pullet egg with donko shiitake mushroom, weeds and cheddar from rooster and the hen. photo by carmen troesser

Waste not: St. Louis chefs using table scraps and ugly veggies

Getting a ticket to one of Michael and Tara Gallina’s Rooster and the Hen pop-up dinners is not easy. It’s not often that St. Louis welcomes home the former chef de cuisine and service captain, respectively, of one OF the world’s top 50 restaurants. Crowds have turned out to see what they will bring to the St. Louis food scene from their former home at Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York.

“Our philosophy is really flipping meat and potatoes – making the vegetables and the off-cuts more of the star of the show, a little bit more prized,” Michael explained. Simple enough, and their pop-up menus have reflected that goal, featuring plant-based dishes notably devoid of prime cuts: beef fat-aged beets, charred cabbage with lonza, and so on.

But there’s a bit more to it than that. One dish from the Gallinas’ pop-up at Schlafly Bottleworks in February stands out as herald of deeper implications. For their third course, the Gallinas served a beef fat-basted carrot, a dot of carrot top pesto and a small pile of braised beef neck with Missouri wheat berries.

michael and tara gallina prepare for a rooster and the hen pop-up dinner. // photo by carmen troesser

A shot across the bow may be an aggressive analogy for a carrot, but we have been warned: The Gallinas intend to change our expectations of fine dining and, in the small ways that they can, the American diet.

In this case a carrot is more than a carrot because the Gallinas served it in a dish almost straight from their former boss’ best-selling book The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food. Barber’s third plate represents his vision for the future of American cuisine: “I imagined a carrot steak dominating the plate, with a sauce of braised second cuts of beef,” Barber wrote as a sketch of what he hoped Americans would be eating in 35 years.

You may recognize Barber’s name from his food-focused TED talks or opinion pieces in the New York Times. The Third Plate is often lumped with Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma as required reading for those concerned by the problems facing American agriculture and food culture.

The move from protein-heavy, prime-cut meals to a vegetable-based diet incorporating small amounts of sustainably raised meat from the whole animal is meant to go far beyond a foodie trend – it’s meant to be a revolution. However you feel about giving up frequent steak dinners, the Gallinas are right – there is a problem. A system is broken when Americans threw away 133 billion pounds of food in just one year, according to the Department of Agriculture. If that’s going to change, then the way food is grown and distributed, the way we cook and the way we eat needs to change. 

By reining in protein consumption and utilizing off-cuts, by focusing on vegetables grown sustainably (with methods that maintain or improve the soil) and utilizing aesthetically undesirable produce, and by reducing the egregious waste of the American food industry from farm to kitchen, the Gallinas believe that Americans could have a healthier, tastier and sustainable diet.

That’s a lot to get from a carrot and some beef neck, but the Gallinas naturally come at these issues from the perspective of a restaurant – they let the food speak. At Blue Hill at Stone Barns Michael couldn’t simply choose the best ingredients and focus on making a great dish. “There’s got to be a lot more thought to it,” he said. “We wouldn’t just put something on because it tastes delicious. We wanted it to mean something.”

Don’t let the Portlandia sentiment distract you. Awareness of the meaning behind each element of each dish is not an artificial hipness on the Gallinas’ part. Everything meant something at Blue Hill because within the small, enmeshed ecosystem of that restaurant on a farm, it had to. Michael never knew what the farmers would bring in each day, but he knew he needed to use it. “It really pushes you to be creative – whether it’s preserving something or figuring out how to use 16 different varieties of lettuce in different ways on the menu,” he said. “That’s how crazy it would be.”

If such an interdependent system is going to succeed, then the parts have to work together: If anything is wasted at the farm, then it’s lost to the restaurant. If anything is wasted in the restaurant, then it costs the farm.

As idyllic as Blue Hill can sound, it’s not just a Candide-ish effort to tend a personal garden (or farm-to-table restaurant) with due diligence. Blue Hill is meant to serve as a microcosm of what the relationship between restaurants and farmers could be at a macro level – showing that when farms and kitchens work closely together, waste is almost eliminated. It’s also critically acclaimed proof that a flipped meat-and-potato diet can taste amazing.

Chefs can’t alter USDA policy to change what we eat, but they can set trends that influence the American diet. The Gallinas have brought their brand of activism-by-doing to St. Louis and have joined the conversation about reducing systemic waste in our corner of the American food industry.  

For most restaurants, conserving and creatively utilizing as much of every ingredient as possible is an assumed effort within the bounds of a set menu. Don’t order more than you’ll use; don’t throw away anything that can be incorporated in a dish. This isn’t activism; it’s good business – no one wants to throw away money with their stale bread or cauliflower stems.

Examples of simple conservation abound in local restaurants. The bar at Olive & Oak saves the yolks discarded from egg-white cocktails for the kitchen, which uses them in dishes like the steak tartare. Day-old bread at Union Loafers Cafe and Bread Bakery is dried and pulverized into breadcrumbs for added texture in its little gem salad. Reeds American Table chef-owner Matt Daughaday designed dishes that incorporate whole vegetables instead of discarding the less desirable parts, like roasted cauliflower florets served over a creamy puree of cauliflower stems.

tamales at bolyard's meat & provisions // photo by carmen troesser

Some strategies require a little more thought and effort, like the tamales at Bolyard’s Meat & Provisions. “We started doing it because we had an abundance of lard – we had buckets of it,” said owner Chris Bolyard. He made tamales while chef de cuisine at Sidney Street Cafe before opening the butcher shop, and he decided to perfect his recipe and sell them there.

