A Second Life for Food
Restaurateurs share their secrets for economizing during lean times
Virtually every food now has a second life in chef Monica Pope’s hands. Mushroom stems, once tossed into the garbage, are whipped up into a mushroom pâté; broccoli stalks, bare of their tender florets, are blitzed down to a verdant pesto.
For restaurants, the trashcan is often the worst enemy of a profitable bottom line, and keeping waste to a bare minimum has always been a priority. But with food prices rising incessantly and fewer customers, Pope, executive chef at T’afia in Houston, has been especially scrupulous about ensuring produce stretches as far as it will go.
In Berkeley, California, chef Marsha McBride of Café Rouge is applying similar tactics. He concocts dishes to use up scraps of vegetables normally deemed unpalatable.
“Cook anything long enough in garlic, onion and olive oil and it will be delicious,” she said of the tough stems of rainbow chard and chewy turnip greens.
Pope and McBride are certainly not alone in this crusade.
“As has always been the tradition, restaurateurs and chefs have always become most creative during tough times,” said restaurant industry consultant Clark Wolf. “It’s going to be a long time before we run out of new things and new parts of ingredients to try.”
Indeed, chefs coast to coast, whether in high-end restaurants or casual eateries, are using every ounce of animal and vegetable. From pig ears to duck hearts, to vegetable stalks and past-their-best fruit, foods that would have been thrown out in more prosperous times now feature on menus.
At Dressler, the Michelin one-star eatery in New York City, diners have also been more budget conscious, sticking to two-course meals, ordering two appetizers instead of a starter dish and a main course and opting for less expensive wines.
Executive chef Polo Dobkin has become the master of re-creation in the kitchen. But he has an advantage.
“Having three restaurants (under the same ownership) definitely helps us re-cycle ingredients,” he said. Dobkin sends trimmings of expensive dayboat cod to the more casual eatery, DuMont Burger, where the fish is transformed into a tempura-battered cod sandwich.
But he’s aware that too many cost-cutting tactics could hurt the brand. “You have to be careful to keep an eye on what your mission is,” he said. “You don’t want to appear as if you are sacrificing quality, especially now, when its more important than ever to keep customers coming back.”
For Amanda Cohen, chef-proprietor at new vegetarian restaurant Dirt Candy in New York City, one of the biggest challenges is to order just enough ingredients for her diminutive 18-seat eatery without wasting limited shelf life produce.
“Every day is a game, and sometimes we over order,” she said. “Also, there are certain things that you just have to order by the caseload, and we can’t go through the cases fast enough before they go bad.”
Rescue has come via a rather unexpected piece of equipment, a dehydrator, which removes the liquid.
“When you see what it can do, it’s amazing. It preserves everything,” Cohen said, “but I didn’t realize I’d be using it so soon and so much!” Indeed, on most days fruits and vegetables like tomatoes, apples, beetroot and pears past their best, are sliced up and thrown into the dehydrator, to produce the crunchy, wafer thin crisps that feature prolifically in Cohen’s dishes.
Chef Orlando Hitzig at Mark and Orlando’s in Washington, DC, wants his customers to feel they are getting extra value. He’s come up with an ingenious way to spoil them without digging deep into his pocket. He serves up kitchen scraps. Every table gets a bread basket accompanied by a sticky onion marmalade and red pepper butter concocted from the vegetable remnants that would have otherwise gone to waste, or been added to the stockpot.
Hitzig attributes his ability to keep a tight leash over what gets thrown out largely to the fact that he has small team of dedicated chefs who share his culinary ethos. “Everybody knows how much things cost, if they throw things away, they know that they’ve messed up,” said Hitzig, “and if they were looking for a pay rise, they should look in the trash because that’s probably where it went!”
Seamus Mullen, executive chef of the New York taparia Boqueria, orders in whole pigs. He finds using every part of an ingredient is simply a welcome bonus of his of nose-to-tail cuisine.
“For me its more the ethics of cooking,” said Mullen. “A pig has only two tenderloins. It seems strange to order just 40 tenderloins—what about the other parts?”
The carcasses are butchered in-house, and as the menu changes weekly, every part of the animal will eventually make its way onto the menu. The ears and tails are slowly cooked in pig fat, then shredded and used in a salad. The head is used to make a terrine. The belly and chops are brined, and the shoulders are cured in charcuterie preparations.
Andy Nusser at New York’s Casa Mono operates on similar principles, serving up hearts, testicles, trotters and even cocks’ combs to adventurous diners. But key to making nose-to-tail cuisine economically expedient is having the necessary butchery and culinary skills.
So Nusser had a butcher come in to instruct his kitchen crew.
“He gave us a great schooling that had us really committed to this process,” Nusser said. “You have to know how to cook all the different parts—you can’t just grill a pig’s trotter!”
Nusser would know. After all, he serves up “everything but the oink!”
A specialist in nose-to-tail cuisine, chef Seamus Mullen of the New York City taparia Boqueria specializes in naturally economical nose-to-tail cuisine. Here, he butchers a whole pig.
Photo courtesy of Baltz & Co.
Removing the head.
Photo courtesy of Baltz & Co.
Removing the brain.
Photo courtesy of Baltz & Co.