When New York chef Dan Barber announced he would serve “garbage” at a banquet for international leaders in Washington last year, he put the global issue of food waste in the headlines.
Barber recycled leftover juice pulp into veggie burgers with carrot top marmalade and created fries from corn destined for cattle feed. Like his pop-up restaurant, Wasted, whose menu took root in the overlooked byproducts of the food system, the goal was to educate diners about the kind of edible ingredients we routinely discard.
Vancouver chef David Gunawan had a similar message when he offered Ugly Duckling Dinners at his newest hyper-local restaurant, Royal Dinette. Using “usually overlooked, often discarded off-cuts and outcasts,” Gunawan created a menu that included chicken consommé clarified with eggshells and potato peel ice cream with coffee caramel made from potato skins leftover from prepping gnocchi and coffee grounds. “We have finite resources so it’s natural to be mindful of what we consume,” says Gunawan who also follows a sustainable, farm-to-table path at his Vancouver restaurant, Farmer’s Apprentice. “The Ugly Duckling Dinners are an exaggerated form of our intention. The message is to conserve food and educate people — before you throw this thing away, think of the implications.”
Those implications are serious. Canadians waste 40 per cent of the food we produce. If food waste was a country, it would be the third-largest greenhouse gas producer after China and the U.S., contributing to climate change and ultimately to our ability to produce food.
The Sustainable Table
This focus on food waste is only one part of the puzzle when it comes to the latest trend in restaurant kitchens — sustainability.
To run a truly sustainable foodservice operation, restaurant owners and chefs must look at the big picture, from where they source their ingredients to how they heat their buildings, conserve water and manage the entire waste stream — practices that can help restaurants reduce operating costs and stay competitive, while targeting the socially conscious and connected millennial generation.
“Today’s restaurant consumer is much more educated and more aware of both the foods they’re eating and the environmental side of the restaurant business,” says Robert Carter, executive director of Foodservice for Toronto-based NPD Group.
Carter says consumer interest in clean, ethical food is up about 10 per cent in 2015. “Generally, what we see is interest in food sourcing, antibiotic-free, hormone-free choices,” says Carter. “We group this all together under the Clean Food Movement. A clean benefit is a big catch-all, but we believe clean food represents $1-billion in sales in Canada. Overall spending in foodservice is flat, so that increased spending on clean food is pretty dramatic.”
A recent survey by the U.S. National Restaurant Association listed local sourcing, food waste reduction and environmental sustainability among the top 10 trends for 2016, with 41 per cent of chefs surveyed predicting environmental sustainability as the fastest-growing trend in restaurants over the next decade.
Your Carbon Food-print
In her new book, “Greening your Hospitality Business,” consultant Jill Doucette says the green movement is not a trend, but rather, “a paradigm shift in commerce. Consumers, particularly millennials, are not only shopping for value, they are shopping to see whether your values are aligned with theirs,” she writes. “By making choices such as shopping local, promoting organics and selecting regional wines, craft beers and spirits, you can connect with a conscious clientele who understands the impact of their spending.”
Doucette developed the non-profit Vancouver Island Green Business Certification (VIGBC) program, a third-party green audit for restaurant, retail and office-based businesses. “On a square-foot basis, hospitality businesses are huge when it comes to energy consumption,” says Doucette. She recommends adopting green practices, from measurable energy savings through building and equipment retrofits, to water conservation, recycling and “shortening the supply chain by supporting a more local model.”
In Victoria, B.C., there are now 40 VIGBC-certified restaurants, including several in the downtown core that have formed a Food Eco-District of carbon-neutral establishments ranging from the tiny AJ’s Organic Café to Fish Hook, Tacofino, Big Wheel Burger and Zambri’s. They’ve collaborated on urban garden projects to supply herbs and greens to member chefs and joint marketing initiatives to promote their sustainable mission.
Fish Hook owner/chef Kunal Ghose was an early sustainable operator, opening the popular Red Fish, Blue Fish in Victoria in 2007. Diners still line up daily for the Albacore Tuna Tacones with Spot Prawn Mayo ($6.50) at the harbourside take-out window, but Ghose now has plenty of company in the green dining scene. “Red Fish, Blue Fish was the first 100-per-cent Ocean Wise restaurant on Vancouver Island,” he says. “Now, you stand out if you’re not doing these things.”
The hospitality industry has the power to influence what people eat and the buying power to impact the way food is produced. Chefs are in a unique position to shift the focus of farmers, fishers and wholesalers — Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise program is just one example of how demand has increased supplies of sustainable seafood and expanded consumer choice.
