Sustainability is quite the buzz word in the food industry these days, although a clear definition of the term is not always easy to come by. Defined by the EPA as “creat[ing] and maintain[ing] the conditions under which humans nature can exist in productive harmony to support present and future generations,” working towards sustainability is always a win-win for restaurants but many restaurant operators and chefs are unsure of what steps to take to get there.
Yes, buying sustainably grown and locally sourced produce and meat products is a step in the right direction, but there are more valuable avenues restaurants can take to not only contribute towards creating a national sustainable food system but also to cut their own in-house food and wastage costs as well.
Here we detail three innovative steps restaurants across the country are taking towards creating a sustainable future.
Within most restaurants, food wastage is a major concern to be addressed. Yet for some, a philosophy of ‘Nose to Tail’ (and by extension, often ‘Root to Tip’) is employed which encourages a waste-not type of attitude in which the entirety of the animal (or vegetable) is utilized in the kitchen. For restaurants encouraging this type of philosophy, no part is overlooked: bones are boiled into broth, organs turned into stews and scraps are transformed into delightful dishes.
By encouraging one’s kitchen to utilize every part of their ingredients, not only can restaurants work towards sustainable practices, they can also effectively cut their own food costs at the same time.
One of the newer trends to hit the restaurant industry as of late, hot spots nationwide have begun boasting of their use of foraged ingredients on their menu. Foraging, which consists of scavenging for food sources in the wild, allows for chefs to look to their own backyards for inspiration. Thus, rather than trucking in produce from throughout the state, these chefs make use of what is readily available to them. By doing so, these foraging chefs have taken to the wild, sourcing ingredients such as numerous species of mushrooms, fresh fruit, root vegetables and other edible plants, thereby taking the idea of ‘locally sourced’ to the extreme.
One of the more famous foraging chefs was Jordan Khan of the recently shuttered Red Medicine. Known best for his ‘wilderness to table’ cuisine, Khan spent his mornings wandering through the woods, sourcing the ingredients he would feature for that evening’s dinner service. In addition to working with only uber-local ingredients, Khan found that through foraging he was able to minimize the amount of hands his ingredients went through, ensuring that only the freshest foodstuffs hit his diners’ plates.
Local breweries also have been getting in on the action, with several beginning to work with recycled materials in their brews. Torrance based brewery Smog City recently unveiled a new line of specialty, limited bottles that included a Kumquat Saison, brewed with fruit from local fruit trees. Partnering with Food Forward, portions of the beer sales also benefit the organization which works to end hunger.
Foraging, of course, is entirely dependent on location and an urban restaurant not in close proximity to any wilderness containing plant life may find foraging to be more hassle than it is worth. And while incredibly time consuming, the act of looking to what is readily accessible is definitely a step in the right direction for chefs looking to not only highlight local ingredients but to cut down on ingredient sourcing costs as well.
The Employee Comes First
A crucial element often forgotten in the sustainability movement is the human aspect. Just as a restaurant cannot be truly sustainable if it is not financially successful, restaurants also need to have a happy, healthy workforce to truly qualify as well. Creating a positive work environment is one step towards reaching this goal, but to truly take care of one’s staff, some restaurants are taking it a step further.
Unveiling a new surcharge based system, a number of restaurants have begun affixing mandatory charges to diners’ bills in order to provide ‘livable wages’ and in some cases, healthcare, to their waitstaff. Other restaurants have begun requiring front of the house employees to pool their tips and spread the wealth evenly amongst the staff, thus working to end wage disparity between the front and back of the house staff.
Other Sustainable Efforts
In addition to the aforementioned paths, numerous other restaurants have begun taking steps towards sustainability in their own establishments. In the face of an over four year long drought, Los Angeles based restaurant Alimento recently began affixing a water surcharge to diners’ bills that benefits the Silverlake Water Conservancy. Additional restaurants have also donated some of the proceeds of their sales to various local charities to not only foster good will, but to strengthen their local community ties as well.
At Denver’s PWYM SAME Café, the restaurant employs a ‘pay what you wish’ philosophy to work towards democratizing the dining experience and allowing the entire community to enjoy their restaurant, regardless of income level.
Whatever the method and whichever the avenue, seeing such positive steps towards achieving sustainability in the restaurant industry is a step in the right direction indeed.