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Stop Feeding Your Garbage Can

Talking to the chef of America's least wasteful restaurant Of the 350 billion pounds of food produced in America each year, we...

Talking to the chef of America's least wasteful restaurant

Of the 350 billion pounds of food produced in America each year, we throw away a gut-wrenching 98 billion pounds, 98 percent of which ends up in landfills. According to the EPA, landfills are the largest human-related source of methane in the United States, accounting for 34 percent of all methane emissions. Methane from landfills is generated when organic food waste decomposes under anaerobic conditions. Our rotting food is therefore a major contributor to global climate change. The retail food industry, which includes restaurants, is responsible for 54 billion pounds of this waste, and hemorrhages $44 billion a year in wasted food. Fortunately, a few chefs are working to reverse this trend.

Leading the charge against food wastefulness are chef Russ Moore and his wife Allison Hopelain, the co-owners of Camino, a restaurant in Oakland, California. They recently sat down with GOOD to discuss conservation, great food, and the steps they take to avoid wasting a single leaf of lettuce or a biodynamic drop of wine.

GOOD: Why is it important for you to use everything?

RUSS MOORE: Everything we use has value. Someone harvested it, someone grew it, someone cared about it. Most restaurants buy in bulk; they get these cheap standardized products. Our carrots come from a farmer and are not all the same size and shape; they take longer to work with, they require more skill and attention to cook properly. These are the best products as far as taste and flavor, but also the best in terms of the standards for how they were sustainably raised, grown, and harvested.

G: Is the recent attention to understanding the entire food process changing how you cook?

RM: I should stress [that] nothing is new here. This is all really old. It is classic French style; it's how you were supposed to use all of the food you had available. Using everything is a challenge and part of being a chef. It's part of what you are supposed to do.

G: What are some ways to maximize your ingredients?

RM: If I cook a vegetable in water, I'm not going to throw away that water. That vegetable has imparted great flavor, so I'll use the juices and extracts left over from, say, my artichoke water. Maybe I'm baking an egg with cardoons and mushrooms; I know that my little bit of artichoke juice from the left-over water will make sense with that egg, so I take a cazuela [a Spanish clay dish], add olive oil and the leftover juice, and then put the egg on top. I cook it in the fire, baking the egg from above in the air and below in the liquid.

Eggs are precious. We can't get as many of the Soul Food farm eggs in the winter so we have to use them all well. Say you need egg yokes to make a mayonnaise; most places just throw the egg whites away. We'll use the whites to make a meringue or give them to the bartenders to make frothy drinks.

G: How does this waste-conscious process impact your planning?

RM: We change the menu when we have a lot of something left, and we try to manage the ebb and flow of extra ingredients with creative recipes. We break down whole pigs ourselves, and render all the scraps. Recently, we had too much lard. I wasn't going to use any other fat until I used this up so we put it in seasonal cookies and donuts and the house sauerkraut. It's not just the lard of course. We'll make rillette; we'll bread and fry the head and trotters [feet] and make fritters. Tonight we'll boil pig tongues, confit some turnip greens, and smear them on toast.

G: Do you repurpose other animal proteins the same way you maximize a whole pig?

RM: Yes, with ducks. We do our potatoes cooked in duck fat. Some restaurants buy duck fat; that's a crime against humanity, a crime against ducks. If you buy a whole duck there is so much extra fat that you can easily render and save. The duck is just rich in resources. Take the giblets. Salt them, cook them confit (in their own rendered fat), and they can last for 6 months.

G: How do restaurants reconcile cost versus quality versus effort? Is there more to the mathematics of planning a menu this way?

RM: Lots of restaurants buy cheap processed meat or pork that's already broken down. It costs pennies in real life, but the taste isn't good and I don't want to miss out on the other stuff you get with the entire animal: the bones and the offal. Also, you should make sauces for the meat you are cooking with the bones and parts of that same animal. As a restaurant you either have to buy cheaper stuff or maximize every part of everything you are buying.

We consider pork per pound and consider each pound equally. We don't differentiate the value of, say, pork bone, or pork head, from filet, or loin or shoulder. We use all of it and we cook all of it. We use all of it every time.

G: How do you avoid tossing the typical scraps of fruits and vegetables?

RM: We use a lot of stuff that usually gets thrown away. For example, we make herb jam from the discarded lettuce leaves, fennel, the tougher outer parts of our greens, the lower leaves of an oregano plant; we cook them all down together and add garlic, cumin, and olives and make it into a paste: herb jam. We take quince, apple, and peach cores and peals, and we make our own infusions of brandy. We make our own bitters too, because regular bitters are full of preservatives and chemicals. We'll use the syrup that is left over from poaching quince or huckleberry or cherries and give it to the bartenders to mix seasonal cocktails or use it in desserts. The grapes in our wines are all organic or biodynamic. I cooked at Chez Panisse for a long time and was also their produce buyer. So I have always needed to appreciate the quality of the products I was buying.

G: What are some of the more innovative ways to avoid waste?

ALLISON HOPELAIN: If people don't finish wine at the bottom of the bottle, we'll consolidate all the leftover bottles at the end of the night and pour it into a wood barrel. A few months later we have house-made red wine vinegar.

RM: Our salt, for instance, is really expensive, many times more expensive than normal salt. Most restaurants use kosher salt. Ours is a coarse, minerally Celtic sea salt, and we use it for everything. It tastes a lot better and it's better for you, so we train the cooks not to throw any of it on the ground, not to toss it on oil spills. We can only afford it if we don't waste any of it.

AH: It's not just the food. Our table is made from a tree that fell down in a storm. All the chairs and benches are used church chairs and pews. The still and sparkling table water bottles were originally gin bottles from an artisanal distiller; after we used the gin we repurposed the bottles. We also carbonate our water with a machine so we don't have to use any new water bottles.

G: You cook everything over an enormous wood fire. That must consume a lot of wood.

AH: Our firewood is all orchard prunings, so they don't have to cut down trees. We still use it conservatively; the peppers for dinner were all cooked on the embers from brunch.

G: Is conserving food and celebrating the product to this degree something that is unique about Camino?

RM: We didn't open a restaurant just to save and preserve, but we don't throw anything away at home either; we compost everything. It's hard because you have to create a lot of systems, and it creates more work. But it seems impossible for us not to be doing this. If we are going to have this one small restaurant then we think we should be able to do things right, and make it a good place, not be needlessly wasting anything. A lot of it has to do with personal connections, with actually going to someone's farm that you know. Farmers work harder than us, that is hard work. We don't want to throw any of that work away, someone grew it. Someone sloshed around in the dirt and the rain for this food, the least we can do is serve it well.

Photos by Shing Wong.

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