Finally, and not before time, the world is beginning to switch on to the ridiculousness of the amount of stuff we waste. Peter's experience stage-ing in professional kitchens has given him a unique insight and exploration of waste from the perspective of the kitchen, and how as chefs, we tend to want to eek the maximum out of everything so waste little in terms of raw materials. However we have zero control over the wastage if we buy things in commercially or what our diners waste...
The responsibility is in the hands of everyone - but sometimes it's hard to see your own.
Food waste is a topic de jour. Like other political terms relating to food, the definition of food waste is personal. The United Nations, the European Union, and the United States each defines food loss and food waste differently, although all agree that food waste is a subset of food loss, and they are working on a harmonized protocol for measuring both. On the opposite front, non-governmental organizations and private individuals often include more sources of food loss into their definitions of food waste. For now, I’m only interested in one sector of food loss and food waste: restaurants.
One of the first concepts I learned when I started stage-ing in high-end restaurants in France was that virtually nothing edible is wasted in the kitchen. Vegetable or meat refuse that was tossed in the bin was more likely the result of carelessness than intention. Even though only one of these restaurants maintained a stockpot that was filled during the day with scraps and then fired-up overnight, most of the kitchens saved all scraps for producing stocks. The outer leaves of certain vegetables that couldn’t be cleaned were tossed.
The one source of food waste that was more difficult to recycle was that created by letting produce rot in the walk-in refrigerator. Planning the exact amount of food needed for everyday dining was difficult for dining rooms that were not completely full each night. Nonetheless, one person, often the sous chef, was responsible to rotate the stock of produce to make sure that the oldest was always used first. When that person screwed up, there was trouble in paradise. For me, it often meant an opportunity to create something out of the waste. A case of what appears to be rotten fruits or vegetables can often be culled and trimmed to create half of a case of usable product. This culled material was usually not suited for the dishes it was purchased for, but the item was still suitable for staff meals or for me to be creative with.
Restaurants that have to buy from commercial distributors instead of farmers presenting only their best products, have to accept a certain amount of rotten vegetables through their back doors. For example, in America, two percent of strawberries can be rotten, and the case is still considered acceptable if the restaurant is purchasing USDA-graded fruit. Different fruits and vegetables have different amounts of acceptable rot.
Depending on a restaurant’s locale, it may be charged by its trash removal company for any compostable materials discarded. Some trash-hauling entities charge by weight or bag. This compostable trash collection will usually be cheaper than ordinary trash, but still an expense. Likewise, some restaurants are even charged to have their recycling picked up, but that too is less expensive than ordinary trash.
Like all spent food products, the process to further convert the waste into something edible and tasty may involve more resources and the addition of other foodstuffs, and therefore more waste. In all conversions of waste into by-product, there is an additional cost of labor, added foodstuffs, and customer acceptance. Much edible vegetable waste can be dried, ground, and used in bread making and other processes, but the goal of zero waste may unreasonably use other resources.
I haven’t seen any statistics for the issue, but my own impression going back to my dishwashing days and reinforced now, each night in the kitchen, is that the diners create more waste than the kitchen. It is impossible for the kitchen to predict the perfect amount of food for each client, and there are many that could never be perfectly pleased. Each night, there are diners that ask for more bread and then never eat it. Each night, diners order more food than they can comfortably consume. Each night, diners are served a dish that is not totally to their liking. Until all diners are forced to eat everything placed in front of them, this type of waste will remain a problem, and since my mother is no longer around to enforce this ridiculous rule, it will never come to pass. Unlike waste produced within the bounds of the kitchen, customer-produced waste cannot be reused. It must be disposed of. Even if restaurant kitchens succeed in producing zero waste, there will still be significant waste sent out the back door due to the inability to control the habits of the restaurant’s customers.
Peter Hertzmann has successfully combined a background in science, engineering, marketing, history, and cooking to bring a unique approach to discussions of food and its preparation. He has worked on projects as diverse as air-conditioning skyscrapers to Space Shuttle lighting to creating surgical procedures to implanting a transducer in the middle ear to teaching knife skills in a county jail. Peter is a culinary polymath who has published numerous articles in journals and spoken at many international meetings about all aspects of the culinary industry.
He continues to research, write, and speak about food-related technology and anything else that's food-related and strikes his fancy. Peter met Ben Reade at a meeting in Oxford, and when Ben started EFS, offered to spend time there as writer-in-residence where he produced an amazing body of writing which we'll be sharing over time. He can be contacted via his website à la carte.
Photography property of EFS