I have always loved watching good bartenders make me a drink. First they muddle citrus and other fruit (I like sweet-tart cocktails), then they fill the shaker with ice and mix it up. After tasting the drink with a straw to make sure it’s well-balanced, they strain it into an ice-filled glass and hand it over. Now I know I’m watching a small-scale eco nightmare. Discarded barely used citrus, ice shaken for 30 seconds then thrown down the drain, plastic straws tossed out—all for one little drink. And that doesn’t even take into account any unrecycled liquor and mixer bottles.
In the world of waste at restaurants and bars, the discards from one cocktail are equivalent to a raindrop in a storm. I go out to eat five times a week (it’s part of my job as restaurant editor at F&W), and I see an outrageous amount of waste in dining rooms, from the unfinished platters at family-style Italian restaurants to the uneaten remains of a monumental Korean barbecue dinner. I don’t order a lot of meat; I take home as much food as my little refrigerator can hold. Still, once I became sensitive to the problem, I wanted everyone to help solve it, even if just by composting a couple of muddled limes from a mojito.
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Luckily, a lot of smart chefs don’t need me to harangue them: Across the country, they’ve developed methods for tackling waste that are varied and amazing. I found two different cities particularly interesting: San Francisco and—surprise—Miami, a place I don’t consider very environmentally friendly. (When local-hero chef Michael Schwartz was raising money to open his first restaurant, Michael’s Genuine, and tried to sell his Prius, no one would buy it.) From a machine that turns food scraps into water to an ingeniously designed grill that makes the most of every part of the fire, Miami restaurants are doing a lot of great things.
I’ve compiled a list of five particularly inspiring ideas. The innovations I’m most excited about come from the winner of my unofficial Eco Restaurant Award: The Perennial, which just opened in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood next to Twitter’s new headquarters. Launched by Mission Chinese Food co-owners Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowitz, this restaurant has the most comprehensive eco program I’ve seen. The bar features a sparkling cider cocktail made with fennel (a drought-resistant plant plentiful in the Bay Area) that just might be the answer to my eco-drinking dreams.
The hospitality industry doesn’t breed green habits,” says Chad Arnholt, who, with his girlfriend, Claire Sprouse, creates the drinks at The Perennial. A bar with the lowest carbon footprint, he notes, would serve only local draft beer. But he and Sprouse are great bartenders, and they want to mix drinks. The couple eschew ice machines and fill ice molds by hand. Rather than using disposable plastic straws to taste drinks, they take a lesson from coffee bars and use stainless steel cupping spoons. And instead of chilling stirred drinks like martinis individually, they keep premixed bottles in the refrigerator so cocktails are “beautiful, tasty and cold,” says Arnholt. “And that’s eight ounces of ice that’s not going down the drain after I stir the drink.”
For years, I’ve heard chefs wishfully talk about sourcing aquaponic produce. Aquaponic farming uses one-tenth the water of regular farming, but it’s expensive to start up. The Perennial has made a real commitment: Its 2,000-square-foot aquaponic greenhouse in Oakland is a miracle of resourcefulness. Scraps from the restaurant feed worms that are fed to tanks of Pacific sturgeon and shellfish. Bacteria converts waste from those tanks into nitrates; those nitrates fertilize lettuces, carrots, beets—even mini onions for the house Gibsons. The farm will yield about 100 pounds of produce for The Perennial each week, as well as the clams chef Chris Kiyuna cooks with garlic and serves with confited potatoes.
If the Avengers had an eco superhero on their team, the ORCA would be his secret weapon. The miraculous ORCA (Organic Refuse Conversion Alternative) is a squat, stainless steel contraption. It looks kind of like a giant refrigerator and can transform 2,400 pounds of food waste per day into nutrient-rich, environmentally safe water. It does so by using Bio Chips, made from recycled plastic, and microorganisms that speed up the natural breakdown of food. Launched in 2007, the ORCA already has a wide range of fans from the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Miami to the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium.
Tom Colicchio has an ORCA in his new Beachcraft at Miami Beach’s 1 Hotel. But he believes there’s a simpler way to combat waste: smaller portion sizes. “The idea that your steak needs to hang off your plate, that it’s OK to leave food behind—that mentality has to change,” he says. At New York City’s Colicchio & Sons, he has cut the size of proteins from seven ounces to less than five (he cut prices, too). “It’s working out well,” he reports. “When plates come back to the kitchen, there’s nothing left. They’re clean.”
Star chef Francis Mallmann wrote one of the great cookbooks, Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way. But grilling over seven fires is not eco-friendly (all that wood and smoke). At his new restaurant, Los Fuegos at Faena Hotel Miami Beach, Mallmann is thinking differently: “I got complaints—‘You’re burning too much wood.’ And I thought, I am.” For Los Fuegos, Mallmann has designed one large grill with an intricate dome that lets him strategically arrange cuts of beef, chicken and fish and cook them all at once.