Five Questions for: Micah Cavolo

Micah_CavoloDuring a waste-tracking study with LeanPath, two cafes at Intel, in Hillsboro, Ore., found that they were producing more than 2,900 pounds of pre-consumer food waste per week, which was primarily from overproduction, spoilage, expiration and trim waste. One idea to reduce this number was to create a secondary use station, where the menu would be built on the use of properly used leftovers. Micah Cavolo, executive chef for Bon Appetit at Intel, spoke to FSD about creating the station and how it helped (among other initiatives) reduce the cafes’ combined food waste by 47%.

How did the idea for the secondary use station come about?

The idea of the station originally got started because of our overproduction. We kept having unutilized rice or potatoes, plus we had an open station. We were in the middle of a waste-tracking study with LeanPath and we were like, "It doesn’t seem like we should be throwing this stuff away." We knew we didn’t want to utilize the leftovers in same way we had used them previously; we knew we had to turn them into something else entirely. So we put our heads together and thought that Indian food is a cuisine where you build the dish’s flavors up, so a lot of the components either break down as they are cooked or they are just bulk parts of a bigger dish.

How does the station work exactly?

Any usable leftovers are pulled at the end of service, put on a rack in the walk-in and cooled down. Then my Indian cook comes in every morning and sees what we have and it's pretty much pulling menu items out of a black box. There is no menu; the menu just says Middle Eastern regional dishes so it gives us free rein to do whatever we want. We sell the dishes for $5.95 and they come with rice and dal. We usually do a meat and vegetarian option. We sell naan and side salads as an up charge. We usually go through about 80 to 100 portions a day.

It has dramatically reduced our food waste. I can’t say how much the waste was affected by just the station, but as part of our larger waste reduction efforts, it contributed to reducing our waste by 47%.

What are some menu items you’ve created for the station?

The station is called Indian Ovens, so the station’s theme is Middle Eastern food. We’ve been able to use things like rice or lentils that weren’t utilized, add a binder and make lentil cakes. If I have leftover mashed potatoes I can sauté off some aromatics, add some spices, put it all together, add a little breadcrumb and add a binder like an egg or something, then that’s a pakora, a little fried fritter. I can always use the leftover potatoes in soup, but I’m not going to get the same margin as I would when I sell it as a little fritter. This is all of course under the guise that it was all treated properly, held within temp and all that stuff.

Sometimes we can use leftover proteins because they are going to be stewed down. For example, I just took a bunch of leftover lamb skewers, leftover chicken and leftover curry and I turned it into mulligatawny soup. The idea with the Middle Eastern food is that it takes a while to build up those flavors so you are cooking for a long time. That helps disguise the fact that we are using leftovers. When I use a leftover I tell my staff we don’t want to use it the same way we got it. We need to manipulate it and turn it into something different. We do chicken biryani, which is a baked rice dish that is very good and uses leftover chicken and rice. But you have to realize, the station is not 100% utilization of leftovers. The leftovers usually just form the main components and then we add fresh vegetable products.

What have been the biggest challenges?

The main challenge is our ability to make sure that we are turning the items over without it looking like what it was. We have to make sure the quality is there. If you don’t manipulate it appropriately or add enough flavors and keep the color going by adding some other ingredients, it just looks like a big pot of stew, which is not very appealing. So we use a lot of farm-fresh produce such as kale, just to brighten it up. We make sure that the things we are adding like those greens are added in the last minute so they hold their color. We’ll batch sauté off things like peppers or red onions separately so they keep their color. Obviously building the flavors is the most important thing so we’re pulling out all of our spices.

What advice would you give to other operators who may want to do something similar?

I’d just say make sure that when you put the new item out it doesn’t look like what it looked like before. Make sure that whatever leftovers you are using, you are using them as a base to build off of. If you build the bulk of the dish off the leftovers, it makes the dish more cost effective. Then you can afford to add the greens and other ingredients to build it up.