The salmon collar at St. Anselm arrives at the table straight from the broiler, the melted fat still sizzling. In many restaurants, this unctuous meat nestled between the fish’s gills and the rest of the body would never make it out of the kitchen. Outside of sushi and izakaya bars, fish collar is an often overlooked ingredient that gets discarded along with things like vegetable trim or beef scraps. So how did a throwaway cut become one of the most gushed-about dishes in Washington?
”I don’t think that food should be looked at as waste,” says St. Anselm chef Marjorie Meek-Bradley. She’s one of many chefs in the city working to transform items that could be considered “trash” into something customers want to order.
At a time when operating costs in the restaurant industry are rising, preventing food waste is imperative. “If you’re throwing things in the garbage, then you’re spending money on garbage,” Meek-Bradley says.
According to a report that the Natural Resources Defense Council published in 2012 and updated in 2017, up to 40 percent of the food in the U.S. is never eaten. That equates to a waste of 1,250 calories per person per day, or 400 pounds per person per year, which would add up to a loss of $218 billion annually.
Preventing waste isn’t just smart business. It’s a way to protect humanitarian and environmental interests, too. The NRDC reported that while 1,250 calories per person per day end up in the trash, 42 million Americans face food insecurity. Food waste is the number one contributor to landfills by weight, and all that rotting food contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. Wasted food also means wasted resources — up to one-fifth of U.S. cropland, fertilizer, and agricultural water is going down the drain.
To reduce the amount of food heading to the landfill, chefs are diverting waste at every step of the supply chain.
Much of the produce and seafood coming out of fields and fishing boats is lost before it even makes it to a kitchen because farmers, fishermen, suppliers, and vendors don’t see a demand for things like “ugly” fruits and vegetables or obscure species of fish.
Chef Todd Gray and Ellen Kassoff, owners of longstanding Equinox downtown and the two restaurants inside the Museum of the Bible, are going to great lengths to keep food out of the trash can.
Gray repurposes some vegetable scraps in stocks and sauces. Others undergo interesting preparations, like tempura made out of cauliflower stem and leaf, mushroom powder made out of dehydrated stems, or broccoli stem stir fry.
To take it a step further, Gray learned the technique of cryoconcentration, which produces intensely flavored liquids from produce peels and ends. Gray extracts flavor from discarded scraps by cooking them sous-vide and then concentrates the liquid that leeches out of the plants by freezing it and controlling the melting process to remove excess water.
He’s cryoconcentrated everything from carrot, celery root, and onion to rhubarb, watermelon, and pineapple.
“This stuff is so crazy. It gets on your palate and won’t go away,” Gray says. “You’ve never tasted anything that tastes so clean and so pure.”
Gray plans to serve the cryoconcentrations as cold consommés, flavorful shots in the center of a plate, and mixers for cocktails.
RASA, the fast-casual Indian restaurant in Navy Yard, recently partnered with delivery service Imperfect Produce to rescue the fruits and vegetables that aren’t pretty enough to be stocked on shelves. Along with Imperfect Produce, similar companies like Misfit Market and Hungry Harvest have popped up to meet a growing demand from conscientious customers.
“So much energy, so many resources are really being wasted simply because of what grocery stores and large organizations deem as worthy,” RASA co-founder Sahil Rahman explains.
RASA turned oranges from Imperfect Produce into a citrus salad that was featured on its spring menu. Rahman says RASA’s chefs could work with imperfect produce like Brussels sprouts, eggplants, or cucumbers, too: “Really, anything that we cut and we cook,” he says.
Chef Kyle Bailey of the Salt Line is working with fishermen to cook what they catch through a restaurant-supported fishery program called Dock to Dish. It functions much like a CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) in that Bailey pays up front to cover the producers’ costs for the season, then regularly receives a dealers’ choice of deliveries. That pushes the chef to find creative uses for “bycatch,” or less common fish that often get thrown out, like sea robin, pufferfish, catfish, and eel.
“There’s just a ton of fish that you haven’t heard of,” he says. “It’s all edible. It’s all great.”
Even though diners may be more familiar with salmon, sea bass, cod, or tuna, they’re willing to take a chance on more sustainable varieties at the Salt Line, where Bailey has built a reputation for New England staples and quality local seafood. Once fish arrives in Bailey’s kitchen, he finds ways to use every ounce. Heads flavor stocks and sauces. Scraps go into seafood charcuterie, like sausages and spreads.
The Salt Line’s seafood charcuterie board has featured everything from whitefish salad and pickled oysters to cured arctic char and monkfish ‘nduja — traditionally a spread made out of cured pork sausage.
“We did a swordfish mortadella — ‘sword-adella,” he says. “That started with the pun. We reverse-engineered that one.”
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Pate En Croute served with cherry Cumberland sauce on the seafood charcuterie board at @thesaltline. This features red drum, gulf shrimp, pufferfish tails, grilled fennel and pistachio. As always, absolutely no mammal was used in the making of this or any other item on our seacuterie board. Inspired by the new pate book from @brianpolcyn and @ruhlman. Check back in my stories to see the whole process. . . . #dcdining #seafoodcharcuterie #seacuterie #pateencroute #cumberlandsauce #reddrum #pufferfish #gulfshrimp #sustainableseafood #outfrombelow #newchesapeake
Creating a symbiotic relationship between the kitchen and the bar is yet another opportunity to reduce food waste. Hunter Douglas, the bar program manager at Hank’s Cocktail Bar, has composed a menu that pulls discarded items from the Hank’s Oyster Bar kitchen and “upcycles” them into fascinating cocktails.
For instance, last night’s coffee and tea goes into a clarified milk punch called the Revisionist History. “It’s a really old-school technique of preserving fruits and flavors,” Douglas explains. He combines the spent coffee and tea with citrus juice and sugar and then adds boiling whole milk, which curdles and extracts the tannins. After straining, the result is a translucent cocktail.
Douglas has also found uses for day-old citrus from the bar.
“We can only use it for one service before it starts to oxidize,” he says. “We were throwing away quarts and quarts of lemon and lime juice.”
Now, they save it and turn it into a cordial with a much longer shelf life. It’s used in cocktails like the Trash Gimlet.
Sometimes, food waste experiments don’t live up to a chef’s standards. At St. Anselm, Meek-Bradley says when dishes look too much like discarded ingredients, they don’t make it on the menu. In that case, chefs can always serve the food to their staff for “family meal.” Meek-Bradley makes salads with vegetable trim, tacos with beef scraps, or assorted curries with the kitchen sink thrown in.
When the creative juices have run dry and a chef is truly out of options, there’s one fail-safe: the compost bin.
At Equinox, Gray is diverting about 3,000 pounds of waste from the landfill per month and returning it to the soil via composting. Gray and Kassoff are working on achieving Zero Waste — eliminating “all discharges to land, water or air that are a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health” — by working with a company called (r)evolve, which conducted a waste audit and highlighted the areas the couple could improve.
“It’s like a hazmat inspection. They’re in rubber suits and gloves and they basically sort through your trash a couple of times,” Gray explains.
Bailey, the sustainable seafood maven, is confident that chefs’ efforts to reduce waste will make a difference in the collective food culture.
“It starts at restaurants,” he says, “and then it slowly trickles into the high-end supermarkets, and then the middle-end supermarkets, and finally into homes.”