Chefs React as Concerns Surrounding Food Waste Grow

- Thursday, March 31, 2016

In an age when locavores rule, trash fish dinners are the new chic, and foodie tourism is trending, it is the perfect time for hotel chefs to enhance their properties’ narrative and take on the issue of food waste.

What was hot and trending in 2015? Food waste reduction according to 1,300 chefs surveyed by the National Restaurant Assn. The growing counter culture to food waste is so widespread the Association’s annual What’s Hot List placed food waste reduction right behind hyper local sourcing in their Top Twenty Trends.

Food waste is a global problem, but 40 percent of the food produced right here in the United States goes uneaten according to a 2012 Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) report. Waste has been on a steady rise since 1970 when the U.S. wasted about 50 percent less food. So why did so many restaurant chefs choose to draw attention to food waste now?

Chefs have always focused on using up product. Running an efficient kitchen just makes economic sense, and since food is the second largest cost after labor, wasting food greatly impacts restaurants’ bottom lines. Today, diners are as acutely interested in taste as they are with their health and the health of the planet. Foodie tourism is growing and so too is consumer interest in novel culinary experiences. The important economic and emotional role foodservice plays in hotels is being recognized more, and chefs now see value in finding creative solutions around reducing food waste.

The Problem

Getting food to the table, according to NRDC, uses up 10 percent of the entire U.S. energy budget, and 80 percent of all freshwater consumed, yet 40 percent of U.S. food produced is never eaten. Food waste means enormous U.S. resources have also been squandered—water, fertilizer, transport and the labor it took to grow the food. The majority of rotting food ends up in landfills and contributes to harmful methane gas emissions, 10 times more damaging than carbon dioxide.

According to a USDA study, 4 to 10 percent of full service restaurant food purchases go to waste before being served, and another 17 percent is left on the plate by the consumer, while 55 percent of leftovers are not taken home. Portion inflation over the years has contributed to waste. According to a 2005 University of Arizona study, 49,296,540 pounds of waste in full service restaurants, and 85,063,390 pounds of waste in fast food restaurants, is generated daily.

Trash to Table

Solutions to food waste are showing up in the trendiest of eateries, generating interest, great PR, earned media and good will. Chefs are boasting tip to tail and root to stalk menus with a waste not want not philosophy. Creativity and innovation abound adding interest and new flavors to menus. Chefs are educating guests on the value of baking bread today and serving bread pudding tomorrow as the wisdom of their grandparents is being revisited, and compelling restaurant narratives emerge.

With a fresh look at waste reduction, Chefs are asserting the value of culinary gems found in what was formerly sent to the compost bin utilizing orange rinds for zest, carrot tops for salsa, watermelon rinds for pickling, and celebrating bolted produce for pungent flavors.

Chef Dan Barber nailed the message that much of what we toss is good eating at his pop up Wast(ed) at his restaurant Blue Hill in Greenwich Village, N.Y. He invited a lineup of celebrity chefs to create gourmet menus from ingredients traditionally accepted as trash. Menu items included butter substitutes made of fat and rosemary, fish fins, fried crisps made from skate wing cartilage, fish heads, and cactus. The sold out pop up caught the imagination of both diners and journalists who were open to Barber’s message of reducing waste while broadening our ideas of what’s edible and delectable.

Media attention and the wait list for Barber’s trash to table menu shows there is a climate of change amongst diners open to experimentation and interested in solutions.

Utilizing Culinary Gems from the Compost Bin

A hotel’s F&B operations is one of the most cost effective areas to connect the guest to place and create an emotional and lasting impression of the property, as well as nail the brand’s story. In this age of foodie tourism, culinary experimentation, and interest in green hospitality guests are open to new flavors and expect tourism operators to respect the environment. This is the perfect moment for chefs to address the problem of food waste with creative solutions that add value to guest stays and brand narratives.

**Original by Rauni Kew, PR & Green Program Manager, Inn by the Sea, Cape Elizabeth, Maine