But with major chains now adopting green initiatives — think A&W’s hormone- and steroid-free beef and antibiotic-free chicken, or McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts and Denny’s plans to switch to cage-free eggs — ethical sources are strained. McDonald’s uses two billion eggs annually, with Denny’s serving another 400 million.
“A lot of big manufacturers are starting to understand that consumers and chefs will pay more if they believe there’s a benefit,” says Carter, citing Maple Leaf Foods’ commitment to reducing the use of antibiotics by its pork and poultry suppliers, and line of “raised without antibiotics” products. “Restaurants are saying ‘We want to be in the game of the clean-food movement, but how do we source that food?’”
For Earls Restaurants, the goal is a 100-per-cent “consciously sourced” and humanely raised menu at its 66 locations across Canada and the U.S. by April this year, says communications manager Cate Simpson. “In the U.S. we serve only certified sustainable seafood, including shrimp and prawns,” she says. “Each location uses local, ethically raised, free-run chicken, raised without antibiotics, and cage-free eggs. We serve only 100-per-cent certified Black Angus beef raised without the use of steroids, antibiotics or added hormones.”
Earls serves 750,000 lbs of steak and two million lbs of Black Angus chuck each year for burgers, at an added cost of 15 to 25 per cent. Simpson says buying humanely raised pork and bacon remains challenging — even Chipotle Mexican Grill removed pork carnitas from the menu last year due to short supply — and squid is problematic. “Squid, in Canada, is the only elusive product,” she says. “Humboldt squid is the only sustainable squid available right now — calamari may just have to come off the menu.”
On The Green Line
The day-to-day business of running a sustainable food operation is challenging, but may be the new normal.
At Victoria’s Big Wheel Burger, owner Calen McNeil is proving that even fast-food can be carbon neutral. “Restaurants are one of the highest carbon-producing businesses per square foot,” says McNeil, who recycles and composts 90 per cent of all waste at Big Wheel Burger. “It’s not that expensive to do — you’re going to be paying to remove your garbage anyway. It’s a totally workable model.”
Fairmont Hotels has long embraced green business practices, too, with “sustainability teams” at each property. Vancouver’s Fairmont Waterfront has a top Green Key Eco-Rating, with a rooftop food garden that’s been buzzing with bees for more than two decades. Nothing goes to waste, whether it’s recycling mattresses or kitchen scraps. An “on-demand” system uses scales to determine when waste pick-up is necessary, reducing removal costs. “There are literally no garbage cans in the kitchen — we recycle and compost everything,” says Alessandro Vianello, chef at the Waterfront’s Arc restaurant. Turnip and radish greens are sautéed with potatoes, juiced for sauces, or puréed for pesto. “We also participate with gleaning (the act of collecting leftover crops from farmers’ fields after they have been commercially harvested or on fields where it is not economically profitable to harvest) and food-recovery projects — nothing is ever wasted.”
The rooftop garden now includes vertical Invictus Urban Farm structures (a square-foot gardening system) to expand food production and composting on site, with crops ranging from kale and chard to lettuce, strawberries, Brussels sprouts, tomatoes, chilies and herbs.
With food costs rising, Vianello says it’s now cheaper to make the sustainable choice of buying from local farms. “Nearly 80 per cent of our products are local,” he says. “Produce comes in ripe and pristine — high-quality products with a better yield because we don’t have to waste as much.”
When chef Chris Whittaker opened Forage restaurant in Vancouver’s Listel Hotel in 2012, it was in a purpose-built space designed to be sustainable on many levels, from the farm-to-table philosophy to the energy efficient HVAC. “I think the key is having a culture of sustainability, with your entire business, from employees to management, completely buying into the concept,” says Whittaker.
In Forage’s zero-waste kitchen, “everything we use is recycled, composted or sent to a waste-to-energy company,” he says. Their sharing plates menu reduces food waste and it no longer serves free bread with meals, one of the industry’s biggest waste streams. All ingredients are used — fish heads fermented to fish sauce, fruit peelings turned into vinegars and shrubs for cocktails, potato skins leftover from making gnocchi crisped and smoked for potato skin bar snacks.
Seafood is sourced by adhering to Ocean Wise standards and Whittaker favours Salmon Safe or Environmental Farm Plan-certified farms for meat and produce.
While he says “it’s a lot more work on the administrative side,” going green is a great marketing tool, brings new customers and makes for an engaged, loyal staff. “Our business is up by 30 to 40 per cent,” he says. “It was the right move.”
Volume 48, Number 2
Written By: Cinda Chavich