A pause before you bin

Zero-waste cooking, farm-to-table, and no-leftovers-policy are all buzzwords in the Indian fine-dining space today. But have we moved beyond talk when it comes to sustainable and conscious eating out?
Last Updated 25 June 2022, 20:15 IST

Often, one discovers the Japanese have already done and dusted what the rest of the world is still contemplating putting into practice. Back in 2020, there were news reports about a seafood restaurant in Japan that fined its diners if they didn’t polish off their plate. The idea was not only to make the diners aware of the harsh conditions in which the fishermen worked but also to nudge people to show gratitude to the food itself. Apparently, it worked too — rarely did anyone leave the food unfinished.

Wasting food is more a matter of being conscious and conscientious than anything else. This, of course, holds true for wasting food anywhere — be it in our homes, at social events or in canteens but especially so when we eat out — for researchers and green activists have discovered that the reasons for food wastage when we dine out are often flaky and to do with how ‘aesthetic’ the food looks, feels and tastes. According to a recent UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) report, roughly one-third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year gets lost or wasted. That’s around 1.3 billion tonnes! The report goes on to state: “At the retail level, large quantities of food are wasted due to quality standards that over-emphasize appearance.” Not wasting food when we dine out is not being blasé about that extra starter you ordered but cannot eat or that second round of milkshake left untouched by your still-whining brat. A zero-waste experience does not mean you have to feel miserable about the hungry millions every time you eat out; a leftover-free dinner can be achieved without it impinging on your sense of luxury and satisfaction.

Though many restaurants in Europe are now imposing fines for leftovers, the debate about food wastage in restaurants heated up recently with Spain’s new ‘doggy bag’ law. Simply put, restaurateurs and owners in Spain are obligated to offer “doggy bags” free of charge to patrons to take home the food they have not eaten. What’s more, restaurant owners can reportedly be fined 2,000 Euros if they do not offer a doggy bag. The initiative has amassed global attention, more so among Indians who ponder over the feasibility of such a rule in the dichotomy that is India — a country that battles extreme hunger while restaurants pop up every other day with no one really knowing (or caring) about the real extent of food that is wasted in preparation, spoilage and binning of leftovers by diners. DHoS spoke to some restaurateurs, chefs and hotel owners to understand where they stand on this issue and how they hope to tackle the problem of food wastage that ain’t going anywhere.

“At our restaurant, food wastage is relatively low. We do have customers who are happy to pack the food, which is free of cost anyway, so more often than not, that happens. We also have a large green space and since we are a completely vegetarian restaurant we compost a lot of the raw veggie waste so we can minimise on wastage of food,” says Pallavi Gupta, partner at a restaurant in Indiranagar, Bengaluru, adding, “We also insist to our customers if they can’t finish something, then they take a doggy bag and urge them to finish the items on the table that aren’t packing friendly. However, there are certain high-end restaurants which may not do this but that’s also because the food they serve will not taste the same when taken home.”

Doggy bag law in India?

While takeaways of leftovers were commonplace long before the arrival of the doggy bag law, many restaurateurs are of the opinion that while championing a cause of this kind is imperative, introducing a strict law might bring forth a certain level of resistance initially.

Restaurateur Panjury V Shankar says, “A rule like this might draw mixed reactions. That said, anything done in good faith and for a good cause will eventually be welcomed. The idea of getting customers to take back the food they haven’t finished somewhat undermines the purpose of hospitality because if they wanted to do that, they would eat at home and not dine out. It might insult the sentiment of the Indian customers because we are not Spain. And for all you know, there may be many hidden reasons for a country to pass such a law — it is common knowledge how waste management companies the world over are not always overboard.”

Chef Sarfaraz Ahmed has a similar view. He cites how most of the guests who come to luxury establishments often hesitate to ask for the leftovers to be packed. “But this hesitancy needs to be tackled, no matter how uncomfortable it may seem to convince a customer. Organisations must take the initiative to pack the leftovers and hand them over to the guests.”

Furthermore, citing how a ‘first-in-first-out method’ has helped his workplace optimise food usage, Ahmed explains how the fine-dining space in the restaurant he works as head chef in, has been carefully constructed around anticipation, labelling and temperature control. “We practice the first-in-first-out method for all the ingredients that come in and are stored. Every day, monitoring and stock charts are prepared to avoid overstocking of ingredients that ensure we serve fresh food every day to our guests. Labelling and temperature control for all the ingredients is followed strictly. Anticipation plays a very vital role which always comes with experience about the quantity of food we require on a daily basis. Since we do only a chef’s tasting menu, our portion control is very important and food is produced only against the reservation numbers.”

Zero-waste cooking

Another concept that is fast catching on is zero-waste cooking in restaurants where the menu is planned meticulously and food is produced according to demand. This effectively reduces production costs, ensures products used are fresh and, needless to say, controls food waste.

“We have taken significant measures to curb food wastage. Accurate storage, cooking in the right quantities, responsible buying, adopting the Winnow system (a method to identify and measure waste in commercial kitchens) and getting food supplies from local suppliers are some of the individual measures that we have adopted,” says Vineet Mishra who is in a senior position at a leading hospitality group.

However, a concept like this might still take time to find considerable footing in a country like India, believes Rohit Kalro, an F&B consultant. “Zero waste cooking is quite a new concept in India, keeping in mind the complexity of dishes and ingredients Indian cooking requires. Moreover, the time needed to prepare dishes is also high, and it’s hard for many restaurants to actually adhere to this concept. However, restaurants are now strategizing the portion sizes and making sure the wastage is limited to a bare minimum while also giving consumers value for their money,” he asserts.

Ahmed reiterates how a ‘slow-cooking’ move might actually be more feasible. “In my opinion, a zero-waste cooking concept for high-end commercial establishments is very difficult to achieve so we should move forward with a minimal waste concept as the first step and then evolve further. This is more practical and possible to achieve without compromising on the demands of a dish or the requirements of a guest, both of which a restaurant cannot ignore.”

Ultimately, as much as the experience of eating out is about the senses, the effort to clean your plate up is all about the heart and the will to do so.

(with inputs from Rashmi Vasudeva)

(Published 25 June 2022, 19:50 IST)

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