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Waste Not

If you use a commodity or resource carefully and without extravagance, you will never be in need.

King trumpet mushroom stem slices can be pan roasted and served in place of scallops

The magnitude of food waste in the United States is staggering. Getting food from farm to fork in the U.S. uses 10% of the total energy budget, 50% of our land, and 80% of all freshwater consumed.

Consider this: 40% of food that is produced in the U.S. ends up going to waste, much of which is due to the ‘cult of perfection,’—that is, the demand for blemish-free produce. To give you a quick idea of what 40% waste means: the next time you go to the grocery store, buy five bags of groceries. Then make sure you leave two in the parking lot. That’s 40%.

My home state of California set some tremendous goals back in the 1980s: the Integrated Waste Management Act and Beverage Container Recycling and Litter Reduction Act spurred the state to great success: upwards of 65% for diversion and 85% for recycling. In 2012, it set even higher reaching goals: that by the year 2020, not less than 75% of the solid waste generated be source-reduced, recycled, or composted. Great strides have been taken all over the state, including in my city, San Diego, where all restaurants now have separate waste bins for green waste.

That said, let’s not talk about recycling or composting food, but upcycling food, and how we as caterers can combine efforts to make real impact on these stats.

A beginning
What happened at this year’s The Art of Catering Food conference in Washington, DC was just the beginning. If you read Kathleen’s Editor’s Note (see page 6) before this feature, you read that Chef Heather Carr and I decided to prove a point about upcycling during our seminar. It was one of the most insane things Heather and I have ever done in our careers! We believed we could put our money where our mouths were and we submitted a blank shopping list to the conference planners. We walked into that conference knowing we had to make 550 samples for our class on Tuesday afternoon, and we had zero food requisitioned.


Because upcycling is not a trend. It’s how we have to do business to increase profitability, introduce eco-responsibility, and instill a different culture about how we are doing things as a group. Culture brings knowledge and consciousness, and consciousness brings a sense of responsibility—right?!

We enlisted all the chefs in the kitchen at AOCF to participate and contribute their waste and by-product to produce our samples. The result: a creative team effort which in turn added profitability back into the conference by us not spending any money on product.

In the kitchen at Art of Catering Food, Chef Keith Lord and Chef Heather Carr worked together to create their #nowastechef samples

A way of life
My journey to upcycling started in 1999 when I was the Chef at 20th Century Fox Studios. I was responsible for all of the daily restaurant and child care center menus. These menus were organic, free range, and sustainable. I did this mostly because I had heard about how bad studio food was and I had just moved back to Los Angeles from a farm to table restaurant in San Francisco. My goal to use all of the product, plan the leftovers, and at the end of the day not be able to make a sandwich out of the walk-in because everything had been used, no waste.

At the time, I was also using perforated 400 pans over each trashcan in the kitchen to capture vegetable waste. Initially it was to determine knife skills of new staff, but it quickly transformed into an opportunity to be creative…that is, what else can we do with the waste?

Just before AOCF, I wanted to explore why upcycling wasn’t already mainstream, or why it might not be the way the majority of us work. It became clear to me that it is not that we chefs don’t want more profitable kitchens, or that we aren’t curious creators, or even that we don’t want to make a difference. It is really because our chefs and teachers taught us basic and accepted ways of accomplishing tasks that quickly became habit—habits like peeling, then using the white part of the leek only, and throwing the peel away, and putting the green parts into veggie stock or into the trash. Habits like cutting off and tossing carrot tops, or thinking that the peel is only good enough for stock or garbage, or that mushroom stems are compost. Sound familiar?

Chef Karen O’Connor used a 400 pan to capture waste from her Hands-on “Vegetable Forward” seminar at AOCF

The no waste kitchen
‘Farm to Table’ is now a common and mainstream concept and phrase. The ‘No Waste’ kitchen is the next thing that people should expect from us.

