How a little creativity takes food waste off the menu

By Corey Mintz - Published on October 27, 2015
a pile of discarded produce, rotting vegetables and a plastic bag
The restaurant industry is responsible for nearly 10 per cent of food waste, yet most establishments toss scraps in the trash.

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Monte Wan has come up with a new way to deal with food waste at his restaurant.

“I sent out a tweet,” recalls the owner of Khao San Road and Nana, two Thai restaurants in Toronto. He was frustrated at the amount of food being wasted and was looking to transform it into a charitable opportunity. “We have a lot of scrap vegetables. I can turn it into a soup; we calculated about 80 litres every two days.”

Willing to pay for the labour, he soon connected with people who wanted the soup. But he still needed transportation — and not a church volunteer who’d show up at odd hours. He needed dependable delivery to make it function, so he called up Uber.

The ride-sharing company, which already does good business with Wan through its Uber Eats service, is contributing the soup delivery for free. “And the shelter will take care of distribution to their clientele. So all I have to do is cook it, put it up by the door and at 10 a.m. somebody picks it up and drops it off.”

This is a novel solution that requires many people to work together and prevents lots of food from going to waste. But it is by far the exception in the industry. Canadians waste an estimated $31 billion worth of food every year — nearly 10 per cent of which comes from restaurants — and much of what is wasted goes in the trash rather than compost. For my Toronto Star column I spend a day in a different kitchen every week, and in four months I’ve seen three compost bins.

Restaurants can’t throw out their garbage in the same way as private residents, who just put bags in the bin when they’re full and haul it to the curb once a week to make it disappear. Well, they could, but by the end of the week they’d be up to their eyeballs in onion skins and fish bones. There’s simply too much trash to wait for the city, so they have to pay extra for private pickup.

Wan pays about $200 to $300 a month for private garbage and recycling pickup from Wasteco. It’s not a huge part of a restaurant’s expenses, and even if they cut their garbage in half, it wouldn’t much change what they pay for removal. But it bothers them, like it bothers anyone, to throw food out.  

Once, back in my cooking career, I was dicing peppers and my chef pulled the tops out of the trash, about a tablespoon per pepper that I was wasting. Think of the farmer who grew this, she said, the people who picked it, who drove it to the city — not to mention what the restaurant paid for it.

Since then I’ve seen waste that would break that chef’s heart; hundreds of pounds of quality red bell peppers sitting in crates at the Ontario Food Terminal, destined for the garbage because fresher goods arrived and were sold before the earlier crates could be sorted, sold and shipped. But I’ve also seen restaurants that use nearly every part of the animal, entire 800-pound cows broken down into muscles, fat, bone and tendon, and turned into food with barely a few pounds of it thrown away.

Some restaurants come up with creative ways of handling food waste. Some kitchens try to relocate the extra nubs of produce and meat into stir-fries, burritos or soups for staff meals. I worked in an Italian restaurant where there was always a stock bucket — a receptacle for chive trimmings, outer leaves of fennel, basil stems and other edible matter (but no carrot peels, because the chef felt it darkened the broth) that would add further flavour to the stock we produced every day in pots big enough to boil a bicycle.

But not everyone is making stock or meals from scraps, and the junk has to go somewhere. Think of the garbage your household puts out on the curb every week, just making meals for one to four people. Multiply that by hundreds and you’ve got an expensive problem on your hands.

“Garbage is a pain in the ass,” says Anthony Rose, owner of Toronto restaurants Rose & Sons, Big Crow and Fat Pasha.

The city picks up solid waste once a week for Rose’s restaurants. He supplements that with private pickup by Green For Life (GFL) and Progressive Waste Solutions. The trucks come late at night so they’re not on the road during peak traffic hours, and because restaurants don’t want customers to see piles of trash during dinner. Storing the waste in between is one of the biggest challenges.

“We’ve tried composting, but no one really keeps up with it. You have to store it somewhere. You have to get somebody to pick it up,” says Rose.

It’s a similar case with used fryer oil, often collected in a steel drum in the alley behind restaurants, picked up and converted to biofuel by companies such as Rothsay or Rex Services. Rose would like to be doing the same with compost, giving it to farmers. But farmers can’t come to the city often enough and the smell of storing it is prohibitive.

In most Toronto restaurant kitchens, composting just isn’t a thing. I’ve seen it done at Farmhouse Tavern and The Federal, where even during a dizzying brunch service, the cooks try their best to usher the shells from every egg they poach into the right bin.

However, in most tiny kitchens, the additional bin is just too much hassle. Storing the waste until it can be composted presents additional hurdles. When we come across the green, blue or grey bins lined up, bags stacked in a pyramid, the smell of souring cantaloupe rising into the air as garbage water drips into the street, it’s a buzzkill to any smugness about urban living. Nobody likes seeing trash piled in front of a restaurant at night.

But it came from somewhere. And it’s got to go somewhere.

Corey Mintz is a Toronto-based food writer. He writes a weekly column for the Toronto Star, where he writes about his experience working in different restaurant kitchens across the city.

Image credit: federicofoto/Thinkstock

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