Americans love to eat — and our eating habits are changing. In 2015, for likely the very first time in history, Americans consumed more food away from home than they did at home. Since then, “dining out” has fast outpaced “dining in” by most indicators. Assuming a modest linear trend applied to two decades of data between 1997-2017, in less than a decade, we will spend more than a trillion dollars annually on food away from home.
And guess who is going to prepare all that food? Professional cooks and their machines, that’s who.
As a mathematics professor and a chef, and someone who is passionate about finding solutions to climate change, I think about these things a lot. Food production by humans is changing the Earth’s climate. Conversely, climate change will alter the food that we are able to consume.
For three decades, at my day job, I’ve touted the virtues of mathematics and analytical thinking to my students and colleagues. For more than a decade, I’ve dedicated myself to preparing food at my restaurant, Cress, that excites, nourishes, enlightens, and inspires.
Chefs like me are in a unique and enviable position to leverage our professions and passions to turn the tide on food-related climate change. Through our gastroadvocacy, a growing legion of activist chefs is already increasing awareness of environmental and social sustainability, and helping to make the world healthier for everyone.
Here are four things that chefs are doing to make the food chain more climate-friendly, from the way our food is produced, to how it is processed and packaged, to what happens with the residual ingredients when the main meals are prepared. You’ll find some tips for your own cooking in here, too, and a link to a recipe for chutney made of ingredients that would usually end up in the compost.
1. Promoting local food: There is a plethora of reasons to support local agriculture. There’s a strong case to be made that small and medium-sized farms place a significantly smaller burden on the environment than large factory farms. Plus, by leveraging the seasonal bounty of the immediate or neighboring region, we can make food that tastes fresher and better. And with easier access to the whole ingredient, we gain an opportunity to save on food costs.
My friend Chef William Dissen has been a champion of supporting local farmers, farms, and ingredients at his restaurant Market Place in Asheville, North Carolina. Market Place is considered the original farm-to-table restaurant in Asheville, and Chef Dissen, Fortune Magazine’s Green Chef of the Year in 2012 and 2013, has amplified the restaurant’s significance as a regional champion of local food. A dish at Market Place like wood-grilled Riverview Farm organic asparagus with whipped farmstead cheese, pickled rhubarb, herb croutons, lemon evoo, and cured local egg yolk screams of the seasons and tastes like the terroir in and around Asheville.
2. Reducing packaging: In the United States, containers and packaging account for almost 25 percent of materials that reach landfills, and many of these containers are food-related. Under the guidance and leadership of chefs, restaurants and food service operations are promoting more eco-friendly packaging and products. For example, packaging made from bagasse — the dry pulpy residue left after the extraction of juice from sugar cane. Consider also biodegradable straws made from hay (natural wheat stems) that are distributed in plastic-free packaging. We can also reduce water and energy consumption with better food preparation practices.
3. Promoting plant-based food: There is increasing scientific evidence that a plant-forward diet will help contribute to greater environmental sustainability. There is also strong evidence that a plant-forward diet is better for human health. By being more creative with plant-forward options on restaurant menus, chefs are changing the false perception that plant-based food is boring or unsatisfying. Out with the ubiquitous portobello sandwich, in with the roasted seasonal vegetable bisteeya in a quinoa crepe.
Some of the most highly respected and well-known chefs in the world are becoming more thoughtful about placing plant-based dishes before discerning diners — and thanks to social and mainstream media, that trend is trickling down, resulting in more sustainable dining habits at home. The exploding demand for faux meats in the western world is a clear indication of what’s to come. Again, chefs are leading the way with new and creative plant-based options on restaurant menus.
4. Reducing food waste: Over a trillion dollars worth of food is wasted globally every year. If food waste were a country, it would rank behind only the United States and China as a contributor to global greenhouse gases. A great deal of this waste is preventable. Research shows that in developed countries, the highest percentage of food waste occurs in households, but influence and education offered by chefs can help all of us reduce food waste at home.
Successful restaurants already know how to reduce food waste in their kitchens. Nationwide, chefs are charging ahead with these initiatives because they see the economic and gastronomic benefits of reducing food waste. At Nick’s on Broadway in Providence, for example, Chef Derek Wagner cuts the stems of swiss chard into strips and cooks them like pasta, nestling them amongst spaghetti and tossing them with herbs. Meanwhile, Chef Karen Akunowicz of Fox & Knife in Boston grills broccoli stems for a creative version of Caesar salad.
At Cress, we’ve had a sustained food waste program for over six years — after I reasonably utilize all possible parts of my ingredients, the rest of the food goes to a local farmer for his livestock and compost for his gardens. The result is a dazzling array of sauces, chutneys, and condiments made from scraps and lesser parts.
Have you ever found yourself faced with cauliflower cores and leaves, tired looking herbs that have seen their day, and expensive nuts that, even after refrigeration, are a bit rancid? Well, I have the perfect recipe to harmonize all these ingredients into an incredibly easy-to-make and highly versatile condiment. Here is my recipe for Core Values Chutney, along with an instructional video. For more recipes like these, look to the James Beard Foundation book Waste Not: How To Get The Most From Your Food.
Chefs are at the frontlines of incentivizing new product development and identifying eco-friendly efficiencies in the food industry. We are respected business leaders in our communities with the ability to bring diverse stakeholders and influencers to a common table. And because we are the glue between consumers, producers, and the incognito entities in food supply chains, we can create waves of sustainable living through better eating.
For decades, it seemed like the United States was losing the humanity in its food. Now, a growing movement of chef advocates is helping to turn that tide by serving up one sustainable, delicious, nutritious, and equitable dish at a time.