Why chefs need to think nose-to-tail to minimize food waste

March 06 2017

‘Waste not, want not’; it’s a saying that has been about for as long as anyone can remember, but its truth and relevance is seldom disproved.

In Canada, we waste $31 million of food every year, with almost half of that (47 per cent) coming from Canadian homes.

That’s according to the Cut Waste, Grow Profit report from 2014, which found that the main contributing factor to consumer food waste was high expectations and elevated standards. Basically, the public demand top-quality, aesthetically-pleasing food and this is a key factor driving the volume of food waste occurring among consumers.

Evidence of this is that in North America, around 30 per cent of fruit and vegetables don’t even make it onto store shelves because picky customers will think they don’t look the part, while the same proportion of food purchased by U.S. consumers is thrown in the trash, with $48 billion worth of food being wasted every year.

The real picture

In Canada, more than 40 per cent of food losses occur at retail and consumer levels, and in Toronto, single-family households discard about 275 kilos of food waste each year.

It should be noted that the city's expanding composting program captures about 75 per cent of that, but regardless, a quarter of food purchases still end up in the garbage, costing Toronto taxpayers nearly $10 million a year to get rid of food waste that's not composted.

Elsewhere, almost half of all food produced worldwide is wasted, dropping out of the food system during processing, transport or in supermarkets and kitchens.

So what can Canadian kitchens do to limit this costly and frustrating problem?

Well, it comes back to what we said right at the start of this feature - waste not, want not - and this philosophy is behind the new garbage-to-plate movement. It may sound gross, but it is being viewed as a positive solution to the growing issue of food waste.

Michelin-star waste

Many kitchens are devising new ways to make use of leftovers or spoiled food and even Michelin-rated restaurants are buying into the trend, most notably, Dan Barber, a James Beard award winner and the chef of New York Michelin-star restaurant Blue Hill.

Speaking to PBS News Hour, Mr Barber highlighted how good food could be created from ingredients usually tossed out.

Every night for three weeks, he served up what he calls “Michelin-star waste” for $15 a plate, consisting of ingredients such as fried skate wing cartilage and pickle butts.

The PBS segment shows how one of Mr Barber’s staff took beet and celery pulp, salvaged from a local juice bar, to make a hugely popular meat-free burger.

Other dishes included dumpster dive salad, made from bruised apples and pears acquired from an industrial food processor in the neighbourhood, complimented by dressing made using water from used chickpeas. There’s also dogfood - a charmingly named dish that consists of animal organs that are usually discarded.

Cocoa husks - the outer shell of a cocoa bean - are usually thrown out during processing but instead, they were used to create cocoa husk-smoked eggplant.

“We actually have the power and creativity to take what you deem refuse and turn that into deliciousness; that’s very powerful,” Mr Barber told the American broadcaster.

“In this day and age, chefs have a message to broadcast and we’re saying that vegetable pulp is delicious fibre that can be utilised.”

What chefs can do

We don’t expect many Canadian chefs to start raiding their neighbourhood dumpsters after reading this, but Dan Barber hopes more chefs will look at the entirety of the food system from nose to tail, and think about not just the juices but also the pulp that comes out of the juice.

The idea of zero food waste may feel unrealistic, but chefs can reduce how much food gets thrown out by tracking waste. This helps identify where you’re over-ordering.

Also, rotate your stock so items with the shortest dates are used first. Smaller plates can create the illusion of larger servings, while monitoring chefs during prep can reveal where food can be reused and recycled.

Fats cut from meat could be rendered and used as oils, while day-old bread could become croutons and vegetable peelings or rinds of cheese could find new life flavouring soups and stocks.

Read our in-depth feature on how Canadian restaurants can play their part in solving the country’s food waste problem.