Why Address Food Waste in our Restaurants
Consider the onion...To maximize the potential of an onion, we roast it, stuff it into meats, use it to manipulate the aroma of a dish. We batter and fry its crisp white flesh, pleasing practically anyone with its golden and aromatic results. We may dice an onion, tear up, suffer momentarily and then simmer it gently in butter upon a stove top. The onion transforms into a base for unparalleled creativity. Soups, stews, stocks, sauces and restaurant empires - all built upon a humble, simmered onion.
How many of us actually use onion skins? We often opt instead to swoop them straight into the bin, to rot in a landfill. Not to mention the many other mountains of unused, forgotten produce and wasted food.
There’s potential in an onion skin. It lends stocks a pleasing, warming saffron shade. Dehydrated and pulverized, it becomes a seasoning able to hold its own amongst other, more familiar spices in our pantries and dry storage.
The numbers are staggering, almost incomprehensible. “More food reached landfills and combustion facilities than any other single material in our everyday trash”1 Each year, we waste between 30 to 40 percent of our entire food supply in America. 80 billion pounds of food, heading straight for our teeming landfills. Each of us, each individual, each year, responsible for about 219 pounds.
We can go on about the discarded skins of things. Carrot peels, watermelon rinds, potato skins. Compost is one answer, but compost is insufficient to address the many times perfectly edible food heads to a premature compost fate in the garden or worse, a landfill, subject to a fate of rot and contributing the greatest percentages of carbon dioxide and methane into our atmosphere.
Most professional chefs know that to use as much of an ingredient as possible is simply good kitchen economics. One paid for the tomato, so one should use the tomato in a timely fashion. One should use as much of the tomato as possible, otherwise it is money wasted. We translate our comprehension of waste into dollars and deficits, bold red numbers on our spreadsheets.
The world should run on good kitchen economics - and we can help it along.
What if we were to shift our mindset to think not of the chopped-off, sliced-off bits as waste, but as ingredients in their own right?
What if we were to use the tools available to us to maximize the onion’s potential? And these same tools to prolong the life of the food we so painstakingly prepare? And to respect the hands that serve them?
Hold the rolls we bake, the meats we roast and the vegetables we deep fry at consistent, controlled temperatures, treasuring them a little bit longer for the nourishment they give us and the effort we put into preparing them. Can we then chip away at the 219 pounds we are each responsible for? Slim the numbers, shrink the percentages, divert those pounds from the trash.
How do we approach the goal of running zero-waste restaurants? Simply aiming towards this goal is the first step in conserving our precious resources. This is where the right commercial cooking equipment matters.
Here are two waste reduction solutions
Efficient Heat Transfer
Between baskets of food dropped, fryers all go through a period of lowered temperatures, ultimately causing the unit to burn through more oil. The faster the fryer recovers, the less oil is absorbed, resulting in less oil used and of course, that savory, golden, aromatic crunch which makes an onion ring so desirable. The Vulcan PowerFry5 uses less energy and as Chef Pete Schellenbach explains, “The true cost of a fryer comes in the oil. And if you can manage that oil cost through your fryer, especially through a high-efficiency fryer, that produces more food through less energy use, you’re absolutely managing those dollars correctly.”
Prevent the Loss of Moisture With Consistent Heat
One convection oven, the VC5, performs all of the functions. It is the most versatile tool. The VC5 can roast at low temperatures overnight but as Chef Schellenbach enlightens us, “I can also crank it up and get it really hot for very quick, in-and-out a la carte environments. But what is key, the most important feature of a convection oven, is that every shelf cooks the same way.” There’s no variation in the coloring of the food and guests all receive evenly, identically baked dishes.
We can also dehydrate those onion skins in the same convection oven used to roast meats.
Outside of restaurants, broken supply chains caused by the pandemic are still impacting menu offerings. Inside restaurants, we’re running out of excuses to not maximize the food that comes through the doors, especially the foods produced by the farmers in our communities. Those of us who see smaller, shorter supply chains are typically less vulnerable. Farmers, bakers, butchers and grocers have all, throughout the pandemic, been unified in the chorus of purchasing local to avoid mass supply chain disruptions. But we need to be good to those products, those carefully raised vegetables and animals. We need to amplify our resources by reducing food waste, managing what our supply chains can bring through our swinging doors and take advantage of the tools and solutions available to us.
Dishes, ingredients and techniques can go extinct. They can be killed by the sundering of supply chains. We’ve seen this in history with the disappearance of garum from the Mediterranean. Let’s foster preservation and avoid extinction.
The pandemic has shifted dynamics in restaurants everywhere. Increases in takeout add to our piles and piles of trash. Meanwhile, production lines and kitchen brigades are leaner. More is demanded of cooks. Let’s simplify things for them and for us. Streamlined controls, automated steaming, baking, timing are hallmarks of Vulcan’s Combi Ovens. Alerts from our tools that cut through the clamor and noise of a busy service, that promote efficiency and prevent human error by humans who are stretched thinner than ever. Tools – Combi Ovens – that are self-cleaning, with controls can be easily wielded both by the cook on their first night of service and the cook who has seen decades of service, that are built to suit kitchens that feed two turns of 25 heads per night and the kitchens that feed thousands.
In restaurants, people work as a team to function as one organism. Each person has a different role. Tasks are not isolated and each one, however small, affect every arm and aspect of the organism. One cook preps, another cook grills, the server takes the order, the runner brings the food. Managers often tell all staff members to “set each other up for success.” This means that the prep cook cuts the meats and vegetables to specifications needed by the cook who is grilling them. The server, as the middleman between kitchen and customer, explains how the cooks prepare the food to the customer and how the customer reacts to the food to the cooks. The runner assists, ensuring success. With the right tools, we can further ensure success in this process: consistency in the cooked food, easing the strain on cooks and thus upon the servers and runners bearing the food, and diverting any notion of improperly cooked or held food from the landfill.
But back to the onion. Let’s simmer it, fry it, sear it – all of it – with the innovation of one tool. We’ll honor it and all the other produce that swing through our kitchen doors by doing so simply, consistently, reliably and precisely - every night of service.
- 2018 Wasted Food Report. EPA 530-R-20-004, November 2020, Washington, DC: Resource Conservation and Recovery. https://www.epa.gov/sites/default/files/2020-11/documents/2018_wasted_food_report.pdf