Alex is a 43-year-old San Franciscan who works in the financial sector. He also eagerly eats uneaten and untouched leftover food off of plates if he spots it out in the open at a public dining establishment, even if it’s off a stranger’s plate. He forages in an urban setting, you might say. I called Alex on the phone (on his birthday!) and asked him why he indulges in a practice that I will now refer to as free-range mooching. He’ll have what you’re having. Literally.
Deadspin: I was told by a friend that you enjoy eating leftover food at restaurants that hasn’t been cleared off of tables yet. Is this true?
Alex: It’s not necessarily about, like, hunger. Have you ever heard of the Swan Oyster Depot? It’s an old school lunch counter where you can get fresh fish the same way for like 80 years. So I met this girl and took her to this place and we were sitting there waiting in line for like 30 minutes to get in. The seated people ahead of us had ordered sashimi. They had eaten some of it but had left a bunch of it out. We’re kinda hungry. It’s the morning. It’s just going to be thrown away. So I didn’t ask or anything … I just went up and I grabbed it and popped one in my mouth and was like [to the girl], “You want one?”
She’s like, “No. That was somebody else’s food!” I was like, “Well, yeah, but they didn’t touch it. It’s perfectly good and we’re going to end up ordering the same thing. It’s not a bowl of yogurt. It’s just a piece of fish that’s sitting there.” She was against it. I popped another one in my mouth.
I’m telling a friend this story and he’s like, “So basically you ate garbage.” It wasn’t garbage! It was perfectly good food that hadn’t been touched. He’s like, “If it’s on somebody else’s plate and they leave it, it’s garbage. If it’s going to go in the garbage can, it’s garbage.” From that point on, I always give him the details and let him decide if it’s disgusting or not. And for some reason, he always finds it disgusting.
Now the good thing is my girlfriend now is exactly like me. She absolutely has no problem whatsoever, like if someone leaves a basket of fries or a basket of onion rings. She just hates waste. It’s important for her that it gets eaten. I admire that and I love that. Not for the wasting part, but that I can go and grab other food and not be judged for it.
DS: Was it a dealbreaker for the other girl when she saw you do it?
Alex: Not a dealbreaker. She said that the only person she’d ever seen do that was her dad. So she says she was disgusted by it, but I think it’s one of those things where girls are always kind of attracted to guys who remind them of their dads, even though they might not actually approve of what their dads do.
DS: And she thought you were a bad boy.
Alex: Exactly. Ultimately, it didn’t work out for other reasons that had nothing to do with food. But the fact that she was so uptight about that definitely wasn’t a check mark in her favor.
DS: Did you then end up hooking up with any leftover girlfriends who happened to be around at the time?
Alex: [extremely small chuckle]
DS: Have you ever scavenged when you weren’t supposed to be doing it and been told as much, either by the staff of a restaurant or by someone who hadn’t been finished eating yet?
Alex: The answer’s no. I actually end up even asking. I’ll ask if it’s a nice place. Like, “Oh, you mind if I just grab that?” In my experience [staffers] don’t want to say yes, because I guess it’s a liability issue. So it’s like, better to ask for forgiveness than permission.
DS: So then what is the fanciest place you’ve scavenged from, and what was the fanciest item you scavenged?
Alex: I definitely wouldn’t do this at like a fine dining restaurant. And by the way, if it’s [a family-style dish] like a curry, I wouldn’t do that. I don’t have a death wish. It’s usually food that obviously hasn’t been touched and obviously hasn’t been sitting out in the sun baking for a couple hours. Definitely not something where people put their hands in.
A few months ago: I was legitimately starving, and there’s was like a super-long line and somebody had left like half a plate of fish and chips, pieces of fried fish are sitting there and there’s no chance that the fish had gone bad. So I grabbed the fish, actually two pieces of fish.
I saw a kid who was 10 years old and he was there with his parents. Everyone is waiting in line. I could tell he was hungry. So he came up and he grabbed a handful of fries and looked over at me. I looked over at him and I smiled. He got scared and ran off thinking that I was like judging him for taking other people’s food, but really I was giving him the head nod. Game recognize game.
Normally I’ll choose the path of least resistance and not make scene out of it. If I see somebody’s clearing the plate and there’s like a perfectly good piece of food I’ll be like, “Hey, can I just grab that?”
Another good technique I’ve used is a good one: a couple months ago some girl sitting next to me at a bar had a bunch of guacamole and she ate half of it. There were still chips on her plate as she left. Very incognito, I grabbed her bowl and moved it over in front of me and finished them like that.
DS: Now wait, you say you scavenge untouched food only. But that guac is double-dipped, is it not?
Alex: I don’t think so.
DS: All right.
Alex: With guacamole, you’re not putting a spoon in there. You’re taking a chip, the chip is grabbing the guacamole, and then it’s going right in your mouth. All in one bite. People aren’t really double dipping chips.
DS: [my turn to let out an extremely small chuckle] Unless they’re me.
Alex: Let’s keep it real. I’m probably dirtier than the average person. I don’t really wash my hands.
Alex: I never get sick. You need to be around some germs to have your body function well. The people who are always constantly washing their hands always get sick. I never get sick. I get a cold once a year. So if I saw food on the ground, I’d pick it up and eat it. It’s not a big deal.
DS: So we’ve never gotten sick from nicking food that wasn’t yours?
Alex: Oh god, no. No. Of course not.
DS: And you don’t wash your hands ever?
