food

The State of Food Waste

Chefs are transforming scraps into ice creams, dressings, and more.

According to a recent study, people in the US throw out a pound of food per person each day. Moreover, the researchers found that healthier diets high in fruits and vegetables result in more waste.

Fortunately, brilliant chefs all around the country are coming up with innovative ways to fight it. The first step, many agree, is to redirect the conversation. “Changing the thought process is the key,” says chef Greg Baxtrom of Olmsted in Brooklyn. “Stop thinking of it as food waste and find ways to use everything that’s on your cutting board.”

The movement was unofficially founded by chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York, where he's known for utilizing every part of the vegetable and animal. His wastED community and popup events work to reconceive food waste.

Here, four top chefs who support the ethos share how they’re transforming otherwise discarded ingredients.

Steven Satterfield, chef and owner of Miller Union in Atlanta

Satterfield is a champion of eating vegetables in their entirety. His cookbook, Root to Leaf, is a seasonally-organized reference source that explains how to use unconventional parts of ingredients. For example, he experiments with mixing onion skins into sauces, sautéing kale or collard stems along with the greens, and using fennel fronds in stocks, as a garnish, and even as the base for ice cream. “I start with the scraps, since whatever excess is being generated, that’s the problem that needs to be solved,” he says.

By consuming every part of the vegetable, you’re inherently getting more nutrients, he explains. At Slow Food Nations, the Denver-based festival taking place in mid-July, Satterfield will collaborate with fellow chefs to create an entire meal using only scraps from the weekend.

Satterfield’s Tips: 
“Use asparagus bottoms in a stock or roast and puree them into a spread. Try fish bones in stock and use radish greens as a component in salads, cooked with eggs, or sautéed. In the summer, freeze cucumber peelings and seeds and add them to smoothies, blend them into a chilled sauce, or make cucumber water.”

Matt Jozwiak, founder and executive director of ReThink Food NYC in New York City

While running a workshop to teach nonprofits how to make the most out of food donations, Jozwiak realized the drought was more drastic than he thought. “They just didn’t have any food at all and were in need of products of any kind,” he says. 

The former Eleven Madison Park chef de partie immediately knew he had to help. He teamed up with fellow industry colleagues to found ReThink Food NYC, a nonprofit organization that transforms unused restaurant food into meals and delivers them to agencies around the city.

The chef perspective allows Jozwiak to better utilize the restaurant donations. He knows when food is at its peak, how to keep it fresh by freezing or pickling, and how pH level, oxygen exposure, and sugar content make a difference. For example, the kitchen takes donated root vegetables, pasteurizes them in accordance with FDA regulations by heating them to 100 degrees Celsius in a broth for three minutes, and then cools them for two hours to extend their shelf life.

He and his team make sauces from Eleven Madison Park’s leftover chicken jus and Made Nice’s curry, for example. Soon, ReThink will start getting excess pasta from Del Posto. “We get the best of the best products and get to give it out for free,” Jozwiak says.

Jozwiak’s Tips:
“When you’re grocery shopping, don’t think about the meal, think about the week. Plan a little more, make batches, and don’t be afraid of your freezer. If you make a sauce, put it in little containers, freeze it, and make a salad dressing with it later. Just because you put roasted red peppers, almonds, and sherry vinegar in a blender and turned it on doesn’t mean that can only be romesco sauce. It can also be a vinaigrette or a puree. Add some chicken stock and then it’s soup.”

Taylor Thornhill, chef de cuisine at Bateau in Seattle

At Bateau, the Capitol Hill steakhouse, chef Taylor Thornhill and his team butcher and dry-age whole cows in house. Cuts of beef from traditional ribeye to all kinds of offal are sold by weight and adorned with rich bone marrow or preserved lemon butter. While serving the whole animal is an extremely sustainable way to approach meat, Thornhill applies that sensibility to the entire restaurant.

“We look at vegetables the same way we look at a cow,” he says. That means lacto-fermenting and chopping kale stems to use as seasoning in steak tartare, rather than buying capers or cornichons. Thornhill also chars the kale stems and turns them into a powder for a Caesar-style salad dressing.

Mashed potatoes are a popular side dish at Bateau, which left Thornhill with tons of potato skins. He dries them in the oven to make potato ice cream, which has an earthy flavor that pairs well with dark chocolate or gluten-free potato crackers. He also dehydrates limes and uses the powder on corn or pea shells to include in sorbet.

In the fall, Thornhill used delicata squash for a dish. Rather than getting rid of its insides, he fermented this part of the vegetable, and now uses it as the main component of the sauce that accompanies the menu’s baby artichokes. 

Thornhill’s Tips: 
“You can dry any type of vegetable at low heat in your oven or with a food dehydrator to preserve it and intensify the flavor. No one is going to eat a spoonful of charred kale stem powder, but if you’re incorporating small amounts into dishes, you’ll want to make it a pantry staple.”

Greg Baxtrom, chef and owner of Olmsted in Brooklyn

At his relaxed Prospect Heights restaurant, Baxtrom conjures up creative dishes focused on seasonal ingredients, some of which are grown in the backyard garden. “One of the core principles behind our menu development is showing how something that could typically be considered waste is edible and delicious,” Baxtrom says.

Take his carrot kathi roll, a dish on the brunch menu that’s made predominantly of food waste. The carrot crepe is stuffed with crispy falafel made with repurposed carrot juice pulp and raita from cilantro stems. He singles it out on the menu with chef Dan Barber’s wastED logo to spread awareness.

Baxtrom also makes pickles and other preserved foods from vegetable scraps, and the Olmsted Bloody Mary is made of byproduct from the production of the restaurant’s homemade hot sauce.

Baxtrom’s Tips:
“It's not trash until it's in the can. Almost anything makes a great pickle or slaw and veggie trimmings are perfect for stock.”