Waste not, want not
"If you're working without a mission, what's the purpose?" says Steven Satterfield, chef and food waste activist, at a breakout session during Chefs Collaborative Summit held this past September in Atlanta. The annual gathering brings together chefs and food professionals to build a better food system, inspiring and educating attendees about sourcing, serving, and operating sustainably.
Food waste has become a heady topic of late. In the U.S., up to 40 percent of our food supply goes to waste, typically ending up in municipal landfills. With their influence and multi-pronged connections to both producers and consumers, big name chefs stand in a unique position to reduce these numbers. But tackling the issue requires a certain degree of flexibility. "It's an interpretive move," Satterfield continues. "You can't just say, 'Here are the rules of food waste.'"
Satterfield's embrace of a sustainable kitchen is manyfold, from ordering wisely, not discriminating against "ugly" produce, preserving, and portioning, to composting and donating excess food to worthy causes like Atlanta's Second Helpings, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting both food waste and food insecurity. He is clever when it comes to making use of typical "waste." In Satterfield's kitchen at Miller Union, overcooked rice becomes rice pudding and corncobs transform into a luscious broth. His cookbook, Root to Leaf, includes recipes and uses for food scraps, his everyday philosophy.
"If we buy beets with tops, it's a requirement to use them for something," he says. A recent well-loved special at Miller Union used meat from fish cheeks and collar with a rice middlin' cake made with leftover rice grits, fennel fronds, and a sauce of pepper scraps. Crackers were made from the stems of turnip greens and served with chicken rillettes.
Confidence in the kitchen is a key component in the food waste fight. Chef/restaurateur Hugh Acheson is trying to bring cooking back to America with Seed Life Skills, the nonprofit, research-based "living curriculum" he created, which is free to download for teachers and students. Acheson is hell-bent on reconnecting people with food and the basics of cooking. His goal? To "raise a generation of nourishers."
Seed Life is not about recipes, but techniques and skill sets Acheson says we've lost through convenience how to cook rice, roast a chicken, make a salad with a simple vinaigrette. "If I can teach a kid to poach and egg and saute spinach, I am winning," he said in his Chefs Collaborative speech.
Eating entire ingredients and cooking from scratch are parts of an overall sustainable philosophy. Beyond bolstering a restaurant's bottom line, tossing food is equal to throwing away the water and resources needed to grow and transport it. Executive chef Michael Perez of Westside newbie Donetto is committed to creatively tackling the issue in his restaurant. He uses basil stems to flavor vinaigrette and recycles whey for cooking polenta.
Of course, sustainability in the kitchen is about more than just feeling good. At a restaurant with razor-thin profit margins, the difference between gain and loss can be in the heft of the trashcan. One of the biggest impacts a restaurant can make is composting. In addition to using and reusing whatever he can himself, Perez has also teamed up with Compostwheels, a local business that collects food waste from both homes and businesses for composting. The group works with more than half a dozen farms and gardens in Atlanta, collectively growing more than 75,000 pounds of fresh produce and composting approximately 288,000 pounds of collected food waste annually, all of which is cycled back through the growing process.
Even Anthony Bourdain is getting in on the action, having produced the recent documentary WASTED! The Story of Food Waste, directed by Anna Chai and Nary Kye. The feature-length film shows how some of the world's most renowned chefs transform food scraps into incredible dishes, and how we can tackle waste in a way that's not depressing. Chefs Collaborative has made the must-watch documentary a central part of its current initiative, "What Waste," with film screenings, collaborative dinners, and research to champion sustainability. The hope is that influential chefs around the country can collaborate in leading the charge against food waste.
"If you share your burden, the burden is less for everyone," says Satterfield. "I have something I can hold onto. It makes food a lot more precious around here."
Recipe: Michael Perez's basil stem vinaigrette
Want to try reducing food waste in a delicious way at home? Try chef Perez's simple salad dressing recipe.
1 tablespoons Dijon mustard
4 ounces basil stems (blanched and shocked)
4 ounces parsley stems (blanched and shocked)
1 small shallot (small diced)
2 ounces champagne vinegar
8 ounces grapeseed oil
Salt to taste
Slice the blanched stems very thin, whisk all ingredients together in a large bowl and adjust with salt to taste. Yield: 1 pint