Alex: I mean, if I was outside playing basketball, sure. But do I need to always wash my hands before I eat? No. [That’s] just being nervous for the sake of being nervous. I keep going with the way I’ve always done stuff. I’m not picking food out of the garbage. I’m not dumpster diving. I’m not hanging out by the restaurant side door waiting for them to throw out bags of food. So I don’t know why it’s such a big deal. I think most people just don’t do it because it’s frowned upon in polite society. Probably watched too many Seinfeld episodes with George grabbing an eclair out of the garbage. I side with George on that one. It was on a little doily and obviously hadn’t touched anything.
DS: Do you believe everyone should do this? Do you believe I should do this?
Alex: I’m very much a Libertarian and I kind of let people do whatever they want. I have one Yelp review. I spent way too much time on it. I don’t criticize people for actions they make so long as it doesn’t hurt anybody else. I feel like this is a victimless crime. As a matter of fact, I think chefs don’t want to see food go to waste. I don’t think there’s any negativity to be doing this. The person I love most? She doesn’t care. She actually likes the fact I’m not wasting. If you wanna do it, go for it! I wouldn’t judge. If you were dumpster diving, I might think there’s something wrong with that…
DS: Unless the food were on a doily in that dumpster.
Alex: Well, the thing about a dumpster is … there are flies. There’s definitely bacteria there. If there’s food sitting on top of a bar, that bar is washed every single day.
I remember the first time seeing my girlfriend do it. We were in Vegas walking along somewhere by Caesar’s. There was an open air, outside bar. We were walking past and there was a bowl of onion rings sitting there. We were six or eight months into dating each other. We walked past these onion rings and she just grabbed two or three and started eating them. Didn’t say anything. Didn’t ask if I wanted them. It was like very nonchalant. I was like, “Wow, you do that?” She was like, “What’s the big deal?” I said, “Absolutely nothing.” Warmed my heart.
DS: You thought SHE’S THE ONE.
Alex: I already knew she was special, but that was another checkmark. Let me ask you this: what is your take on this? You think it’s just all garbage?
DS: I wouldn’t do it. I was a waiter in my teens and in my 20s. When we would run the tables and people would leave like entire plates of like soft shell crabs, and I would wolf them down. It was free and it was fancy food and I was hungry and I was a dirty bachelor and I didn’t care. But I am now domesticated enough to be sure I would not do that kinda shit again.
Alex: I have a lot of friends who have kids. The only time I get sick is when I hang out with those kids and they cough on me. I’m the same kids as I am with food. I’m like, I’m fine. I don’t push ‘em away. If they cough on me, they cough on me. If they sneeze on me, they sneeze on me. It’s fine. It’s par for the course. I never get sick from food. NEVER. I’ve traveled all around the world and eaten all kinds of stuff and never gotten food poisoning. Maybe I just have an iron stomach, I dunno.
DS: Is it possible you’re Bruce Willis’s character from Unbreakable?
Alex: No. I get flus. I get colds. But I don’t eat shit in the fridge that has mold on it. By the way, my girlfriend … She will eat shit in the fridge that’s been there 10 days because she doesn’t like wasting it. We joke about this, or I joke about it and she gets upset: I’ll come to her place in Toronto—we have a long distance relationship—and I’ll be like, “Let’s go get something to eat.” And she’ll be like, “Oh I have a bunch of stuff here.” And I’ll be like, “I don’t want your scraps! I just flew six hours. I want to go someplace nice.” And she’s like, “I’m sorry you don’t like my ‘scraps!’” She’ll sit there and she will not go. She makes everything, will put it away, and until everything is finished she won’t go out and buy other stuff. I admire that.
DS: What about family meals? Do you eye other plates at family meals, as I do?
Alex: No, but I’ll say this: If it’s a family meal, I’ll definitely wash my hands, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong, even if it’s at a restaurant, to reach and grab something with your hands off a plate. Now I’m not talking about a dip, like a sticking your fucking finger all the way in. But if you can grab something using your hands and you’re not touching other stuff, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
DS: But do you ask before you grab?
Alex: It depends on who you are with. I’m not a savage. I understand in polite society it’s probably not a good idea to just grab something with your hands, although in some cultures it’s totally fine. If it’s people I know, I’m more likely to just do it. But I have gotten stuff where people give me a dirty look and ask, “Why don’t you use a serving spoon?” Does it really matter? I’m not touching any of the food you’re gonna be putting in your mouth. I’m cutting out the middleman!
I was in Tokyo three or four months ago and I went to this amazing 60-course omakase meal with this incredible sushi chef. I’m there by myself. There are seven seats total and there’s a couple from L.A. on my right. And they wouldn’t eat the monkfish liver. They wouldn’t eat the caviar. They wouldn’t eat the cod sperm. The guy would put out the sushi in front of them and they wouldn’t touch it. And at one point the girl turns to me and says, “Do you want to eat this?” And I was like, “Yeah! Anything you don’t want, just give it to me and I’ll eat it.”
DS: “Gimme ALL the cod sperm.”
Alex: Yeah! I had the cod sperm. I had the monkfish liver. I had the salmon roe. This meal ended up taking about three hours. I had 61 of my own courses, plus about five or six of their courses. The way this chef works is he just keeps giving you courses until you tap out. If you keep on eating, he’ll keep giving you fish. At the end of the meal, after three hours, the sous chef says, “The chef says we’re out of fish. We have no more fish to give you.” How could anyone let beautiful cod sperm and beautiful monkfish liver go to waste?
DS: It’s true. You cannot waste beautiful cod sperm.
Alex: There’s no difference between me grabbing it versus them just passing it over to me. It’s the same exact thing. Society says not to do it but there’s not an inherently logical reason why somebody should be upset. People love to be outraged.
DS: But you, you’re not afraid of their outrage because you want free sushi that’s sitting there.
Alex: I live in San Francisco. I’m from San Francisco. I’ve dealt with outrage my whole life.