N.R.A. Show exclusive: Looking at food differently to reduce waste

by Monica Watrous
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CHICAGOBruised tomatoes, broken scallops and used coffee grounds are among the otherwise wasted ingredients that find new life in Jehangir Mehta’s kitchen. He is the chef and owner of Graffiti Earth restaurant in New York, which serves vegetable-forward courses using “unloved produce” and underutilized seafood, sustainable proteins and healthy grains with the goal to reduce food waste.

Sustainability is a growing priority for the food and beverage industry and a hot topic at the National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show, held May 20-23 in Chicago. Each year in the United States, consumers, businesses and farms spend $218 billion on food that goes uneaten. Of the 63 million tons of food wasted each year, 16% occurs at farms, 2% at manufacturers, 40% at consumer-facing businesses and 43% in consumer homes.

“We’ve fallen into the habit throwing away a strawberry because it just started rotting … we don’t think of cutting it in half and seeing how much is salvageable,” Mr. Mehta said during a presentation at the N.R.A. Show.

Chef Jehangir Mehta, Graffiti Earth restaurant
Jehangir Mehta is the chef and owner of Graffiti Earth restaurant in New York.
 

Consumers, chefs and manufacturers alike must change their mindsets, he said.

“Great things never came from comfort zones,” Mr. Mehta said. “You have to push yourself into looking at food differently and showcasing food waste in a different format. That is the new innovation.”

In addition to operating restaurants in New York, Mr. Mehta has worked with the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, where a grant-funded pilot project transformed an on-campus dining hall into a sustainability-focused facility that sources ingredients from local farms, cooperatives and vendors in New England. Chefs at the dining hall reuse food scraps that would otherwise be composted to develop new menu items. Pineapple cores and cucumber peels, for example, are used to flavor beverages.

“Trimmings from all vegetables we have every day go into a big stockpot,” he said. “At the university, it’s a large kettle … it’s the most expensive garbage can.

University of Massachusetts sustainable dining
The University of Massachusetts' dining hall makes soup out of leftover vegetable trimmings.
 

“Any trimmings of anything go into a pot, and we make soup with it.”

Leftover breakfast items, including oatmeal, scrambled eggs, sausage and fruit, are incorporated into lunch offerings.

“With all the fruit, we make it into a jam or some sort of compote,” Mr. Mehta said. “From scrambled eggs, sausage, we make fried rice with it for lunch. Oatmeal, we make into oatmeal cookies, oatmeal cake, oatmeal pudding … but we see to it that we make something with it for lunch.”

Other leftover ingredients are used to fill dumplings.

“We make close to 700 to 1,000 dumplings with all the food that was left over,” he said.

Graffiti burger with mushrooms
Thirty per cent of the burgers Graffiti Earth serves are made of mushroom.
 

At the restaurant, Mr. Mehta has partnered with farmers and businesses to collect food scraps, including shiitake stems that he uses to make a panna cotta. Mushrooms also are blended into burgers served at Graffiti to add flavor, lower fat content and help reduce meat consumption, he said.

“Thirty per cent of our burger is mushroom, and it blends extremely well because you can throw it into a meat grinder,” he said.

In addition to helping the environment, the actions have lowered food costs significantly. Mr. Mehta said the concept is gaining traction in particular with younger consumers.

University of Massachusetts sustainable dining
Students at the university have embraced the sustainable dining hall concept.
 

“We’re seeing at the university, this generation is happy to promote this,” he said. “Once we started telling the stories about the changes we’re making at this station, we saw a boost in just one year of 120% in sales.”

Nicole Pederson, executive chef and owner of Found Kitchen and Social House in Evanston, Ill., offers a menu that changes with the market and season. Using food scraps responsibly and creatively is part of the restaurant ethos.

“We keep all of the scraps from the celery and onions and put it into a bin in the refrigerator and later use it to make stock,” Ms. Pederson said during a demonstration at the N.R.A. Show. “There are all of these different creative things we can do.”

Nichole Pederson, Found Kitchen
Nicole Pederson is the executive chef and owner of Found Kitchen and Social House.
 

During a demonstration, she transformed a salmon belly into ceviche with shaved asparagus. 

“When we get a whole fish, we try to look at different ways we can utilize that meat that’s on the bone,” Ms. Pederson said. “If you take a spoon and scrape lightly along the bones, you’ll end up with all of these nice bits and pieces of salmon,” which may be cooked and mixed in a dip with cream cheese, caper and onion.

Echoing Mr. Mehta’s message, Ms. Pederson agreed it’s time to rethink imperfect fruits and vegetables.

Found Kitchen salmon salad
Found Kitchen tries to utilize as much of the fish as possible, using it in dips and salads.
 

“We’re visual people,” Ms. Pederson said. “We like to see beautiful produce at the grocery store. At the farmers market we pick the brightest red tomato.

“As chefs and restaurant owners we can make a difference in talking to our purveyors and farmers and asking, ‘Do you have bruised or battered tomatoes or peaches?’ You can take those, use some of your old-school preserving and canning methods… freeze it and utilize it down the road.” 
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