can have an uneven pizza base. It’s shapeshifting. You want consistency. Learning at such a young age to be consistent with food was very important; you don't want to create a recipe that works one day and doesn't on another. I’m obsessed with trying to make things perfect – not that I am, far from it – but with food, you want to hit it on the head every single time.

It's taken me a long while to figure out that's what I want to do with the rest of my life, but working with and understanding food is fascinating.

What’s the first proper meal you can remember making and who was it for?

Throughout my childhood, I can recall waking up most weekends to the smells of sautéed onions and garlic. My mother would make this massive pot of incredibly rich, fresh tomato sauce which would last the entire week – most families would have a side salad, pasta was our daily side salad!

One Sunday, when I was around 12 years old, I noticed she wasn't reading a cookbook she was just throwing in all different spices and ingredients and I thought, how does she just know? I remember asking her “mum you're not going to be around forever,” (dark for that age) “you need to show me how you're doing this!” That was the very first time I learnt how to replicate the lengthy process of this incredibly lovely marinara. It takes hours to get it right.

My god, I miss that smell! I'll only wake up early to make bread now. 

Max La Manna

What got you into sustainable cooking?

I have always been passionate and curious about the environment. From such a young age, my mother taught me that food comes from the earth and that you need to take care of it, and we’d often drive to local nature parks to pick up litter on our hikes. My mother, still to this day, gets so upset seeing garbage on the sidewalk; she’ll say “why can’t people not just respect the planet, but also just respect one another?”

It's not until 20 years later, that I fully understand her passion and realise that the choices we all make, really do make a difference. Small day-to-day changes may seem insignificant but they each have an impact – it’s often not what we say, but what we do, that can make the greatest environmental change.

In terms of sustainable cooking, it wasn’t until a cold commute home in October 2017, when I noticed a homeless man begging for food outside the subway. My parents always taught me to go above and beyond people's expectations, so, rather than just buying something from the nearby shop, I thought I'd cook something creative from whatever I had in my pantry.

When I got home, everything was unfortunately going off and as I was throwing it all away, something shocked me – not only can I not help this person, I'm also now wasting food AND money. It got me thinking, where does it all end up? I don't think anyone is separating food waste from the other landfill, and what impact is this having on our planet?

That was the moment I really needed to make a change; I started analysing every single ingredient, whether it was banana peels, broccoli stalks or the seeds in the skin of a butternut squash, trying to find the perfect use for the entire ingredient to minimise its waste.

What was the best part about releasing your cookbook?

As I only had three months to prepare it, I don't think I had enough time to fully 'marinate' [pun fully intended] in the experience. Looking back, I thoroughly enjoyed the creative process and seeing the recipes come to life; we had a home chef come in to check they all definitely worked and a further eight days of photographing each dish.

It was also seeing everyones reactions to the book – friends, family, even my own! I often have to pinch myself like ‘I'm a cookbook author!’ I'm still slightly amazed and baffled every time I pull a meal together. It really is the little things in life that make you happy!

Max La Manna – More Plants, Less Waste

You do some inventive things with leftovers that most people would throw out, where do you get these ideas from?

I’ll often look at other recipes first and think how can I incorporate this ingredient to this recipe? The leftover aquafaba water from chickpeas, for example, blends beautifully into whipped meringues. One day, I was experimenting mixing that up and I just thought, what if I add cacao powder, flour and sugar and put it in a baking dish, would that work? The result was the most light and fluffy, melt-in-your-mouth chocolate cake.

I just look for any way to get more out of the ingredient, and that doesn’t always mean eating it. Bananas, for example, have incredible nutrients in the skins so I soak them in hot water and use them as a fertiliser on my houseplants. In fact, our beloved Nigella Lawson included a banana peel recipe in her recent cookbook, and I just thought yes, the message is getting out there!

It's all just a bit of fun. Every time I cook, it's an experiment.

Who are your cooking idols?

Great question, no one ever asks me this! I think the UK has some of the best cooks. I'd have to say Nigel Slater, Nadiya Hussain, Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson, Tom Kerridge and also Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Those are the people I really look up to; if I could have even a slither of their success and wisdom shared upon me, I would certainly be in a better place.

You do have 500K Instagram followers though! Did that blow up at once or was it more of a gradual progression?

In January 2020 I had 97k followers, and by September 2020 I had 135k. So initially, it was a very gradual, steady progression.

However from September to now, my following has almost tripled which I think is due to my recipe videos. I can't believe I didn't think to do cooking reels sooner? Before this I was just sharing photos of food. I have this smartphone, thank god I'm now fully utilising it!

View on Instagram

Why do you think you have been so successful on social media? 

I think food should be two things – simple and delicious. I really try to keep the recipes and reels straightforward so you see the steps and the process, and you think 'gosh that looks quick, I'm going to give it a go!' You don't need to spend hours on arduous recipes to get great tasting food.

Talk us behind the premise of your Supper Clubs. How did they come about, and how do people attend?

This takes us all the way back to the beginning of my journey with food really – growing up in a French-Italian household, our meals were always spent together around a massive dinner table. There was six of us in the house so it was always loud, chaotic and exciting. I always knew I wanted to bring people together like that with my cooking, and so I started hosting intimate dinner parties or Supper Clubs at my apartment in Brooklyn, New York.

Every week I'd have the same five friends over, which was quite nerve wracking and stressful at times, but there was also something magical about creating something out of nothing, seeing people's reactions and bringing a group together. My friend said I needed to share this on social media and everything unfolded from there.

I was invited to come over to London to host an event, and I thought am I supposed to just speak about the environment, or should I let my food do the talking, which is exactly what I decided.

The event is ticketed online and the location varies, but the premise is always the same; supplying guests with a menu made entirely from surplus food rescued by organisations, such as Oddbox, from various supermarkets and farms. I want people to experience firsthand that misshapen and wasted foods can still taste delicious. 

It's not just food, there's often guided meditation, performances and breath-work exercises. I want an experience every time I eat, so it's really just one big party. I hosted my last one two or three days before lockdown in March 2020, and I'm hoping to restart these again as soon as possible.

What was the best experience filming with BBC Earth?

The crew, definitely the crew. I've worked with a lot of different production companies in the past where the people aren't quite as passionate as you are, but the team at BBC Earth really believed in me and the message I was trying to spread. It was incredibly reassuring to receive this approval, especially when most of them have worked with the likes of Jamie Oliver and Marco Ortolani in the past.

Max La Manna

It’s date night, what are you cooking?

I would have a Mexican theme to start, so we’re talking margaritas and nachos, or DIY tacos with buffalo cauliflower, crispy tofu, caramelised onions, guacamole and nacho cheese.

For my main, I'd have to go for a rich, tomato and mushroom bolognese pasta accompanied with red wine. I just love spaghetti, there's something beautiful about twirling your fork, lifting it up and having a mouthful of noodles.

For dessert, I'd do espresso martinis with chocolate chip cookies and vanilla bean ice-cream.

What is your dream dinner party guest list?

Nigella Lawson, Michelle Obama and LeBron James. An interesting mix, but I think that could be a cool party!

What upcoming project(s) are you most excited about?

My second cookbook is a work in progress and currently set to come out next year. That being said, I'm always working on some TV pilot or show – I'm currently in the NDA stage where I can't share too much, but I'm going to be working with two different networks in the next month or two, which I'm very excited about.

'More Plants, Less Waste' is available to buy in bookshops and on Amazon. For more info, see Max La Manna or follow him on Instagram