Food “scraps” are playing more imaginative roles these days, as awareness rises that one-third of the food produced for human consumption in the world gets lost or wasted every year, according to the United Nations Environment Program. Within the US alone, food waste jumps to 40 percent, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
What some chefs traditionally toss into the trash—peels, seeds, leaves, bones, roots, stems, rinds, tops, ends—a growing number of others are using to add interest to their dishes and enhance flavor, transforming the would-be waste into broths, salads, purées, and powders.
Eric Gabrynowicz, a James Beard Awards Best Chef: Northeast semifinalist and owner of Restaurant North in Armonk, dehydrates vegetable and fruit scraps to create powders. He makes blueberry powder and turns leftover lemon zest and juice into citrus salt and sugar. Carrot peelings reincarnate as carrot powder sprinkled on his Montauk tuna tartare.
The chef opened Market North across from the restaurant in June with partner Stephen Mancini partly as a way to repurpose the food that doesn’t make it onto diners’ plates.
“Reducing food waste? That’s been part of our DNA at Restaurant North since forever,” Gabrynowicz says. “Utilizing the entire product, whether animal or vegetable or whatever, is an opportunity to work with something on a higher level.”
The leafy tops of beets and radishes go into his winter-greens-stuffed ravioli. He also pickles ramps and raspberries, makes jams, and creates sauce with tomato tops.
Water is also a serious component of the food-waste issue. California’s drought and water restrictions have forced chefs to think twice about tossing that pasta’s boiling water, even at restaurants on the East Coast.
At The Blue Pig in Croton-on-Hudson, chef-owner Lisa Moir waters her outdoor plants with the gallons of water necessary to rinse her five-gallon ice cream machine after washing it. The peaches for her peach ice cream keep their skin on, which is where the flavor is most intense anyway, she says.
The ice cream shop sells a rotating selection of fresh soups daily during cold months. After Moir and her kitchen staff chop the 50 pounds of onions, 10 heads of garlic, 10 carrots, and 5 celery bunches for the week’s soups, they save the peels and ends in a 10-gallon jug in the refrigerator for stock. “That’s how you make stock anyway. Why would you buy it?” Moir asks.
As owner of one of the first Green Restaurant-certified eateries in Westchester, Moir is required to continually send reports of ways she’s reducing her carbon footprint, such as not selling bottled water and instead, pouring it into glasses inside or paper cups for those outside.
Since opening in 2010, Moir has operated her shop with sustainability in mind because it’s a core value of hers. “My passion forever has been the environment,” Moir says. “It’s how I’d been living already.”
The juice pulp burger from Blue Hill at Stone Barns. (Photo by Daniel Kreiger).
That passion has reached the upper echelons of American society. In September, the US Department of Agriculture secretary and Environmental Protection Agency deputy administrator unveiled the first-ever national food-waste reduction goal: to reduce the amount of food that ends up in landfills by 50 percent in the next 15 years.
Environmental sustainability remains among the hottest menu trends, according the National Restaurant Association. This resurgence of nose-to-tail and root-to-stem cooking is a creative way chefs accomplish food-waste reduction.
Last May, celebrated chef Dan Barber and his Blue Hill team created a stir with his veggie cheeseburger created out of pulp left over from cold-pressed juices, using ketchup made from rejected beets, and burger buns from the discards at Balthazar’s. This hype piggybacked his waste-focused pop-up eatery, WastED, serving fish heads and kale ribs.
The New York Times Food For Tomorrow conference held at Blue Hill at Stone Barns drew private chef and culinary educator Jennifer Rossano of Scarsdale to attend. She learned ways to get more food into bellies than landfills.
“It’s not a new concept,” Rossano says, “but it’s about how to take it to the next level in the professional world, as well as for home cooks.”
Rossano started mincing the stems as well as the leaves of her herbs. Pesto, stock, omelets, and even broccoli stems roasted or sautéed with chicken, are great scrap solutions, she notes.
To extend the life of your produce, she says, wash and chop your vegetables, especially leafy greens, immediately after returning home from the market. Then store the washed greens in a damp paper towel sealed in a bag.
Now, when Rossano buys beets and carrots at the farmers’ market and the vendors ask if she wants the leaves cut off, she says no. “I can use them in a nice vegetable stock. They have nutrients and flavor. A veggie broth is a great comfort when you’re not feeling well,” she says.
Making stock is one of the easiest and most time-tested ways to use food scraps.
Latin-influenced chef, caterer, and five-time cookbook author Rafael Palomino uses red snapper carcasses and shrimp shells for the stock in his chupe, a Peruvian seafood chowder at Sonora in Port Chester. (He also runs Palomino in Larchmont, among other restaurants.)
“We use the surplus of fat from our rib eye to cook chips for a good flavor people love,” Palomino says. And instead of landing in the trash, cauliflower stems are puréed with red quinoa and pine nuts, for a mashed-potato-like accompaniment to tuna, a new Palomino creation.
So, yes, repurposing food scraps and conserving water can save money and nudge chefs toward even more creative cooking. But there’s an even deeper motivation.
“Responsibility is the one thing that transcends all the other reasons to do this,” Chef Gabrynowicz says. “Taking care of our community, our land, our bodies—all of it.”
Amy Sowder is a freelance food and fitness writer based in Brooklyn, as well as an editorial assistant at chowhound.com in Manhattan.