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Food Waste Is A Huge Issue—Here's How Chefs Are Combatting It

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Collage with Getty Images

America wastes more food than any other country in the world

"Most people don't consider food waste to be a really big issue, but this country wastes more food than any other country in the world," says Jaime Young, executive chef and partner at Sunday In Brooklyn. To be specific, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, America wastes more than $160 billion of food annually—something that id no longer being ignored by many of the restaurants who contribute to this number.

"Philosophically, financially, and ethically, it just doesn't make sense that all the energy invested in growing food, delivering it, preparing it, etc. will go to waste," says Assaf Tamir, co-owner of Lighthouse, a sustainable farm-to-table restaurant in Brooklyn. "All waste—including food waste—ends up in landfills and polluting our resources, and we want to do our share to protect these resources."

Elena Ristovski, creative director at Marlow Bistro whose chef, Zivko Radojcic, "is very strict about food waste in the kitchen," agrees: "Food thrown into garbage bins ends up in landfill, where it can create greenhouse gases, which are harmful for the environment. Reducing the amount of food and organic waste in landfills will over time reduce the impact of waste on the environment, as well as public health."

Plus, with the number of people going hungry—according to hunger-relief organization Feeding America, 40 million people struggle with hunger in the United States—it's frankly inhumane to not pay attention to how much is being thrown out. "There are too many people on earth who are going hungry, and we often take the abundance of food we have for granted," says Matt Aita, executive chef at The Little Beet Table. "It takes a lot of resources to get vegetables from the ground and into our hands, an animal has died to provide us with meat. We need to be mindful of this, and respect and take care of the gifts we receive every day."

With all this in mind, we chatted with several chefs who consider sustainability part of their business' DNA to find what they're enforcing to do their part in helping reduce food waste.

Paying attention to inventory

The biggest thing that all the restaurants I spoke to do is pay attention to the inventory. While it can be hard to predict what a restaurant will need on any given week, the sustainably minded in the food industry steer on the side of caution when putting in orders. Jon Schwartz, regional chef at Snooze, an AM Eatery, a chain of restaurants that have been championing sustainable environmental practices and responsibly sourced ingredients since first starting 13 years ago, says they "like to make sure we order frequently for all of our perishable foods." He continued:

Most of our restaurants order bread five, sometimes six days a week. This helps us keep the freshest and best product in house, but also nearly eliminates the opportunity for our preservative-free bread to spoil. We do the same thing with our produce. All of our restaurants order produce every other day to maintain freshness, quality, and eliminate unnecessary shelf life spoilage.

Both Snooze and Lighthouse also stress the importance of watching ordering patterns and adjusting accordingly. Says Schwartz, "We take inventory of all of our products weekly, allowing us to see usage trends often and make adjustments."

Utilizing whole products

"When coming up with a new dish, Sunday in Brooklyn's general philosophy is to be mindful from the start and to consider the ingredients we're using and make sure we can utilize those ingredients in their entirety," says Young. "For example, if we're making a salad with beets, we would utilize the beet and the greens so that nothing goes to waste in the first place."

The idea that no part of a product should go to waste prompted Cook Space, a cooking school in Brooklyn, to recently offer a Food Waste Feast class that focused on teaching students how to use ingredients from "nose to tail and root to tip." "As a society we only want our ingredients to be the 'best,' the prettiest: pre-chopped, pre-peeled, and trimmed of all its fat," says its culinary director Tom Coughlan. "If we bought whole ingredients, imperfect ingredients even, we'd save a lot from going to a landfill or from rotting in the field."

It is the desire to showcase imperfect and "ugly" produce that inspired chef and The Next Iron Chef Season 2 runner-up Jehangir Mehta to open Graffiti Earth, a restaurant that utilizes "unloved produce and underutilized seafood, sustainable proteins and healthy grains with the ultimate goal of reducing food waste." By showcasing the flavors of ingredients that would typically be tossed out because of aesthetic flaws in his eclectic dishes, he hopes to make a point. "We need to pay attention to food waste and see how very little one has to change to use 'ugly' produce," he says. "If we as restauranteurs and chefs do not think of food in this manner, we are not being effective soldiers of change."

Developing recipes that utilize "food scraps"

Camilla Marcus, owner of sustainable restaurant West~bourne, also believes that using whole produce, as well as "food scraps," like skin peels, vegetable tops, and herb stems, is key in reducing waste. For example, her restaurant turns beet shavings into chips, and broccoli stems as filling for falafel, and incorporates things like carrot stems into sauces. According to her, it's easy to utilize leftover ingredients into dishes, which is all the more reason for restaurants to "take just a bit more time and apply culinary creativity toward minimizing food waste. Starting with even just one wasted item and transforming how it can be integrated into another dish—or even a drink—can go a longer way than you think."

