Once an unsexy topic ushered to the sidelines, food waste is steadily moving into the limelight as chefs welcome the challenge of creating tasty dishes with scraps.
In February, Balzac Wine Bar in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, joined the legion of waste disruptors with a unique proposition: Every Sunday from 10 p.m. until close, guests receive a free, chef-created meal with the purchase of any beverage. The catch? The dishes are prepared from leftovers accrued during the week.
“Whatever is left over from the week we make into inventive, and sometimes strange, dishes,” says Chef Ronnie Oldham, who is leading the charge. These “family meals” are targeted to foodservice workers, who are, Oldham points out, usually the only ones dining out so late on Sunday evenings. So far, Balzac has drawn 30 to 40 people each Sunday evening with about a third composed of regular (nonfoodservice) guests.
Balzac’s menu is exceptionally extensive compared with the standard wine bar. In addition to the flatbreads, soups, salads, and light snacks, it offers more than two dozen shareable plates including classics like charcuterie and crab cakes, as well as bolder options such as crispy pork belly, sour ale mussels, and Korean meatballs.
“We have the luxury of a big menu where we can utilize all the ingredients in different dishes, and we create a new menu every season,” Chef Oldham says.
He has salvaged trims from the pork belly, tuna that was too fatty for tartar, asparagus stems, and even radish and beet greens. The creativity also extends to dessert. When Balzac recently had a surplus of egg whites, Oldham mixed them with homemade vanilla extract (made from empty vanilla bean pods soaked in brandy) and juiced oranges leftover from the bar to make an Old Fashioned–flavored funnel cake.
“Everything that goes into these things, they’re something that would’ve been thrown away, and before I got here, probably were thrown away,” he says. “We use everything we can to its fullest extent, and we have very little waste now, which is great.”
Looking ahead, Chef Oldham hopes other concepts in Mojofuco Group (Balzac’s umbrella group), as well as local restaurants, will join the cause by donating food and helping spread the food-waste gospel.
Oldham wants to get the word out about food waste, but he is all right with Balzac’s family meals staying under the radar. He even envisions it as a secret dining society.
“It’s one of those things if you know about it you know about it, if you don’t, you want to know about it,” Oldham says. “We get people from different restaurants all over the city, and the more that they tell people, the more people come in.”