Restaurant industry’s war on waste

OzHarvest head chef Travis Harvey.

Waste – including food waste – has become a hot topic of late. The recent ABC TV series War on Waste exposed the shocking amount of produce that is thrown out unnecessarily. Food waste costs the Australian economy around $20 billion per year, with four million tonne of food going to landfill. Half of that comes from households and half from businesses, mostly supermarkets. But, in good news for the industry, the majority of restaurants are doing the right thing.

“Most restaurants run quite a tight ship,” Travis Harvey, who is head chef at food rescue charity OzHarvest, says. “I think that we’re really in an era where chefs who are passionate about food and people in certain sectors of the industry are realising the amount of energy and effort that goes into growing the things that they buy. It really requires a lot of respect to handle these things. People are looking at the money that they’re spending and they have relationships with the people that they buy food from and they don’t feel comfortable about throwing it out. It’s part of most chef’s processes now to reduce the waste that they have.”

Hardy says some restaurants he has worked at in the past offered staff meals made with leftover food found in the kitchen. “It also means that there’s a vehicle to use things that don’t end up on the menu,” he says. “The specials board is also a great place to starting moving things around that are leftover. That’s not to say that you clean out the fridge and put it on the specials board. But it’s a good way to use up the last of a batch.”

Restaurants can also donate food to OzHarvest to distribute, but it must be stored in the correct way. “There’s only a couple of things we don’t take,” Harvey says. “One is rice because it can generate certain types of microbes that are not good for people who are vulnerable with health problems. And we don’t take shellfish. We definitely want to be on people’s minds, but essentially our mission is to reduce waste. We’d rather talk about not wasting food and make sure restaurants don’t waste anything than pick up food to distribute it.”

More and more chefs have also been embracing the ‘nose to tail’ philosophy, ensuring unwanted cuts are not wasted. But Harvey says diners will only play ball to a certain extent and need to be introduced to it slowly. “They may not buy it at an RSL, but if they’re going to a restaurant and paying a couple of hundred bucks for a meal they’re probably going to trust a chef,” he says. “Chefs are a bit more of a mouthpiece now because they know what goes into it so hopefully people open their minds a bit to what’s consumable. But most of the things that are wasted are not necessarily the gruesome eyeballs and other things – they are a result of carelessness and bad management. Improving the management allows people to value the ingredients a bit more.”

OzHarvest also works with high-profile chefs, including Matt Moran, Neil Perry and George Colombaris, to help raise awareness about food waste. “We do a lot of work around how people should think about food,” Harvey says.

Harvey came to the job three years ago. He had been working as an adviser on a food show in Mexico when he was contacted by the organisation’s founder Ronni Kahn about the role. Prior to that he had worked in fine dining restaurants in Canberra, Ireland, Oxford, Vancouver, Guatemala and Mexico.

OzHarvest also runs ‘cooking for a cause’ classes for corporate teams at its office at Alexandria in Sydney and a program called Nourish that works with young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to train them for a certificate two in Hospitality in conjunction with TAFE, with a strong focus on cooking, sustainability and food waste. “It’s a big part of what we do and one of the reasons why our training is a bit more specific and different to other commercial cookery schools,” Harvey says.