Most sustainable restaurants would agree with this sentiment. Lighthouse, likewise, develops recipes that utilize edible herb stems, peels, and skins and gives away unconsumable leftovers, like onion skins and avocado pits and skins, to be used to dye fabrics. Marlow Bistro pickles and ferments unused parts of the dish and incorporates them into purees. Sunday in Brooklyn uses fruit and vegetable pulp in its fermented hot sauce, leftover limes that have been blended into a powder in dips, and charcuterie ends in an XO sauce. "There is no reason to cut the tips and tops off most vegetables. Though they may not look perfect or be a tiny bit tough, you can eat, and shouldn't waste, the tops and tips of carrots, squash, beets, or radishes, to name a few, which are delicious to add to a soup or sauteed in butter," says Coughlan. "The need to peel, too, is usually just aesthetic. Leave the skins on potatoes or sweet potatoes to add flavor—and nutrients!—to a mash. You can even leave the peels on apples when baking a pie, and they add a nice texture if cooked ahead of time." He similarly advises using leftover meat carcasses to make stock, and saving herb stems and fruit peels for tea.

Cross-utilizing kitchen ingredients at the bar

The Little Beet Table's most interesting use of these byproducts has been in its cocktail program. "We always look carefully at what we put in the garbage and try to find delicious ways to utilize our scraps and leftovers," says Aita. "We often end up with excess pulp or parts of the fruits or vegetables that normally would be thrown in the trash—instead of tossing them, we do our best to get creative. For example, in our Fennel and Citrus cocktail, we juice the fennel bulb and stalk, as well. Most people typically toss the stalk, but it has a ton of flavor and adds a vibrant color to the drink."

Sunday in Brooklyn is where I first personally discovered this type of "cross-utilization" in the form of bar director Brian Evans' cocktails, which incorporate a "Redeemed Fruit" cordial that's made with the chopped ends from daily citrus garnishes and citrus shells, and is blended with sugar and fruit juices that are past their prime. "In the past, our bar has also used leftover pumpkin seeds from the kitchen to make a toasted pepitas syrup," says Young. "They've also used leftover corn husks to infuse various spirits."

It's the desire to find a second life for all products, even ones that may appear less likely to yield anything else, that is shared among all these restaurants. For example, Marlow Bistro employs used coffee grounds as a natural alternative for removing tough grease from pots and pans and as a plant fertilizer.

Schwartz jokes: "I like to look at our compost bins in each Snooze restaurant and ask myself, What we could do with 'that'? Let me tell you, it's getting pretty lean in those compost bins. As soon as I can find a tasty recipe for eggshells, that's going on the menu." Which leads us to...

Composting

All restaurants emphasize the importance of composting when something has gone bad and cannot be served to customers or donated to a homeless shelter. Marcus is particularly passionate about the topic as she attempts to make West~bourne "the first certified zero waste restaurant in Manhattan" and bring attention to the lack of central composting infrastructure in New York. "Growing up in California, sustainability is integral to our way of life and built into our regular routines. California has been composting and recycling citywide over a decade ago, which still does not exist in NYC," she says.

Getting produce locally

While this may seem like a less obvious way to minimize waste, it is an important one to note for its more far-reaching eco-impact."We make a point to also buy our fruits and vegetables from these local farmers," says Ristovski. "You are shrinking your carbon footprint when your food and drink does not have to travel thousands of miles to get to your plate or in your glass."

Also: "Knowing where our ingredients come from is integral to knowing how to coax the most flavor out of them and, with an agricultural industry that produces more pollutant emissions than any other man-made source, is fundamental to our societal well being as a whole," notes Coughlan.

Plus, food is less likely to spoil during a shorter delivery time.

Educating customers

At the end of the day, it's not all on restaurants to minimize food waste though. The consumer, too, should be actively involved—even when dining out. If you're the type of person who often takes leftovers home after eating out, Tamir suggests bringing reusable containers instead of relying on the restaurant's plastic ones. Similarly, if you know you won't eat the bread served or a side that comes with your meal, ask the server not to bring it out. "Instead of automatically bringing bread to the table, we serve complimentary bread only if asked by the customer, so that no food goes to waste if they don't want any," says Ristovski.

"Food is a natural resource! If we don't create a culture of respect around food now, then it's a resource that won't last in the future," says Schwartz, who also notes the power of consumer's choice to patron a sustainably minded restaurant. He's right—if more consumers choose to visit restaurants that support environmental practices, more restaurants will be encouraged to follow these practices. "I think every consumer needs to look beyond the menu when choosing a restaurant to patronize. The food has to be tasty, but they are making a choice that has a global impact every time they frequent a restaurant. May as well make the right choice."