Sustainability is not just a philosophy about food – it’s about people, attitudes, communities, and lifestyles. In the spirit of the theme of this year’s International Chefs Congress – “The Responsibility of a Chef” – the ideas below are based on advice we’ve received from chefs across the country. There’s one to inspire you each day of the next month; even picking one to look into, or act on, per week is a good way to start. Almost everywhere we go, we hear the same message: small changes and efforts can make a big difference!
- Go local. It’s not possible for everyone all the time. But when it is possible, support your local farmers.
- Take your team to visit a farmer – it’s a good exercise in remembering that each piece of food has a story, and a person behind it. (And you can bring back extra produce for a special family meal.)
- Know your seafood. The criteria for evaluating the sustainability of seafood differ from those for agriculture. Inform yourself using resources like Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Guide, and demand that your purveyors are informed too. If they can’t tell you where a fish is from and how and when it was caught, you probably don’t want to be serving it.
- Not all bottled water is created equal – some companies are working to reduce and offset their carbon footprint through a number of innovative measures. And some of the biggest names in the restaurant world (like The French Laundry)are moving away from water bottled out of house. In-house filtration systems offer a number of options – including in-house sparkling water!
- Ditch the Styrofoam – replace cooks’ drinking cups with reusable plastic ones, and replace Styrofoam take-out containers with containers made of recycled paper. BioPac packaging is one option.
- Support organic, biodynamic viniculture. There are incredible, top-rating biodynamic or organic wines from around the world.
- Support organic bar products. All-natural and organic spirits, beers, and mixers are growing in popularity and availability.
- Even your kitchen and bar mats can be responsible: Waterhog’s EcoLine is made from 100% recycled PET post-consumer recycled fiber reclaimed from drink bottles and recycled tires.
- Choose 1 day per quarter, or 1 per month, to devote a morning to community service: send staff to a soup kitchen, bring local kids into the kitchen, teach the kitchen staff of the local elementary school a few tricks, or spend a few hours working in the sun at a community garden.
- The kitchen equipment of the future is green! Major equipment producers, like Hobart and Unified Brands, are developing special initiatives to investigate and develop greener, cleaner, energy-smart machines (that also save you money in the long run).
- Shut down the computer and POS systems when you leave at night. When the computer system is on, the juice keeps flowing – shutting it down can save significant energy bill dollars over the course of a year.
- Check the seals on your walk-in – if they’re not kept clean and tight, warm air can seep in, making the fridge work harder to stay cool.
- Compact fluorescent bulbs use 75% less energy than incandescent bulbs – and CFLs last 10 times longer, giving them the environmental and economic advantage.
- Consider wind power. Ask your energy provider about options – ConEd, for example, offers a wind power option. Though it tends to run 10% higher than regular energy, it’s an incentive to bring the bill down by implementing other energy-saving techniques.
- Look into solar thermal panels to heat your water. Solar Services, one of the oldest and biggest companies, will walk you through the process – from paperwork to tax credits. With the money saved on a water heater, the system will have paid for itself in 2-3 years.
- Green your cleaning routine: trade astringent, non-biodegradable, potentially carcinogenic chemical kitchen cleaners for biodegradable, eco-safe products
- Use non-toxic pest control – the options are increasing, and even some of the major companies have green options.
- Consider purchasing locally-built furniture. See if there are any artisans in your state working with reclaimed wood (from trees that have fallen naturally because of storms or age).
- Recycle your fryer oil – there are biofuel companies across the country that will pick it up and convert it.
- Grow your own: consider a roof-top garden or interior/exterior window boxes for small plants and herbs. EarthBoxes are one low-maintenance solution.
- Cut down on shipping materials – request that purveyors send goods with the least amount of packing materials possible. Request that Styrofoam packaging not be used.
- Swap white toilet paper, c-folds, and restroom paper towels for products made of chlorine-free unbleached, recycled paper.
- Need new toilets? There are a number of water-saving options that save anywhere from ½ to over 1 gallon per flush. The old-fashioned brick technique is a good start too: place a brick in the tank of your toilet – the space that it takes up is water saved each time the toilet is flushed.
- Compost garbage – even high-volume establishments can make this happen. Keep separate cans for all food-based waste, and dump it in a compost bin out back. A common misconception about compost is that it smells bad – not true!
- Recycle! Be strict about kitchen and bar staff recycling glass and plastic receptacles. Recycle cardboard and wood boxes used for produce, and any newspapers or magazines sent to the restaurant.
- Cut down on linens – tablecloths and napkins require a large amount of chemical cleaners, bleaches and starches. Stay away from white, if possible, and if it’s not imperative, consider eliminating tablecloths all together. Go for soft cloth napkins, instead of starched.
- Ice = water + energy. Don’t waste it! Don’t automatically refill ice bins – wait until they truly get low, and only add as much as you need to get through the crush. Ice is expensive to produce, both in terms of money and resources.
- If you’re a small restaurant or café, without huge needs or storage space, look into joining (or forming) a local co-op for purchasing green items. Cleaning supplies, paper products, etc are all cheaper in bulk.
- Educate yourself! From agricultural philosophy to the specifics of restaurant operations, the number of resources for green issues and practices is ever-growing. Pick up The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, the Green Restaurant Association’s Dining Green: A Guide to Creating Environmentally Sustainable Restaurants and Kitchens, and Sourcing Seafood, a Resource Guide for Chefs by Seafood Choices Alliance.
- Last but not least, educate your staff! They need to know why you’re doing what you’re doing, so that they can spread the word – to the diners, and beyond!