Treasuring Trash

By Deanne Moskowitz

Some caterers are reaping riches from what they once thought of as food waste

Just back from her third trip to Cuba, an island where citizens make do with minimal resources, Liz Neumark, CEO of Great Performances in New York, was struck again by how little is wasted. “Nothing ends up in the trash there; everything gets utilized,” she observes.

That’s not always the case in the U.S., where 40 percent of all food is wasted, according to the Natural Resource Defense Council, an international nonprofit environmental organization.

Crave Catering grows more than 15 varieties of tomatoes on its farm, smoking, oven-drying, oil-curing and canning those not used fresh.

Crave Catering grows more than 15 varieties of tomatoes on its farm, smoking, oven-drying, oil-curing and canning those not used fresh.

Convinced that America needs to restore the principles of economy and thrift that once governed our ancestors’ kitchens, Neumark has been striving to bring this old-world attitude into her company’s large-scale production kitchen, beginning by starting a dialogue with cooks and chefs about the lessons of heritage and the way we cook at home. Saying that it has always been part of her “shtetel DNA” to try not to throw things out, she thinks that the idea of frugality and not wasting food is inherent in everyone’s heritage. “So then you just need the systems and the will to act on it,” she suggests.

Neumark is not alone in her value-based viewpoint toward reducing kitchen waste. Janet Griggs, co-owner of Taste Catering and Event Planning in San Francisco, attributes her innate habit of avoiding waste to growing up with parents who lived through the Great Depression. Heidi Andermack, co-owner of Chowgirls Killer Catering in Minneapolis, says waste reduction was part of her value system for years before she got into catering. And Mark Lopez, president of Crave Catering in Portland, Ore., recalls being appalled watching whole hotel pans of rice and beans going into the garbage nightly when he worked in the Mexican restaurant business in Las Vegas before becoming a caterer. “This is still food,” he thought. “Why are we putting it there?”

All of these caterers were early leaders in sustainability, and were composting and recycling long before the concept caught on. A participant in Eureka Recycling’s 2008 pilot program for restaurants and caterers, Chowgirls was metro Minneapolis’ first low-waste caterer, and has since achieved a remarkable 97 percent waste stream diversion rate. Crave, which won Portland’s 2013 award for extraordinary recycling efforts, converts the oil from its fryers into fuel for its delivery van and has promised to reduce waste by an additional 10 percent each year. Taste has participated for 10 years in the San Francisco Compost Project, which creates a high-quality product used to enhance the soil of Northern California organic farmers, and Napa and Sonoma Valley wine growers. And in addition to composting for many years, Great Performances has been saving energy for the last nine years by heating the greenhouses at Katchkie, the organic farm it runs in Kinderhook, N.Y., using recycled cooking oil from its kitchens, some 2,000 gallons annually.

As helpful as composting is to lighten the load on landfills, it does nothing to curb food costs, lessen the energy and water needed in crop production, or combat hunger, so these caterers are cooking up more creative and menu-enriching recipes for reducing kitchen waste. Their emphasis is on reducing the sources of food waste and then retaining the food value of remnants, priorities in keeping with the Food Recovery Hierarchy established by the EPA.

Not primarily driven by the bottom line, their efforts nevertheless are reaping economic rewards, from saving on ingredients, to attracting sustainably minded clients, to building a like-minded, loyal staff. The word “waste” is an unfortunate misnomer for such rich resources, Neumark points out. “They’re assets,” which she and a growing number of other caterers intend to maximize.

 

Managing Assets

Some of the world’s classic dishes—from cassoulet to paella—grew from the need of peasants not to waste a bit. So thinking root-to-frond and nose-to-tail, these caterers are saving money and yielding delicious outcomes, too.

At Taste Catering and Event Planning, less commonly chosen cuts of meat are utilized in house-made sausages.

At Taste Catering and Event Planning, less commonly chosen cuts of meat are utilized in house-made sausages.

Encouraged by Neumark and inspired by the thriftiness that ruled his mother’s and grandmother’s kitchens, Great Performances Executive Creative Chef Mark Russell developed the Traditional Line, a concept that lets him rescue choice food scraps previously relegated to the garbage or compost bin. Among its popular hors d’oeuvre entries are salmon tartare, incorporating the trimmings of squared-off fish fillets; crisps with herbed butter and garden salad brunoise, containing parsley stems and broccoli stalks; and aged beef lardo crisps.

Executive Chef Steven Tevere at Taste Catering glorifies scraps and lesser cuts in house-made sausages, an array including Devil’s Gulch rabbit; Niman Ranch pork with ginger and apple; and merguez lamb. Tevere also turns carrot tops into pesto, braises beet greens with similar-looking and -tasting chard, and tosses vegetable trimmings into stocks and sauces.

Andermark tries to prevent scraps from even happening. She scrubs the carrots that anchor the company’s rustic seasonal vegetable platter instead of peeling them, giving them a natural look without wasting any. She garnishes platters with beet greens and fennel fronds, and buys whole heads of romaine rather than hearts to help small farmers. Whatever doesn’t go into the stockpot is offered to employees, who’ve been known to feed carrot tops to their horses and salmon trimmings to their dogs.

 

Preserving Wealth

Though they prefer serving produce at the peak of freshness, these chefs refuse to see a bumper crop squandered. Instead, they buy the overabundance and use a variety of techniques to preserve it.

Lopez—who owns a two-acre farm, where he grows tomatoes, squash and herbs, and cultivates a dozen fruit trees—is experienced at dealing with glut. Aside from fire-roasting, stewing or simply pureeing and freezing tomatoes, he oven-dries some at low temperatures, intensifying their flavor. Last summer he began smoking the tomatoes first, flavoring them with wood pruned from his apple trees, and constructed a smoke shack with a solar oven where he plans to sun-dry tomatoes.

