From trash to plate
To keep a tight check on food costs, restaurants are starting to source produce that is misshapen, bruised or otherwise imperfect—fruits and vegetables that formerly would have been discarded or thrown into the compost pile. And root-to-stem cuisine, the veg-centric chef’s version of nose-to-tail cooking in which no scrap is wasted, continues to trend upward.
But how do you convince customers that a dish made with vegetable stems or peels is something they should order? Creative menuing and marketing are the keys.
1. Puree it into pesto
Customers immediately connect with an item that has a familiar word like pesto in its name. Although pesto traditionally has a base of basil leaves or another fresh herb, restaurants are listing pestos made with carrot tops, broccoli leaves and fennel fronds. April Bloomfield, chef-partner at The Spotted Pig and The Breslin—two New York City meat-focused restaurants—offers pan-roasted carrots with carrot top pesto, shaved carrot salad and creamy burrata as a special.
2. Turn it into a tartare
Vegetable tartares are populating appetizer lists this year, according to Gerry Ludwig, chef at Gordon Food Service, who presented a trends workshop at the National Restaurant Association Show this May. Chefs are cubing, chopping and mincing misshapen and bruised beets, carrots, zucchini and other plants, and presenting them much like a beef or lamb tartare. At New York City’s Little Park, chef Andrew Carmellini created a signature Beetroot Tartare, garnished with smoked-trout roe, rye and horseradish, that sells for $15—comparable to steak tartare—and has become a must-have dish through its prestige association.
3. Play up the technique and presentation
Chefs are smoking, barbecuing, pickling and roasting ugly or bruised vegetables and scraps, then pureeing or slicing them to create on-trend menu items. In Denver, chef Paul Reilly of Beast + Bottle menus a shareable appetizer board featuring smoked mushroom stem pate, pickled fennel branches and garlic confit. He capitalizes on the shareable charcuterie and cheese boards that are best-sellers on menus, substituting cost-effective vegetables for meats and cheeses.
4. Top a piece of toast
Avocado toast took menus by storm last year, appearing across many meal occasions—breakfast, lunch, dinner and happy hour. The toast trend now embraces many more vegetable toppings, says Ludwig, including roasted squash, sliced beets and grilled eggplant. From time to time, Top Chef judge Hugh Acheson’s 5 & 10 in Athens, Ga., offers toast topped with the fried outer leaves of Brussels sprouts, artichoke shavings or roasted, slightly bruised cherry tomatoes.
5. Put it out there
Broadcast the fact that you’re menuing scraps and discards by creating a menu item and promoting its sustainability. Last summer, chef Dan Barber of New York City's Blue Hill restaurant partnered with fast casual Sweetgreen on the limited-time Wasted Salad—a toss of bruised broccoli leaves, carrot ribbons, roasted kale stems, roasted cabbage cores and other ingredients. Sweetgreen created attention-grabbing content around the salad both on social media and through in-store promotional materials, and the item “sold really well,” said Nic Jammet, a Sweetgreen partner. A portion of the salad’s $8.60 price tag was donated to City Harvest, a New York organization that fights hunger.