So-called clean labels were a frequent topic of conversation during the National Restaurant Association Show earlier this week, but speakers and attendees agreed that sustainability and social responsibility extend beyond the menu. Here are some of the other ways restaurants are trying to do their part.
Making the staff feel uncomfortable
While few people like being put on the spot, it’s the crux of one of Rick Bayless’ most successful sustainability efforts. The chef-owner of Frontera Grill and other celebrated Chicago restaurants keeps a dry-erase board in his kitchens with “waste” written on the top. Every time something is wasted, it must be written on the board and then justified during a daily meeting about financial, community and environmental sustainability, Bayless said. Just 5 percent of Frontera’s waste goes to the landfill, he said—but it took 30 years to get to that point.
The inexcusable no-brainer
Those snazzy Edison bulbs lighting up the trendiest restaurants? They’re terrible for the environment, said Richard Young, director of education for PG&E Food Service Technology Center, a research center that rates the energy use of foodservice equipment. His first tip for operators looking to take an easy sustainable step: switch to LEDs. Manufacturers even make an LED version of Edison bulbs that look nearly identical. “Even if you’re using sustainable food, nonsustainable energy sense a mixed message,” he said.
Be careful about what you blast
The importance of communication was obvious during a session Monday about seafood sustainability. Moderator Barton Seaver, the celebrated Washington, D.C., chef, noted that scaring people away from farmed salmon steers them toward beef, which can be even less sustainable. “The should we/shouldn’t we conversation when it comes to fish farming is gone,” said Peter Redmond, vice president of the Global Aquaculture Alliance, noting that 94 percent of the world’s salmon supply is farmed. “The question now is how to do it sustainably.” Ten pounds of feed are required for every pound of beef produced, while 1.5 pounds of feed produce a pound of fish, said James Griffin, associate professor at Johnson & Wales University. But the seafood industry isn’t getting this message out because of mixed messages surrounding farmed fish.
Above all, keep it simple
While this message resonated at every sustainability session we attended during the show, the necessity became clear during Monday’s seafood session when Seaver projected a slide showing international seafood certification logos. “There are more than 20 certifications—who has time to understand all of them?” Griffin asked. Chefs are deferring to suppliers for sustainability information they can trust, while guests think chefs are the ultimate authority, said Kerry Heffernan, executive chef and partner of Union Square Hospitality Group. “We need to use that responsibly,” he said.