How one chef is fighting food waste. And how you can, too.
Do you, like me, get a sinking feeling when throwing away a molding box of strawberries after a weekend away from home? Imagine tossing 700 bunches of dandelion greens. When produce delivery company Imperfect Produce offered them to San Francisco chef Nick Balla, he reacted by cooking up a dandelion greens saag and a plan to open a low-waste restaurant, tentatively named Duna Kitchen.
I understand the impulse. Ever since I started working in kitchens and cooking for myself, I not only paid more attention to the food on my plate but just how much of it ends up in the trash. Whether it’s rotting on farms or in our pantries, an estimated 40 percent of all food produced in this country is thrown away. Anything that isn’t composted sits in landfills, emitting up to 3.3 billion tons of greenhouse gases a year, include methane, a particularly harmful gas. Not only that, but delivering non-local produce, say, a few cases of avocados to a restaurant in the Midwest, produces carbon emissions. If that food is wasted, notes a study out of the UT Austin Cockrell School of Engineering, so is the energy used to produce it.
Balla is tackling waste by first challenging our “culture of consistency and expectation.” At the supermarket, we expect to be wowed by an overabundance of shiny apples and verdant kale. We go to a restaurant expecting the same dish we saw on Yelp. This makes it hard for a restauranteur to be flexible and take advantage of what’s in season, what’s left over, or make use of less-than-perfect produce.
Resistance can be intense. In my kitchen experience at a seasonal bakery, some guests were unwilling to try the delicious cinnamony apple pastry that had replaced their favorite summer peach tart. I wish I could have told them that demanding out of season ingredients is like fighting nature. With his restaurant, Balla is basically asking his customers to shift their thinking from, “This is what I want,” to “What’s available?” when cooking in or eating out. Therein lies the possibility for change.
Another wasteful mindset is that we want food to look just as we’ve come to expect it should, which means that dimpled, bruised, or discolored fruits and veggies are tossed because retail stores know they won’t sell. Most of the time, ugly produce is just that - ugly. It is otherwise perfectly nutritious and tasty.
In addition to welcoming ugly produce in his restaurant, which does not yet have an opening date, Balla plans to feature as many parts of fruits and vegetables on the menu as possible. He’ll do that by relying on the transformative powers of jarring, juicing, and preserving. He’ll also use dehydrators to turn perishables into shelf-stable pastes and powders, and tilt skillets, which are kitchen appliances that can braise, sauté, steam, hold warm food (and probably do calculus). And he’ll invent more dishes, like his popular spoon salad, which uses pureed vegetable juices in its vinaigrette, and Smokebread, which is baked with smoked potatoes (yum!).
So what can you and I do to minimize food waste? Plenty, says Balla. We can work directly with vendors at local farmer’s markets or grocery stores to buy leftover produce, just as Balla does. Ask for ugly produce, he suggests, often called “seconds.” You’ll get a discount, a way to keep perfectly good vegetables from ending up as landfill, and a chance to get creative with all those leftovers. Like making Strawberry Basil Jam to deal with the next moldering box of berries.
Adopting low-waste practices in your own kitchen
When I first started out in kitchens, I was struck by two things: how knowledgeable, almost reverent, many chefs are on greeting each new produce shipment. And most are skilled in working with every part of the vegetable. They hadn’t just memorized the best roasting temperature for broccoli, but how to stir fry the stalks while also roasting the crowns.
I also remember the disappointment on their faces when they had to toss an old batch of salsa or a salad special that hadn’t sold. Here are some ways to minimize the chances it’ll happen to you, too. .
Play with recipes. If a recipe for stew or soup calls for broccoli, leeks and potatoes, and you have carrots, onions, and chickpeas, who’s really stopping you from subbing them in? Of course, some ingredients are essential to a dish, but often times you can improvise with what you have.
Use the whole plant. With a little experimenting, many parts of fruits and vegetables that get discarded are perfectly useable.
Broaden your idea of pesto. Carrot tops, herb stalks, and other vegetable greens can be blended into a garlic-y sauce or spread.
Use vegetables on their last legs for soup stocks. You can also add onionskins or mushroom stalks for an earthy flavor.
Pickle and preserve. A simple pickling liquid can be adapted to suit a variety of produce, like beautiful red chard stalks, lemon peels, or greens.
Cook old fruit into jams. Or syrups, or throw it into muffins, bread, or pie.
Repurpose stale bread. For panzanella, homemade breadcrumbs, or bread pudding (either sweet or savory).
Apply FIFO (First In First Out) at home. Make an “Eat First” bin in your fridge and fill it with food that’s been around for a while. I’ve made countless banana breads, fruit syrups, or roasted vegetable grain bowls on nights I’m trying to clear out the fridge.
Suss out your fridge before shopping. Evaluate what you already have before shopping for new groceries. Maybe that week-old pound of sweet potatoes can be cut up into fries for a veggie burger night, or baked into a pie.
See what’s In. Go for something seasonal that is native to your area. Open yourself up to new local possibilities. Even familiar fruits and veggies have cousins who come to visit from time to time, like loquats, finger limes, or savoy cabbage, just to name a few.
Go ugly. Ask your local vendor if they have any imperfect apples or potatoes, and whether you can buy them at a discount. From my experience, most farmers and grocers are delighted when customers take an interest in B-grade produce. You can also support the cause by signing up to receive a box of ugly produce every week through one of the vendors that specializes in less-than-perfect specimens, like Imperfect Produce and Full Harvest.