Asheville chef Katie Button is fairly obsessed with garbage. Well, more accurately, she’s obsessed with how to create less of it.
A fascination with decreasing food waste sent the co-owner and executive chef of celebrated restaurants Curate and Nightbell packing to Montana in late May. As one of 15 chefs in the nation to participate in the James Beard Foundation’s ninth Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change, she spent three days focused on learning about ways to throw away less food and inspire consumers to do the same.
The goal of the intensive, held at the Resort at Paws Up in Greenough, Mont., was to empower the nation’s top chefs as “stakeholders in achieving the U.S. government’s goal of a 50 percent reduction of food waste by 2030 by addressing waste in their day-to-day business operations and by leveraging their visibility to help educate consumers on creative ways to reduce waste,” says a media release from the James Beard Foundation.
“They explained to us that we have a voice, that people are listening and looking to us, and you can see that by how many people are starting to follow chefs on Instagram and Twitter,” says Button of the training.
In the short time since she launched her first restaurant, Curate, Button has proved to be a pioneer in promoting sustainability through her businesses. She recently earned national recognition from environmental news outlet Grist as one of its 50 People You’ll Be Talking About in 2016, due to her commitment to partnering with local growers, offering Living Wage Certified jobs and maintaining Green Restaurant certification through rigorous recycling, composting and waste-reduction practices.
Saved from the trash
The boot camp offered Button ideas and inspiration for further developing her waste-reduction strategies and spreading the word in Western North Carolina about how those efforts can translate to the home kitchen. “It was really interesting, because the timing of this particular boot camp and the focus of it are perfectly in line with what we’ve been moving more and more toward,” she says.
At Nightbell and Curate, “we’re really focused on reducing waste,” she continues. “There’s the composting and recycling and things that we do, but it’s also looking at how we order, what products we get from our farmers, asking a farmer, ‘What do you have trouble selling?’ and figuring out what we can do with that. Say they don’t sell a ton of green garlic at the market. OK, I’ll buy it, we’ll pickle it and we’ll put it on our burgers. It’s just a different way of looking at things.”
Although Button acknowledges the value of composting and recycling to create nutrients for crops and keep refuse out of the landfill, she says she and her staff are always studying their trash to find ways to use things that are being discarded. For example, they found a way to use the trimmings from the Sunburst Farms trout that are an ingredient in Nightbell’s popular deviled egg dish and Curate’s esqueixada de montaña.
“We trim off the bellies because they have a lot of teeny-tiny bones,” she explains. Nightbell sous chef Allegra Grant noticed that between the two restaurants, a lot of trout bellies were being generated, so she decided to use them to create a trout rillette appetizer.
“You take the bellies, and you cook them, and you take the bones out and you mix it all up with some herbs and some lemon and it’s superflavorful and great to spread on toast,” she says. “We’re serving it with some pickled berries and shallots, and it’s lovely and really good. And so there’s a menu item that came from something that was ending up in the garbage.”
Another example she cites is a turnip dish she is developing for Nightbell. For this, she uses the sautéed greens of local turnips as well as the turnips themselves, which are seared and caramelized. It’s topped with a sauce made from whey that is a byproduct of the ricotta cheese she makes in-house and “little delicious, heated bread crunchies” made from the discarded ends of bread loaves, which are ground then fried.
Also, instead of buying individual cuts of beef, Button buys Apple Brandy Beef forequarters weekly or biweekly for both restaurants, doing the butchering in-house and offering cuts as they are available. “It takes a lot of individual cows to make a case full of one particular cut,” she says. “So we break the forequarter down into ribeye and flatiron and chuckeye and all those different steak cuts.” From there, they use the rack for steak tartare, and other parts are ground to create burgers, meatballs, cannelloni filling and more. The bones are used for stock.
Button acknowledges that not all restaurants have the space and staff to manage their own butchering program. But between her two restaurants, she says she does have the space, and her staff is enthusiastic about it, so it works.
“It’s putting our heads together,” she says. “It requires all of my staff really being involved and interested in reducing waste. … And we need to do more of this. We really just started heading this direction [recently], but now I’m thinking, ‘Gosh, now I need everybody, as they’re throwing something away, let’s write it down and see what we can do with it. And we can make delicious food out of those things.”
The bigger picture
Beyond curtailing waste in their own kitchens, the bigger picture for chefs is sharing their knowledge and experiences with the public to encourage home-based efforts and advocating for large-scale improvements through state- and national-level policy change. Katherine Miller, founding executive director of the JBF’s Chefs Action Network, which designs and leads the trainings, says that since the program was created in 2012, Chefs Boot Camps have been used to help empower chefs to speak out about a variety of issues.
“This network has done a lot in a short time,” says Miller. “The chefs helped accelerate changes to the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s] policies on the use of antibiotics in meat and poultry. They have helped protect the Healthy Kids Act, which is focused on school meals. And they are helping to generate a lot of attention around the topic of food waste and working with consumer, industry and policy makers to help reach a 50 percent reduction in food waste by 2030.”
Although Button already does a good job of voicing her thoughts about food waste, she feels there’s more she can do. “There are a couple of interesting facts that blow people’s minds,” she says. “First of all, 40 percent of all the food that is produced in the United States is wasted — it’s crazy!”
While some waste occurs at farms and grocery stores due to date labeling and other things, she continues, “A big part of it is happening at the consumer level because we over-purchase in the grocery store or we’re just not being careful or conscious about using everything or throwing something in the freezer.” (See sidebar for Button’s tips on reducing food waste at home.)
Another fact that really hit home for Button is “that one in four children in Buncombe County don’t know where their next meal is coming from — they’re food-insecure — and that’s much higher than the national average. … I think we can, hopefully, in Asheville, improve that number, and that’s the goal of many of the not-for-profit organizations that are out there, but I think I can be part of the advocacy and support in that area.”
Although she already does a lot with MANNA FoodBank and the Downtown Welcome Table, she says, “I haven’t really been that persistent about it, and what I took away from the boot camp is that I can do more.”
To keep up with the chefs from the Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change program, follow #JBFImpact and #ChefsLead on Twitter and Instagram.