Some of his prolific zucchini harvest is packed into chocolate-chip zucchini bread, which contains four times the amount called for in the original recipe. Created by Crave’s chef years ago, it is still a staple on the company’s menu.

Tevere purchases excess, attractively priced fruits and vegetables, which he processes into chili sauces, pickles and chutneys, and which Executive Pastry Chef Rick Griggs turns into jams and compotes.

Andermack freezes or preserves some seasonal specialties. She pickles ramps in spring, and purees or makes jam from ground cherries in fall.

 

Banking on Leftovers

Caterers constantly strive to find the perfect food balance between excessive and skimpy. But when leftovers remain, they find ways (within strict safety standards) to give them new life.

At Crave and at Chowgirls, hosts get first dibs on food whose temperature has been carefully controlled, and employees are next in line. Leftovers often find a home in staff meals, too, at Crave, Chowgirls and Taste.

Great Performances' Salvaged Cookie is made from cookie dough created with toasted cake ends and extra cookies.

Great Performances’ Salvaged Cookie is made from cookie dough created with toasted cake ends and extra cookies.

When food that never left the hot box returns from an event, it is often repurposed. If there’s a lot of chicken, for example, Lopez thinks chicken salad or pulled barbecued chicken.

Great Performances crafts cornbread pudding from leftover madeleines; conjures velouté from remaining corn and corn cobs; and creates new cookie dough from toasted cake ends and extra cookies and toppings. The latter goes into the so-called Salvaged Cookie, invented for the purpose.

Leftover bread is so prevalent that bread pudding is a ubiquitous menu item. Andermack appreciates the dessert’s adaptability to many flavors. Lopez likes to serve it as a dessert bar instead of in a bowl, so it doesn’t turn into a “goopy” mess.

Perfectly edible food that can’t be recycled is donated. Food rescue has been a longtime practice at Great Performances. Lopez donates to two local shelters twice a week, and Tevere calls on Food Runners, an organization that picks up excess perishable and prepared food and delivers to neighborhood food programs.

Only food unfit for human consumption is composted, and some of that is separated for animal feed. Lopez sends his vegetarian compost to his farm to feed the chickens. Neumark donates some of hers to nourish the chickens of a friend in exchange for eggs.

 

Saving Strategies

Increasingly, limiting leftovers begins at the menu planning and purchasing stages. Neumark keeps reminding her team that she’s “running a tight ship,” and is always pushing them to try to “shop tighter…so there is less waste, less surplus, less spoilage.”

Sometimes lamenting the small size of her walk-in cooler, Andermark also sees it as a benefit, engendering buying discipline. “We don’t have a lot of room to have extra mushrooms or lettuce hanging around to rot,” she explains.

In order to increase efficiency in food ordering and production, Tevere tries to plan menus across multiple client events. It’s a strategy made possible by the large size of the company and the scale and scope of its events.

Caterers have an advantage over restaurants because they can plan ahead, especially when the service is plated, but some see opportunities for reducing waste through better portion control. While Great Performances definitely raises the subject of smaller servings, many clients insist on an eight-ounce portion, Neumark cautions. “So until everyone agrees that a clean plate is better than leaving 10 to 15 percent, we will keep sharing our philosophy with clients and adjusting according to what we hear back,” she says.

Balancing the buffet presents the biggest battle. But caterers have devised techniques to curb overeating while preventing food from running out.

Lopez couldn’t keep up with the demand for guacamole at the taco stations he produced at one client’s events, no matter how many times he doubled the amounts. So he reverted to serving normal portions in smaller bowls accompanied by iced tea spoons.

Since it can be difficult to predict the right percentage of vegetarian and non-vegetarian buffet items, with some guests deciding how they will eat on a moment’s whim or the appeal of a particular dish, Lopez started sizing portions so some could sample while others built a meal. When he found meat-eaters taking a ratatouille-stuffed winter squash made with crumbled tofu, he began cutting the squash into eighths.

Andermack stations serving attendants behind the proteins on buffets both to prevent “tons of leftovers” and to avoid running out. Prepare for a gluttonous crowd, she warns, and “you might be left with a lot.”

 

Gaining Interest

Convincing clients to care about sustainability and waste reduction in our disposable society is a learning process, so these caterers are using every means available to encourage change. They mention the subject on their websites and proposals, and broach the issue with clients, although carefully, so as not to alienate the uninitiated.

Describing himself as “very much a good steward,” Lopez says he “back-doors” the “hippie” ideology when talking to other people, since they’re likely to tune him out. Instead, he brings up earth-friendly practices that can put more money in their pockets. He might mention how he saved hundreds of dollars a month on the electric bill by letting the ice machine fill up and unplugging it once a week during the slow winter season.

Chowgirls invented some fun ways to convey the sustainability message and interact with the community. For instance, they conducted a series of workshops on various aspects of the topic, one of which featured a mushroom farmer who used spent hops from a brewing company as a growing compound.

Neumark takes the opportunities where she finds them to engage people by storytelling around waste. A new addition to the Traditional Line—a fun take on roasted cauliflower steaks, where the head is quartered to save the stem—offers a “very subtle educational moment,” she says. Sales people compare the dish, with its meltingly caramelized, beautifully charred outer florets and its slightly tougher stem, to a chicken that you eat off the bone, a concept that resonates with some clients but not others. “Doing the cauliflower like this and having the opportunity to tell a story, we start to make an impression,” she says.

Changing the culture and the values of our privileged society will likely be “a long haul,” Neumark admits. But the waste reduction fight is escalating and becoming more visible, with government, industry groups and non-profits joining the fray, and clients are certain to become more receptive as they become more aware.