The Leftovers

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Waste not the $165 billion worth of food Americans toss each year

Here in Southern California, we have all become hyper-aware of waste in light of our current drought. We are well acquainted with the concept of conservation when it comes to water. That concept has slowly trickled down to other aspects of life. We have more fuel-efficient cars. We reduce our energy use on very hot days. We are getting good at recycling and limiting our use of plastic. But the idea of conservation seems to stop short when it comes to food. That is because there are no immediate visual signifiers — like dry lakebeds, drowning polar bears or the great Pacific Garbage Patch — to shock us into action. But it is clear that the next great conservation movement needs to be about food.

 Luckily, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is on it. They have put together some nifty, albeit horrifying, statistics. Americans waste 40 percent of the food we produce. That’s almost half! This garbage uses up 25 percent of our nation’s fresh water and 4 percent of our oil and amounts to approximately $165 billon each year put to no good use. Imagine what we could do in this country with an extra $165 billon dollars! (My mind just exploded with possibilities.)

These facts piqued my interest because in the food business we know all about food waste. We generate a ton of it, but we also know how to minimize it. In the food world, garbage = lost profit. Consequently, conservation skills are drummed into our thick heads from our first day on the job.  

When I was in culinary school, instructors regularly inspected the garbage cans for waste. A burnt tray of anything was best buried far down in the trash, underneath something goopy, if you expected to get away with it. (If you couldn’t adequately hide the evidence at school, it behooved you to shove it into your backpack and take it home to throw away.)

One of the first recipes I was taught in culinary school was navarin d’agneau (springtime lamb stew), and on the first day of class I dropped the lamb on the floor. Having just completed the food safety and sanitation portion of my education, I promptly threw the lamb in the trash and asked for another portion. What was next unleashed can only be described as an onslaught of venom from the French gates of hell. My chef was not merely exasperated. He did not express impatience with me, a rookie — and a girl. He let loose on me what was clearly pent-up rage from a decade of living in stupid America, teaching stupid Americans to cook. It was humiliating, but memorable. I now see that I should have picked up the lamb, rinsed it off and shut up about it.  

Lest you think this über-sensitivity to waste is a culinary school–based anomaly, most chefs worth their salt are just as conscious of what’s in the garbage. This is not obsessive. It is good business. Everything in the trash represents money. The more you are throwing out, the more money you are wasting. If your cans and cartons are found in the trash with any food left in them, there is hell to pay. (I still let my cream cartons sit on their side next to the stove for five minutes to loosen the last tablespoon.) If vegetable scraps end up in the trash and not the stockpot, you will be made an example of. Bowls, pots and pans should appear clean when they hit the scullery, already well-scraped of usable product with a rubber spatula.   

The desire to avoid the trash can is a powerful motivator for creativity. Some of the best things I ever cooked began as attempts to use up that last half-case of figs, a leftover quart of béchamel sauce or the last hunk of cheese, liberated from a layer of mold. As a consequence, the refrigerators in both my professional and personal kitchens have always been filled with small containers, bags and bundles of something left over but still usable. Cooking on a budget, be it my bosses’ budget or my own, makes it very hard to throw edible food down the drain. If it were socially acceptable (and legal) to reuse food that came back from the tables at the end of a meal, I would. (Throwing away untouched bread from a table’s breadbasket makes my heart hurt.)  

Not surprisingly, my urge to avoid waste is not limited to my own kitchens. It extends to restaurant dining too. If I can’t finish a plate whilst dining out, I will always have it wrapped to go. I will make the people I am eating with do the same. These doggy bags (no one calls them that anymore) are never destined for the dog’s dish. It becomes my breakfast or lunch the next day, or it ends up in another recipe. Veggies end up in stock, starches in soups and curries, and meat — especially barbecue — becomes the secret ingredient in soups, sauces and my award-winning chili. (Truth be told, I gave myself the award.)

Sometimes when I’m traveling, because of a highly structured agenda or the lack of refrigeration in my hotel, I know restaurant leftovers won’t get used. That, however, does not stop me from taking them back to the room. It is so ingrained in me that it is impossible for me to allow half of a perfectly good tuna melt to wind up in the trash. I’ll probably throw it away eventually, but I believe the right to take such actions is mine — not the busboy’s. My waste will be on my terms. This is an act my husband finds too ridiculous to ignore. He has taken to naming my leftovers — the tuna melt was Timmy. I had it wrapped, treated it to a ride in a cab and brought it back to my room. Timmy the Tuna Melt is my version of a one-night stand.

Sure, this sounds like crazy behavior, but food waste in this country is a tragedy. The average consumer trashes about 20 pounds of food each month. The NRDC estimates a reduction of just 15 percent in food waste could feed 25 million Americans. And despite what you may think after watching The Biggest Loser, there are indeed hungry Americans. Not to freak you out, but food conservation is vital. The United Nations predicts that by 2050 the world will need 70 percent more food to feed the growing population. Timmy the Tuna Melt doesn’t sound so crazy now, does he?

Thankfully there are a handful of conscientious folks taking on the issue of food waste. In New York, Salvage Supperclubs are popping up in the food-o-centric neighborhoods of Brooklyn. Their meals take place in spiffed-up dumpsters and utilize only product that was destined for the trash. A mere $50 gets you a multi-course meal produced by top local chefs, with the proceeds going to City Harvest, a nonprofit that sources food for the city’s hungry residents. I am totally down for this in L.A. It is the ultimate mystery basket challenge.  

Until I can whip up support for dumpster dining from the big-haired foodies of La-La Land, I will continue to encourage a more thoughtful use of food. In addition to the squirreling away of leftovers, we should be more mindful of what we make and how we make it and how we use our initial food purchases. Expiration dates are frequently over-cautious, and consumers blindly trust them. I firmly believe that in many cases the expiration dates are nothing but a money grab, intended to get shoppers back into the stores. Take a whiff before you toss, and consider your freezer before your trash can.  Food conservation is a skill that needs some nurturing, but with a little forethought, you can reduce your waste, increase your culinary creativity and help ensure there will be food for all as we roll toward the midcentury. 

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