“Who wants to think about trash? Our culture doesn’t want to think about trash.”
Steven Satterfield, the chef and co-owner of Miller Union, stood in the dining room of his Westside restaurant. Gathered around him were 20 people — fellow chefs, farmers and other food professionals — who did, in fact, want to talk about trash.
Satterfield was leading a workshop about combating food waste in the professional kitchen. His session was part of numerous seminars, panels, field trips and other programming for the 2017 Chefs Collaborative Summit that was held this month in Atlanta.
Chefs Collaborative is a national nonprofit whose mission is “to inspire, educate and celebrate chefs and food professionals building a better food system.” Its vision is for sustainable practices to become second nature for all chefs in this country.
The theme for this year’s gathering, the eighth annual, was “Growing Community: Owning the Future.” Some 200 people from around the country assembled to hear discussions on topics such as sourcing sustainable seafood; fighting for positive, sensible food policies; and combating equity disparities and social injustices in the hospitality industry.
Among all of the topics at the conference, food waste struck me as the most pressing subject in food right now and the one that all of us can do something about.
Statistics surrounding food waste in America are alarming: 40 percent of the food produced in this country goes to waste, according to The National Resource Defense Council. A 2013 report by global nonprofit BSR (Business for Social Responsibility) commissioned by the Food Waste Reduction Alliance showed that this wasted food costs $750 million per year in disposal fees and translates to 33 million tons of landfill waste. And 44 percent of it, by the way, is residential food waste.
Satterfield is hardly the only person in the country who cares about curbing food waste, but he is in a better position than many to teach the rest of us some best practices. The 2017 Best Chef: Southeast James Beard Foundation award winner wrote “Root to Leaf,” a cookbook with an eye on making the most out of produce.
Satterfield posed the big-picture question to the group: “How can we use everything in front of us?”
Showing is usually more powerful than telling. Satterfield and his culinary team brought out a few nibbles, all made from kitchen scraps:
• Turnip green stems had been incorporated into crackers and topped with chicken rillettes and a dab of apple scrap jelly.
• Humble pig’s head had been turned into delectable coppa di testa.
• Spent grapefruit peels were the flavor agent for a bitter syrup that, combined with vermouth and sparkling wine, tasted like a light, fizzy Negroni.
Trash never tasted so good.
Certainly, restaurant kitchens have a monetary incentive not to waste food. “The more we focus on waste, the better our food costs are,” Satterfield said. “If we don’t deal with what we bought, we’re going to see it in our numbers.”
This is just as true in the home kitchen. In the U.S., a family of four throws out an average $1,484 worth of edible food a year, reason enough to consider making changes even if food waste isn’t the cause you want to champion loudly right now.
At Miller Union, they take inventory every week to consider which foods need to be used soon to avoid spoilage. In turn, they gauge an understanding of their purchasing: Where are they overbuying?
Home cooks can do the same thing before making that Saturday morning run to the grocery store or the farmers market. Granted, taking stock of what’s in the fridge, fruit basket and pantry does take effort, but we’re talking a matter of minutes.
The optimist in me sees the upside to combating waste. (Take a cue from the Disney musical “Mary Poppins” — “In every job that must be done there is an element of fun. You find the fun, and snap! The job’s a game.”)
Dealing with leftovers, unused odds and ends and cooking mistakes is about diverting waste into flavor. It’s an opportunity for creativity rather than an automatic trash can moment.
How can you go bananas with egg whites that remain after you’ve prepared a recipe that calls for egg yolks? Satterfield proposes an egg white frittata. He saves cucumber peelings and seeds for smoothies, cold sauces and flavored water and soda. During the workshop, he provided a handout that included applications for roughly three dozen scraps and fading foods that most people toss into the trash — things like corn cobs, carrot tops, lettuce cores and overripe fruit. (Find Satterfield’s ideas at atlantarestaurants.blog.ajc.com).
One way to get on board the trash cooking movement is to turn “clean up” into an event.
In a recent interview surrounding food waste, Top Chef alum-turned-restaurateur Spike Mendelsohn suggested that everyone take the Friday Night Challenge. The idea is to create a meal at home using only what you have on hand — leftovers, bits of produce in the crisper — instead of buying anything. It is a way to empty out the fridge (and ready it for your Saturday grocery shopping). It saves on the pocketbook. You get dinner. Triple win. (Write and send photos to me about your trash cooking, use-it-up kitchen adventures — I’d love to hear what you whip up.)
Numerous cookbooks published in the last couple of years provide creative ideas for maximizing the food you buy, if Google and Instagram aren’t enough. Titles that I recommend include:
• “Bread, Toast, Crumbs: Recipes for No-Knead Loaves & Meals to Savor Every Slice” by Alexandra Stafford
• “Eat It Up: 150 Recipes to Use Every Bit and Enjoy Every Bite of the Food You Buy” by Sherri Brooks Vinton
• “Offal Good, Cooking from the Heart, with Guts” by Chris Cosentino
• “Scraps, Wilts & Weeds: Turning Wasted Food into Plenty” by Mads Refslund and Tama Matsuoka Wong
• “Ugly Food: Overlooked & Undercooked” by Richard Horsey and Tim Wharton
• That fabulous chapter titled “Garbage” from Gabrielle Hamilton’s “Prune”
Not yet a cookbook reader or a believer? Look out this fall for the documentary “WASTED: The Story of Food Waste.” Directed by Anthony Bourdain, it looks at the problem of global food waste and offers solutions for a more sustainable food system. It also features moments with big-name chefs such as Mario Batali, Dan Barber (Blue Hill) and Danny Bowien (Mission Chinese Food) turning garbage into eye candy.
In the weeks and months ahead, you will notice that numerous stories in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution — in the Food section, in the Dining pages of Sunday Living & Arts, in the Go Guide, in daily Living — touch on the subject of food waste. It’s not a coincidence. By year’s end these recipes, essays, local initiatives and lists will be compiled into a “Guide to a No-Waste Atlanta” on ajc.com and myAJC.com. The goal is a guide you can use as a resource to make the most of your food purchases while helping to build a better food system.
I’ll step off the pulpit now, but not before singing a couple of lines from my favorite Oscar the Grouch tune: “Anything dirty or dingy or dusty, anything ragged or rotten or rusty. Yeah, I love, I love trash!”