I've had about a twenty percent success rate with the fish eyeballs," Eric Montagne says of his experiment turning fish scales and eyeballs into chips.
Montagne, the former executive chef at the now-shuttered Standard Foods, has always had an eye on the trash pile; he transformed the blood lines of bluefin tuna into tapenade and repurposed sunchoke peels in soup, butter, and garnishes. Between consulting gigs, he now cuts fish at Locals Seafood, which is known for sustainable sourcing. Seafood sustainability is important to Montagne, not only as a chef but also as a lifelong fisherman. After he's done filleting "ugly fish" like sheepshead, he turns to the discard pile, making fish livers into pâté, curing roe, smoking eggs, and dehydrating eyeballs, then frying them until they puff into chips up to ten times their original size.
Chefs have always been a thrifty bunch; with razor thin margins, part of running a successful restaurant is using every part of the ingredient. The mentality of never throwing anything away and honoring the ingredient's integrity is also ingrained in culinary school. As a result, most chefs who do scratch cooking use animal bones and vegetable scraps to make stock, turn meat scraps into sausage or charcuterie, and compost produce waste. But what about everything else—the scraps that toe the line between edible and inedible and the impact that restaurant-kitchen waste can have in creating a more secure food system?
It's an issue that chefs, restaurants, and culinary organizations have steadily brought to light over the last few years. According to the James Beard Foundation's Food Waste Culinary Instructor Program, sixty-three million tons of food, valued at $218 billion, is wasted every year in the United States, a third of it by restaurants and other food-service businesses.
To raise awareness of these startling statistics, Dan Barber of New York's Blue Hill and its sister restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, has launched WastED, a series of pop-up dinners where he serves plates composed entirely of kitchen scraps and "ugly produce." Massimo Bottura, who runs the top-ranking Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, has made headlines for turning food waste into thousands of meals to feed the underprivileged. And chef-television host Anthony Bourdain produced Wasted! The Story of Food Waste last October, tapping Barber, Bottura, and other high-profile chefs to help change the way people think about, consume, and cook food.
The Triangle's chefs are also challenging the notion of what constitutes waste, using kitchen scraps not only to run their kitchens more efficiently and push themselves creatively but also to make a difference in creating more sustainable and equitable food systems.
Food waste isn't an issue unique to chefs, or even strictly a first-world problem; repurposing "ugly" food and using the whole ingredient has long been essential to people's survival and has shaped many of the world's cuisines. Cheetie Kumar, chef-owner of Garland, learned early not to throw anything away. Both of her parents were raised in India with extremely modest means; Kumar remembers her mother using every part of the cauliflower, preparing the florets for a side dish and peeling the stalk's thick skin, cutting it into sticks, and stir-frying it with turmeric and dried mango powder. It's a dish Kumar can imagine adding to her vegetable-heavy menu, which already features dishes that echo her mother's ethos. Kumar uses leafy greens like chard, collards, and bok choy in abundance. She juliennes their stems and adds them to the veggie mix destined for her "bird's nest" pakora. She uses leafy carrot tops to infuse oil and lend a parsley-like flavor and a pop of color to pan-seared scallops in lemongrass coconut broth. Last summer, she riffed on creamed corn, transforming corn silks and husks into a rich corn-cream custard that she used in place of cheese to bring creaminess to a fresh tomato dish.
Beyond the plate, Kumar is interested in figuring out how to take waste from restaurants, farms, and grocery stores and put it on the school lunch tray, an issue she became acutely aware of during an advocacy training organized by the James Beard Foundation last fall, and one that she hopes to address after a JBF Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change she will attend this summer.
"It's complicated because it involves infrastructure—how food is delivered, federal guidelines, and the institutional structure of everything," Kumar says. "It's a huge and daunting problem, but its solvable because all of the resources are there, whether they're natural or financial. It's a matter of putting the right people together to change the way things are organized."
Chef Sean Fowler has also found creative ways to translate scraps like collard stems and corn husks at Mandolin. Once he's done braising collard greens, Fowler ferments, dries, and smokes the stems, using it in place of kombu (dried seaweed) to impart umami to a Southern-style dashi, flavor vegetarian gravy, or add a funky tang to ranch dressing. Fowler uses cobs and husks to make a stock to add depth to creamed corn and corn bisque. He roasts and cooks cobs down into flavored jelly, serving jalapeno-corn-cob jelly with biscuits and blueberry-corn-cob preserves on a cheese plate. And he limits what he throws in the trash with a robust composting program on Mandolin's urban farm, feeding scraps like lettuce ends, tomato cores, bruised apples, and post-Halloween jack-o'-lanterns to his chickens, who supply eggs to the restaurant.
"There's a tremendous niche for using food waste to feed livestock on a larger scale," Fowler says. "If you could use food waste as feed for pigs, I think the pigs wind up healthier and the quality of the pork can be better because you can be very selective about what you're feeding them instead of feeding them corn and soy, which is a wasteful use of natural resources."
Like Fowler, Andrea Reusing is a proponent of composting both at home and at her restaurants, Lantern and The Durham. "There's a pious sense of being a do-gooder, but it really changes the way you cook," Reusing says. "You don't necessarily think of everything as garbage. There's tons of stuff that you would throw away, but when you see it all in a big pile in the compost, you think, no, we could actually use that."
To wit, Reusing recently left intact the stringy stems of spigarello, then battered and fried the heirloom broccoli into what she describes as a beautiful, goth-looking flower tempura. At Lantern, she regularly uses cherry pits to impart an almond-y, cherry flavor to ice cream and panna cotta. At The Durham, peach leaves are steeped in Cognac, brandy, vermouth, and red wine to create a peach wine that Reusing says tastes peachier than a peach, even if you can't smell the peach on the leaves. For special events, shrimp heads are deep fried to create an appetizer that eats and tastes like a super-crunchy shrimp potato chip.
While Reusing agrees that pushing the boundaries of the edible is a great way to address food waste, and she applauds how foodie-ism has changed the way consumers absorb information, she's also sensitive to chefs and diners sensationalizing waste.
"Say we made chicken feet really popular—or a cockscomb may be a better example—and all of a sudden, I'm talking five years from now, tomorrow's cockscomb is like yesterday's pork belly," she says.