Carrot tops, marrowless beef bones and cream past its prime. At worst, these castoff foods are destined for the landfill, at best, the compost bin.
But some chefs and restaurateurs in the Twin Cities are giving new life to scraps and foods on the brink of spoiling, using them as building blocks of a new dish or drink. Consider Modist Brewing’s new No Bagel Wasted lager, made from leftovers from Rise Bagel Co.
Or the orange rinds, used first as a citrus spritz for an Old Fashioned, later fermented into a liqueur at Oaxacan restaurant Colita. And there are beef bones and scraps discarded by meal-delivery service Wandering Kitchen that have become the foundation for a successful dog treat side-business, Barkley’s Bistro. Why are local food businesses feeding us (and our dogs) from the compost pile?
More kitchens are coming up with creative ways to transform garbage into gourmet in an effort to minimize the environmental and economic damage of food waste.
“Waste of food is an enormous issue from an environmental, economic and social perspective,” said JoAnne Berkenkamp, who lives in Minneapolis and works nationally to reduce food waste as senior advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
An estimated 30 to 40 percent of the food supply in the U.S. goes to waste, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The fallout is threefold: The food that winds up in the landfill produces planet-warming methane gas; it squanders the water, energy and, in some cases, the animals that went into its production; and it misses an opportunity to feed people who otherwise go hungry.
Then there is the economic loss. The USDA estimated that in 2010, the 133 billion pounds of retail and consumer food that was wasted was valued at $161 billion.
Those costs fall on consumers who buy groceries they don’t eat, and on restaurants and grocery stores that throw away food. An example: Food waste accounts for a loss of 6 percent in sales at the Wedge co-op in Minneapolis.
Whether or not you’re an environmentalist, reducing waste is just a better way to do business, according to Minneapolis restaurateur Kim Bartmann.
Composting only goes so far in addressing problems, leaving food business-owners to come up with other ways to reduce their so-called “foodprint.” As a matter of frugality, cooks in both commercial and home kitchens have long used food scraps to make broths, sauces, jams, pickles and more.
“We’re definitely seeing leadership coming from independent restaurants and chefs,” Berkenkamp said.
Leave nothing behind
The nose-to-tail movement is one way chefs reduce waste, by using every part of an animal. The vegetable version is called stem-to-root, and Minneapolis vegan restaurant Fig and Farro is all in on that concept. An occasional special they call “forgotten foods” turns vegetable bits that don’t make the cut into a new dish. Their chefs take potato peels, carrot tops, cauliflower leaves, eggplant stems and whatever else piles up on prep day, then deep-fry them in a tempura batter and serve them with a sriracha-tahini dipping sauce.
“You can deep-fry anything and it’s going to taste good,” said Fig and Farro owner Michelle Courtright.
At Bartmann’s restaurants, kitchens happily accept so-called “ugly” vegetables from suppliers. These are the bruised apples and misshapen sweet potatoes that rarely sell at the grocery store and typically wind up in the compost. Looks don’t matter to a restaurant.
Restaurants are also counteracting waste by reducing portion sizes. At Fig and Farro, Courtright found that guests who ordered her jackfruit barbacoa were leaving 10 to 20 percent uneaten. So she trimmed the portion, and now most people clean their plate.
When waste is inevitable — say, for a catering company that needs more than enough food for an event — composting is an eco-friendly alternative to the landfill. But even better is redirecting unused food to people who need it.
However, the donation process for prepared food can be complicated. The food cannot have been served, it must be kept at proper temperatures and packaged safely, and allergens must be clearly marked.
Heidi Andermack, co-owner of Chowgirls Killer Catering, says her company donated more than 3,000 pounds of prepared food to shelters last year. The donation process helped her company formalize its food safety system.
Not enough businesses take those steps, said Nancy Lo, who oversees Hennepin County’s food rescue program, which matches extra prepared food with meal programs. Only seven businesses have participated since the program launched in late 2017.
“People feel like if they can compost, they feel OK with throwing away food,” Lo said. “You can do that with banana peels and coffee grounds, but if you have a whole tray of pulled pork, wouldn’t you rather have a person eat that? Yes, we want them to compost, but we want them to not throw the food away in the first place.”
A “Taste the Waste” dinner this week will rescue food from the compost and put it back on plates. Culinary students from St. Paul College will turn stale bread, bruised fruit and unsalable dairy from Twin Cities co-ops into a buffet of bites at Red Stag Supperclub in northeast Minneapolis.
Cooking with food that some consider to be waste touches a personal nerve for culinary educator Lachelle Cunningham, who will oversee the menu.
“My ancestors, that’s what they did. They created food out of waste. Slaves, and then sharecroppers, were rationed molasses or corn meal, and they might have been given scraps of meat — ham hocks, chitlins. So literally, that’s a cultural piece of how a lot of food — specifically soul food, but food at the foundation of this country — has to do with people having to make something out of a waste product,” said Cunningham.
Reimagining food waste, she said, “is survival.”