Consumers have never cared more about where their food is coming from, and the path that it’s following to get to their plates.
“That’s probably one of the bigger [trends] driving change in food culture today is this desire and shift in understanding that was once a very fringe kind of thing,’” says Melissa Abbott, vice president of culinary insights at food market researcher The Hartman Group. “And that is absolutely shifting now.”
Within what The Hartman Group defines as a macro-trend of edible ethics, meaning it has been a driving trend over the last several years, there are micro-trends, shifting from year to year and becoming more specific.
One of these concepts increasing in popularity with both operators and consumers has been the idea of upcycling, or creating goods of higher value from products that would otherwise go to waste. Upcycling can apply to everything from the design of the dining space to using so-called “ugly” produce, often deemed imperfect and destined for the landfill.
“We’re seeing consumers get excited about this idea of becoming waste warriors, so that is something we’re going to continue to see,” Abbott says. “You could be a baby boomer, you could be a gen Xer, you don’t necessarily have to be a millennial, but it’s this idea of having more respect for the production of food and what it takes to grow food in the soil, and then that extends into our own personal health systems.”
At 21 Greenpoint in Brooklyn, New York, Chef Sean Telo offers “21 Sunday,” a day-long service every Sunday that features an evolving roster of dishes that use typically discarded ingredients from the week, such as eggplant tops. For Telo and the culinary team at 21 Greenpoint, the goal is to minimize food waste as much as possible, and guests pay $21 for a six-course meal.Telo’s dinner menu also features an “ugly vegetable snack,” complete with cultured butter and vegetable tops.
“We’re always pushing to keep costs down,” says Chef John Mooney, of Bell, Book & Candle in New York City and Bidwell in Washington, D.C. “We do like to use superior quality, but we also try to minimize waste, so we don’t throw away anything. Just passing that onto sourcing is just an important part of what we already do.”
Mooney describes New York City’s waste management as “poor” so the restaurant does what it can to reduce what goes out onto the street.
In D.C., Bidwell is in an area that is being rejuvenated so Mooney and his staff try to minimize discarded waste. Not only does Mooney use a pig down to the bone and use secondary techniques like canning, pickling, and jams to use all aspects of produce, but he also serves as a direct source of the goods his kitchen uses. Growing an aeroponic rooftop garden at Bidwell, Mooney provides many herbs and produce, including cilantro, dill, four varieties of nasturtium, tomatillos, Japanese eggplant, bibb lettuce, and fennel.
“I’ve always been motivated in sourcing to the point where I evolved into becoming the source of most of the things I have or use,” he says. “I had farms, I dealt directly with farms, and then eventually I converted everything to aeroponic because the labor model is much better, the production is greater, and the use of resources is less than the labor. All of those things speak my language.”
Mooney says the entire restaurant staff participates in the practices, including maintaining the garden. “We don’t manipulate things,” he says. “We try to leave things closest to their natural form and as close to home as possible.”