One Chef’s Trash is Also His Treasure
“Zero waste” is a buzzword that is popping up more and more frequently in conversations about minimizing the volume of trash we generate as individuals, groups and societies. In the CVI kitchen and many others, zero waste is not, nor has it ever been, a trend. It’s an intentional, conscientious strategy to stretch budgets and be good stewards of the environment. But, just as importantly, maintaining zero waste in the kitchen presents chefs with a continuous creative challenge. What can we do with this?
Culinary Vegetable Institute Chef Jamie Simpson could be the poster boy for zero waste; he’s that passionate about it.
“We have several lines of defense before anything is garbage,” Chef Jamie said. “First, is it recyclable? Then, obviously, we’ll recycle it. Is this container usable for something else, long term? Okay, that’s an easy solution for a usable container. You look at food waste, ask is this edible? Is it delicious? That, then, goes back to guests in some way. Is it nutritious, say, for pigs? Then it’s going to go to the pigs. Is it compostable? And then, if it’s none of those things, it’s garbage. Which is nothing.”
(Chef Jamie and his staff maintain a drift of hogs ─ eleven currently with a litter imminent ─ to not only consume kitchen scraps, but to provide pork products for CVI events.)
How Little Things Can Add Up to Zero
Creative zero waste solutions come about gradually, and you don’t need to raise your own hogs to do it.
“If you’re at home, or if you’re a small restaurant with a real tight staff, or even a big restaurant, and you take just a single item, one waste item, and you explore the practical applications with that item ─ that’s where the CVI’s strengths are in that new ideation concept,” he said.
Let’s say that one item is vegetable peels.
“We don’t really peel vegetables,” Chef Jamie said. “We wash and scrub. If we had peels, hypothetically, we would use them. With all of those peels, we would dehydrate them. That does a couple of things. It lowers the volume for us, it allows us to use them whenever we want to. It does not require a resource like a freezer. They’d be chucked into a bigger bag or box. And, as they increase, that dried peel ─ carrot peel, onion skins, celery peels, garlic root, whatever random parts and pieces ─ end up in what we call our dried mirepoix. And dried mirepoix gets fortified into stocks and broths.”
“We don’t throw away potato peels,” Chef Jamie said. “We essentially dehydrate them, but we dress them in a little bit of oil, and then we’ll bake them at a low temperature till they’re golden brown. Then we steep them in just enough water to cover them, and it makes this really amazing baked potato consommé.” (The spent peels go to the pigs, of course.)
The consommé can be incorporated any number of ways ─ as cooking liquid or potato glaze, or as a rich potato-flavored broth for gnocchi made from the peeled potatoes.
“It’s a more intense potato flavor that adds another layer of potato-y potato-ness. And it’s important,” Chef Jamie said. “Those are little things that won’t show up on a menu. They’re things that guests will never know, but will experience.”
Chef Jamie said communicating the virtues of re-purposed food takes finesse when presenting the concept to CVI guests.
“We talk about it in the dining room all the time,” he said. “The way you deliver that is really important because you’re almost saying, ‘we’re feeding you garbage.’ So instead of saying that we took food scraps and turned them into sauce, we say we consider the entire ingredient as delicious and appropriate to use instead of considering it as waste.”
Foraging For New Ideas
Foraging for plants on the wooded CVI grounds is another unique opportunity to thwart waste. The property is rife with a broad range of edible mushrooms, “But the big ones get fibrous,” Chef Jamie explained. “Technically edible. Texturally impossible.”
So when he was presented with a forest floor full of the “big ones,” he and his team took to the woods and gathered nearly 20 pounds of overgrown fungi.
“It just so happened that that week the Noma book came out, and we got our copy of it,” he said, referring to The Noma Guide to Fermentation. “We were flipping through it and there’s Dryad’s Saddle shoyu. It’s this pheasant-back mushroom that we had tons of. And when they get big, they get really hard and chewy. And we were like, this is perfect!”
Perfect for what? Fermented mushroom water, of course. “It’s essentially made from the property, using Aspergillus and koji to help in the fermentation process, and making a fermented mushroom water, which is like our soy sauce,” Chef Jamie explained.
The concoction was left to ferment in the CVI root cellar from October until Christmas, then was filtered with all of its liquid extracted from the remaining mushroom pulp. “It’s rich and aromatic and umami all day,” he said. But the experiment wasn’t over yet.
“Now the question is, what do you do with the pulp? Now, what? We have three liters of the stuff,” he said. “You could certainly stop here. We just turned a beautiful product into something that’s completely usable ─ a 100 percent entirely edible, drinkable, rich liquid. Now we have two and a half pounds of pulp left. What do you do with it? It’s salty. It’s obviously fermented. It’s got this great aroma. Texturally, it’s pulp. So we dehydrated it and ground it into a really fine flour, and it’s going to be our mushroom powder for the year.”
He said the mushroom powder can be used to flavor pastas and marinades, as a dry curing or aging rub, or as “seasoning for anything.”
Riding the Wave
“Tristan calls it riding the wave. And I like that,” Chef Jamie said, referring to CVI Chef Tristan Acevedo. “You get this product in, and then it becomes something, and then it becomes something else, and then it becomes something else. But, meanwhile, to become that something else you had to get something else to make it something else, and now you have overage of that something else. There’s this constant evolution that just doesn’t end. There’s never no inventory. And inventory is always becoming more inventory as long as you stick to those principles of what else? Or now, what?”
At the end of the day, though, Chef Jamie said that the very best zero waste solution is planning ahead.
“The best way to avoid finding ways to utilize waste is an hour of planning before,” he said. “Go through your refrigerator and look at your inventory. Know who you’re cooking for. In restaurants it’s the only way to operate. You place orders based on inventory. The entire system operates on that, ideally.”