Sustainability is a growing priority for the food and beverage industry and a hot topic at the National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show, held May 20-23 in Chicago. Each year in the United States, consumers, businesses and farms spend $218 billion on food that goes uneaten. Of the 63 million tons of food wasted each year, 16 percent occurs at farms, 2 percent at manufacturers, 40 percent at consumer-facing businesses and 43 percent in consumer homes.
“We’ve fallen into the habit throwing away a strawberry because it just started rotting … we don’t think of cutting it in half and seeing how much is salvageable,” Mehta said during a presentation at the NRA Show.
Consumers, chefs and manufacturers alike must change their mindsets, he said.
“Great things never came from comfort zones,” Mehta said. “You have to push yourself into looking at food differently and showcasing food waste in a different format. That is the new innovation.”
In addition to operating restaurants in New York, Mehta has worked with the Univ. of Massachusetts in Amherst, where a grant-funded pilot project transformed an on-campus dining hall into a sustainability-focused facility that sources ingredients from local farms, cooperatives and vendors in New England. Chefs at the dining hall reuse food scraps that would otherwise be composted to develop new menu items. Pineapple cores and cucumber peels, for example, are used to flavor beverages.
“Trimmings from all vegetables we have every day go into a big stockpot,” he said. “At the university, it’s a large kettle … it’s the most expensive garbage can.
Leftover breakfast items, including oatmeal, scrambled eggs, sausage and fruit, are incorporated into lunch offerings.
“With all the fruit, we make it into a jam or some sort of compote,” Mehta said. “From scrambled eggs, sausage, we make fried rice with it for lunch. Oatmeal, we make into oatmeal cookies, oatmeal cake, oatmeal pudding … but we see to it that we make something with it for lunch.”
Other leftover ingredients are used to fill dumplings.
“We make close to 700 to 1,000 dumplings with all the food that was left over,” he said.
“Thirty percent of our burger is mushroom, and it blends extremely well because you can throw it into a meat grinder,” he said.
In addition to helping the environment, the actions have lowered food costs significantly. Mehta said the concept is gaining traction in particular with younger consumers.
Nicole Pederson, executive chef and owner of Found Kitchen and Social House in Evanston, Illinois, offers a menu that changes with the market and season. Using food scraps responsibly and creatively is part of the restaurant ethos.
“We keep all of the scraps from the celery and onions and put it into a bin in the refrigerator and later use it to make stock,” Pederson said during a demonstration at the NRA Show. “There are all of these different creative things we can do.”
“When we get a whole fish, we try to look at different ways we can utilize that meat that’s on the bone,” Pederson said. “If you take a spoon and scrape lightly along the bones, you’ll end up with all of these nice bits and pieces of salmon,” which may be cooked and mixed in a dip with cream cheese, caper and onion.
Echoing Mehta’s message, Pederson agreed it’s time to rethink imperfect fruits and vegetables.
“As chefs and restaurant owners we can make a difference in talking to our purveyors and farmers and asking, ‘Do you have bruised or battered tomatoes or peaches?’ You can take those, use some of your old-school preserving and canning methods… freeze it and utilize it down the road.”