by Jami English
Sustainability is often dismissed as the concept du jour in the culinary world, it should by no means be considered a passing trend. More and more chefs are jumping on the sustainability bandwagon and realistically employing the principles we’ve heard so much about in their own kitchens. Although using organic, local ingredients is a major part of the sustainability movement, there are many more factors that come into play for chefs trying to establish a truly sustainable kitchen. The prospect of turning a high-volume, professional kitchen in to a “green” environment can seem daunting – it must function just as seamlessly and efficiently as would a traditional restaurant kitchen. The kitchen of NOPA in San Francisco exemplifies the best of both worlds. With time, effort, and a bit of ingenuity, Chef Laurence Jossel maintains a highly sustainable, eco-friendly kitchen that still turns 400 covers every night.
Jossel insists that it doesn’t take tons of drastic changes to make a kitchen more eco-efficient. “Heightened awareness of how you use your resources and dispose of your waste is this first step towards a greener kitchen. I’m the first person to admit that using excessive amounts of water in a restaurant is nearly unavoidable. We don’t want to hype ourselves as the ultimate model for sustainability, but we’re aware and we’re trying, and if we can encourage that from other restaurants, then I guess we’ve made a difference.” Jossel explains that you don’t have to invest lots of time, money, and energy to make your kitchen more sustainable – just a few minor adjustments can help to improve your restaurant’s relationship with the environment.
Recycle cooking oil to use for biofuel: It used to be somewhat difficult to find companies specializing in cooking oil removal services, but as the bio-fuel movement has picked up steam in the past few years, cooking oil recycling has become much easier and more efficient. Jossel found his recycling company in a local listing. “It’s a really easy process. We pay them to pick it up and they recycle it for us.” Jossel warns that not all recycling companies are legitimate. “We got caught in a few scams. The companies were dumping the oil rather than recycling it, which is pretty much the worst thing you can do for the environment.” Make sure to research your biofuel company before you decide to engage their services.
Source local, organic ingredients: Probably the most important step in maintaining a sustainable kitchen – ordering close to home means your food travels a minimal distance. Jossel purports that many chefs don’t consider the fact that exporting food long distances via plane or cars uses a great deal of fossil fuels and requires more elaborate, excessive packaging. Jossel buys exclusively from 50 small organic farms, most of which are in California, all of which are on the west coast. He cautions to be wary of the term ‘organic,’ especially in the context of large, multi-product farms. “A lot of attention has been brought to the fact that organic and sustainable products don’t necessarily go hand in hand. Just because a farm claims to be organic doesn’t mean they’re not engaged in environmentally harmful practices.” Jossel admits that sticking exclusively to local ingredients is, at times, conceptually limiting, but he insists the benefits of unparalleled freshness and knowledge of the product’s source far outweigh the creative costs.
Cut down on shipping materials: Even the most perishable products tend to have superfluous packing materials. Jossel always requests that companies use the absolute bare minimum shipping materials when sending products to his restaurant, and requests Styrofoam popcorn and packaging be used under no circumstances. If, by chance, a company does not heed NOPA's request to forego superfluous packing materials, Jossel has a back up list of businesses in his area that will take items off his hands and use them for their own shipping needs. “This just requires a few phone calls. Places tend to be pretty cooperative about it and it cuts down on so much unnecessary waste.”
Don't throw away anything you don't have to: "Slightly damaged utensils and furniture are most often left for dead in the restaurant industry. A lot of the time, those things are completely repairable if you just put in a little time and energy,” Jossel explains. “You end up saving money, and avoid dumping spatulas and blenders that will sit in a landfill for the next 100 years.” The restaurant business often puts a premium of having the newest, best products, but Jossel finds it unnecessary. "Not everything has to be the newest of the new. When we first opened, we found a whole set of second-hand chairs that would work perfectly for the restaurant, but they were a little shabby. We decided to reupholster the chairs, which turned out to be a pretty major undertaking. Every spare inch of my home was taken up with the reupholstering project – we recruited everyone to help. It took a little extra effort, but in the end the chairs looked great and we didn't have to buy completely new products. We had perfectly good furniture that just needed a little face lift."
Use nontoxic cleaning products and pesticides whenever possible: The market for non-toxic cleaning products and pesticides is constantly growing, and products are becoming more available and affordable to fit consumer demands. It just takes a little research to see which products best suit your restaurant’s needs. Jossel uses Method brand cleaning products and California-based Crane Pest Control, which uses completely non-toxic products.
Compost garbage: Even though NOPA is a high-volume establishment, Jossel keeps only one garbage can for all food based, non-recyclable trash, and deposits it all in a compost heap. “Having one garbage can is a constant reminder to myself and the staff that metal and plastic should be kept separate. It raises recycling awareness and composting is a great way to utilize waste.”
Choose your paper and plastic products carefully: "We make a real effort to use biodegradable plastic and paper products that are untreated by bleach and harsh chemicals. We have only one to-go container made from biodegradable brown plastic, our straws are compostable, and we print all of our daily menus on high-quality recycled paper. When the menus are worn out, we cut them up and use them for coasters or underlining." In addition, Jossel eliminates the use of plastic water bottles at NOPA by serving the restaurant’s own filtered water in glass carafes.
Try to hire a staff that lives the shortest possible distance from the
restaurant: This seems like a small and, in some cities, impossible step, but Jossel claims that this is the perfect example of how much of a difference you can make by heightening awareness in staff. “It’s important to remind people of how many alternatives there are to driving. My wife and I both walk to work. If we can encourage that from our staff, we’ve done our part.”
Be aware of your cooking materials: Wood burning stoves are a much cleaner and more energy-efficient alternative to gas. Jossel uses almond wood instead of the more traditional mesquite because it grows faster and burns cleaner.
Cut down on linens: Linen tablecloths and napkins require a great deal of harmful chemical cleaners, bleaches, starches and presses. At NOPA, tabletops are left bare and soft towels that require no starch are used for napkins.