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How food waste warriors are revamping the menu

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Stop Food Waste Day is observed every April to build awareness about food waste. Since its inception, the day has evolved into much more for sustainability-minded foodservice operators. In fact, it has become a springboard to ignite change in kitchen culture—an excuse to take action in schools, colleges, healthcare and corporate cafes.

“We think every day should be Stop Food Waste Day,” says Chris Aquilino, corporate executive chef for Compass USA’s Envision Group. He works with the culinary teams at Compass accounts in every segment to curb overproduction, control inventory and trim waste. “Training goes all the way down to the associate level to look at behavior during prep, preservice and post-service to meet the food waste challenge.”

And he starts by looking at ingredients with fresh eyes.

Consider the carrot

Aquilino teaches his chefs and cooks to examine the “anatomy of vegetables” and look at each part differently to discover how it can be used. Carrot tops, for example, are tossed into salad or transformed into pesto to use in pasta, soup or as a flavor enhancer for mayo. Ditto with asparagus trim, which is steamed or boiled and turned into pesto. A recent hit is a cauliflower-stem gyro.

carrot top pesto

Photograph courtesy of Compass Group USA

“We put a hard sear on the stem and season it like souvlaki, then put it into a dish that people already love,” Aquilino says. Also coming out of the kitchen are vegetable-scrap tostadas, fennel-frond salad and zero-waste gazpacho.

zero waste gezpacho

Photograph courtesy of Compass Group USA

Cooked vegetables that have not been served are another source of inspiration. To create a zero-waste burger condiment, the chef pureed cooked carrots and added North African spices to flavor it like harissa. “I am constantly looking at the texture and flavor of vegetables to figure out how to make something out of nothing and cross-utilize it in several applications,” he says.

Additionally, Compass recipes teach basic ratios and principles, so cooks can alter a recipe based on what they have in the kitchen, not what they need to have.

Wasted opportunities

Training also involves sifting through waste buckets.

“I’ll pick out something and say to the kitchen staff, ‘You know what I can do with this?’ and proceed to throw out ideas,” Aquilino says. This has led to a “waste food” competition, in which Compass cooks create zero-waste recipes that are used in its teaching kitchens, chef demos and cafes.

seared cauliflower stem gyro

Photograph courtesy of Compass Group USA

Weighing trim waste also gives staff a visual on how much is being thrown out, and this has reduced food waste exponentially, Aquilino says.

Reid Health in Richmond, Ind., experienced a similar drop when the hospital installed Leanpath to calculate what was wasted each day. Leanpath is an automated food-waste tracking technology that enables operators to visualize the amount of food they waste, while offering coaching on how to decrease it. “It was eye-opening to see the reports,” says chef and Culinary Director Dugan Wetzel. Immediately, he began to think more strategically about repurposing waste, paying closer attention to leftovers from catering functions.  

“The head cooks have a walk-in blast chiller next to the waste-weighing area. Whatever cooked food is safe and reusable is logged in and chilled to repurpose into new menu items,” Wetzel says. Pizza is now topped with roasted vegetables; risotto and farro go into grain salads; and kale, asparagus and spinach are tossed into signature salads.

asparagus stem pesto pasta

Photograph courtesy of Compass Group USA

Because the hospital cafeteria and event spaces are upstairs and the kitchen is in the basement, the people who cook the food often didn’t know what is wasted, Wetzel says. Reid got its kitchen staff engaged with a “Help Us Get to Zero Waste” promotion: Team members who tracked and cut waste would win a Zero candy bar.

Made to order and ordering accurately

But the biggest change came from cooking in smaller batches and making more food to order, Wetzel says.

“Through tracking, we discovered that chicken strips were thrown out more than any other food,” he says. “So we came up with a plan to fry to order or cook only half the bag.” Mashed potatoes were another problem area, so they cut back on the number of pans. “We keep working on different foods to reduce waste,” Wetzel adds.

scrap tostada

Photograph courtesy of Compass Group USA

Cooking a la minute and build-your-own stations can reduce food waste, agrees Aquilino. But all efforts should start with smarter purchasing. Software helps Compass chefs improve menu forecasting so they purchase only what they need. He also advocates buying local as much as possible and getting orders in daily instead of large weekly deliveries. And it helps to plan dishes that cross-utilize ingredients.

“Think about how you can best utilize ingredients on menus throughout the week … even when changing from Italian to Thai dishes,” Aquilino says. The cauliflower gyro is a good example. The same vegetable went into a pizza topping, Middle Eastern sandwich and an al pastor taco—all boasting flavor profiles from different cuisines.

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