Imagine a “a dumpster dive salad” with dressing comprised of carrot tops, carrot peels, the tops and bottoms that we all cut off of other vegetables, garnished with spent grains from beer-making made into croutons, and flavored with coffee grounds. This actually happened. The Wild Thyme Company was asked to prepare a salad course for a Berry Good Food Foundation dinner in early 2016. Serving 280 people, we were told we could only use the food waste of the other participating chefs.

We sought out the other chefs’ menus (much as we did for AOCF) and after a lot of thought we decided we could make a Spring Vegetable Salad with carrot top and wild arugula vinaigrette.

We decided we could pan roast king trumpet mushroom stem slices, grill flowering leek tops and beat up beet greens, use shaved broccolini stems and fennel fronds, and employ the tops and bottoms of all kinds of vegetables.

Then, we could make a dressing that was the total embodiment of spring, without oil or vinegar.

What happened next was that we made the best dressing ever out of the whey from feta cheese, the pulp from charred fennel, onion, and carrot tops, and wilted arugula. We blended all of these, then creamed the dressing out with bruised, ugly avocados, which added richness and sweetness. Then, we seasoned the dressing with salt we made with leek ash. Our final product was beautiful, seasonal, resourceful, and flavorful. Who knew we were one ugly avocado away from making the AOCF class happen!

Back to that sample for The Art of Catering Food. We started with the “menu” submission order, where we decided to take a risk and order nothing. Then we received a copy of the master purchase list to put some ideas together. We set up the kitchen to collect waste and got all the AOCF chefs on board. Then we prepped. What we came up with was a culmination of everyone’s efforts in the kitchen: The eggplant custard from Phil Evans, the milk soaked parmesan rind from Bonnie Kravitz, the tuna scraps form Robin Selden, Crab bodies from a crab boil at Margot Jones’s house, veggie scraps and peels from Karen O’Conner’s hands-on session, meat trimmings, Brittany Melnick’s cured egg yolks, plantains from Elgin Woodman, and all of those pineapple tops and peels from Ashley Harriger and Bonnie Kravitz’ seminar.

Tropical Ahi Tuna and Crispy Corn Sope appetizers

We made not one, but two samples for our class. The first sample, Crispy Corn Sope, machca, red chimichurri, and shaved cured egg was as close to the flavors of a San Diego breakfast burrito as you could possibly get, and was an appetizer I would sell at any event. Beyond amazing!

The second appetizer, Tropical Ahi Crudo, crab scented plantains, crispy pear, and fermented rum molasses (see the photo below for more on that) was actually served in a pineapple leaf spoon!

The Wild Thyme Company made friends with Malahat spirits, who make award-winning rum, bourbon, and rye whiskey. Since then, we've used some of their still-active mash, perfumed with yeast and grain. Then we stumbled upon the fermented molasses from their rum making process. It’s 5% alcohol, 5 on PH scale, not sweet, quite acidic, has the viscosity of water, and tastes of dried figs and dates. When reduced, it creates a fruit-forward glaze resembling balsamic syrup with the added earthiness of dried fruit flavors. We drizzled this fermented rum molasses over a strawberry and burrata crostini with honeycomb to enhance the syrup’s earthiness and add some sweetness back. SO GOOD.

Other ideas for creativity and profitability

  • Bottoms of king oyster mushrooms can be cut and seared in butter to mimic scallops. Use them in place of scallops and create a well-refined vegetarian plate, with low food cost, beautiful presentation, tons of flavor and texture.  
  • Use the wilted micro greens that aren’t quite suitable for plating to add richness and depth to chimichuri sauces, pestos, and salsa verdes. David at Fresh Origins grows us amazing product, let’s make him proud by using ALL of it. The same can be done with wilted flowers, so delicate and flavor filled.
  • Candy citrus peels.
  • Infuse carrot or beet peels into an oil for vinaigrette.
  • Potato peels can become “second skins” when fried.
  • Use peels from red beets to stain pasta water and act as a natural dye. Use braised radish tops, carrot tops, squash, and ricotta with the red beet dyed pasta for great colors and flavors.
  • Carrot top and walnut pesto has become a favorite go-to—simple and so much earthy goodness. Try kale stem salsa verde. Use burnt cabbage outer leaves as garnish for fish tacos. Make chili water made from almost empty bottles of Sriracha and a little salt to drizzle over meats while grilling.
  • Use small fish collars with Korean BBQ sauce and call them spicy gochujang wings. Make pastrami and bacon out of fish bellies. Use Opah cheeks as tri tip, or adductor muscles as fish tenderloins. Brûlée fish roe and use as smoky sweet garnish. Save all scallop muscles for scallop beurre fondue.

Is this trash—or treasure? #nowastechef

Back to the leek
We char whole, washed leeks to make melted leeks to use on entrées. We grill whole leeks until they are completely black, and then wrap them in newspaper to steam as they cool. The melted leeks are sweet and delicious. We take all the ash, put it into a Vitamix with kosher salt and the result—leek ash salt—is a grey, sweet, smoky salt that can be used in many applications.

We top our Mexican street corn with it. It gives the dish an additional unique flavor and a sort-of Day of the Dead vibe from the ash. We use it in vinaigrettes for our cold calamari salad. It’s amazing with scallops as well as any time you are looking for a subtle, sweet, smoky flavor, or the addition of a little color.

Precycling unsellable product
There is a disconnect between farmers and caterers. Yet, this divide presents opportunities we can harness to reconnect the two and forge direct relationships within our local community. We work with our farmers and produce companies to get the peppers that are frostbitten and peaches that are battered and bruised. Ask farmers what they have that will go to waste. Reached out to the farms for “ugly” fruit and vegetables that in their eyes can’t be sold!

Farmers usually sell their #1 product to restaurants, #2 product to CSAs, local grocery, etc. But what happens to product that a farmer sees or deems as “unsellable”? They discard it, feed it to their livestock, or just pull it out of the ground. This is a perfect opportunity for mutual benefit if you do have a relationship with a local farmer. To a chef, these almost perfectly ripe peppers are a dream come true. We think of this “trash” as amazing pepper jelly, sauce, pickles, and more. If your tomato farmer gets a mold that destroys his plants with green tomatoes on it, make an offer to buy the product for cost of picking it and then make chutneys, marmalades—anything that you can use later—or that you might move on a corporate daily account with a fixed price point to make some extra profit dollars. 

It’s these kind of relationships that can be so mutually beneficial to farmer and caterer. Do you have the room and equipment to process 50# of tomatoes that will only survive if cooked today? There is nothing like having tomatoes that are virtually melting in your hands to be able to cook with. A farmer has no place for an item like this without your relationship. Then use all these pickles, jams, and chutneys on your cheese, charcuterie, and fruit displays. And I mean really use them—less cheese, more love, more profit.

We are going to bring back our grandmother’s way of thinking and are turning it into a practical, profitable way of thinking in the kitchen.

Waste matters; waste not
Now what…and how do we all make a difference?

At AOCF, Heather I and I sent everyone home with a task. Use perforated hotel pans to collect green waste and have only a manager go through them but let everyone see payback what they might have otherwise wasted.

We asked them all to take pictures, talk to other chefs, show us and let us know what they were doing, and show us how they took action.

Then, to make it even more exciting and real, we asked them to creatively collaborate on social media using the hashtag #nowastechef. I am a big fan of using social media and using it to share ideas.

As of writing this, there are 110 photos posted using that hashtag on Instagram. There’s Greg Shapiro re-growing lettuce in the kitchen from stems. There’s Julian Grisales wok-searing mushroom stems. Elizabeth Dean’s carrots and carrot top pesto are there; all good things come from those who do not waste!

Heather and I will see you all in New Orleans at Catersource 2017 where we will present our Upcycling seminar, part 2. What if #nowastechef has a couple thousand posts by then? What’s stopping you from joining us?

What if one ugly avocado turned out to be not only the best dressing ever, but is also one of the best things that ever happened to the planet? One step, one action.

Keith Lord is Director of Operations & Culinary at The Wild Thyme Company Catering & Events, San Diego, CA.

Get Fresh, November 2016