“The good thing about those tamales is that the filling can be anything,” Bolyard said. “It’s another way to utilize waste. Not only are we using the excess lard to make the tamales, but let’s say we have a bunch of smoked chicken legs that didn’t sell at a Thursday smoke out – pick all the meat off, chop it up and turn it into a filling.”

It seems like half of what the shop’s known for originated as creative efforts to reduce waste, like weekly smoke outs and sandwiches. “When we first opened that wasn’t part of the plan,” he said. “But we had some slow weeks and we were like, ‘What are we gonna do with all this meat?’”

There’s a lot more that comes from whole-animal butchery than just the meat, but Bolyard said less than 10 percent of his animals end up in the trash. The shop doesn’t throw away a single bone. Some are sold; some go into bone stocks and broths. He smokes rolled up pigskins and sells them as dog chews. And it only gets weirder from there. “We’ve had so many odd requests since we’ve been here.” Bolyard said. “We’ve had tattoo artists buy pigskins to practice on. We’ve had medical students buy pig trotters to practice suturing.”

As strange as it is to make pig feet available to med students, the radical element occurs when reducing waste starts to conflict with profit. Bolyard said it would be easier and make more money to sell big cuts of pork shoulder than to process some of that meat into their sausages, but then everything else that goes into the sausages would go in the trash. Small-business owners do not make that kind of choice lightly.

chris bolyard prepares to break down a hog // photo by carmen troesser

Of course Bolyard is aware of his bottom line. When he started making bone broths, he realized they were taking a loss due to the cost of the flavoring ingredients. He adjusted the recipe and retail price to make that product tenable long term. But Bolyard also has priorities other than profit. His business is shaped by his commitments to the humane treatment of his animals and the health of his customers, and these commitments are taken into account even when they demand sacrificing greater profits for better practices.

Bolyard’s isn’t the only place in St. Louis with these kinds of commitments. “If we had (cut more corners) over the years, we would have a nice bit of money. That’s not why we’re doing it,” said Five Bistro chef-owner Anthony Devoti. “You’re in it to make money – don’t kid yourself – but within certain rules and guidelines.”

If chefs are concerned about reducing waste, they can’t limit themselves to their own kitchens. Food waste starts as early as harvest. Consider the strangely persistent example of ugly carrots, mentioned by several chefs. Most carrots grow with some knots and twists, but farmers know that no one is going to buy carrots that look like a bundle of arthritic fingers. Ugly carrots often become what Devoti called “second veg”: healthy, nutritious produce that gets fed to animals, composted or trashed instead of being sold to humans.

“Pick up a bunch of organic carrots and they’re all sexy – perfect, straight lines,” Devoti said. “How many shitty carrots did you have to go through to get those perfect ones?” Devoti and the Gallinas aren’t opposed to ugly carrots, and they want their farmers to know it.

anthony devoti in the five bistro garden // photo by carmen troesser

This gets to the lynchpin of farm-to-table dining: the relationship chefs and restaurateurs have with farmers. At this point “farm-to-table” sounds like a cute, meaningless buzzword, about the same as seeing “fresh” printed all over menus. But for chefs committed to working closely with farmers to source their food responsibly and reduce waste, it’s not as easy as ordering week-to-week from a big supplier while printing trendy farm names on your menu.   

Chefs who work closely with farmers have to hold plans lightly, wait to see what has been harvested and be willing to change their menus to accommodate that. This is why the seared scallop dish at J. McArthur’s An American Kitchen rotates accompanying vegetables and sauces depending on the season; it’s why you never know what you’ll see on the menu at Kevin Willmann’s Farmhaus night to night.

Working with farmers is as unpredictable as farming – which can sound charming until it’s time to turn the compost or pay for the organic onions. Those things take commitment. “It’s not easy or consistent. Some people get really freaked out by that,” Michael said.

“There are some chefs who have the perception they’re more into it than they actually are,” said Claverach Farms owner Sam Hilmer. “I’ve seen more than a few farmers get disenchanted working with chefs.” Hilmer stopped dealing with restaurants completely after transitioning to agricultural tourism and farm dinners in recent years. “It was hard to depend on those deals,” he said. “If the (restaurants) got slow they’d just cancel their order and the farmers would get screwed over.”

Chefs who want to influence how farmers grow their food have to build some trust first. And how do they do that? “You pay on time,” Devoti said. If ugly carrots sell, then they’ll be saved from the compost. The most powerful way chefs can influence farming practices, then, is through reliable business for the kinds of produce they value.

“Chefs are requesting things in certain ways,” Tara said. “So if you’re getting something already fabricated, what happened to the rest of it?” And she doesn’t just mean trimmed beets or even ugly carrots – she means whole fields lost, thrown away, composted or fed to animals, because they were attacked by flea beetles and look ugly, despite being perfectly edible.

“Sometimes (farmers) lose things,” Michael said. “But they don’t always have to. The relationship we want to build with farmers is that they could call us if they’re having an issue with something. … I think it’s the chef’s obligation to try to help. It’s a hard life to be a farmer in the sense of making money – (more so if they’re) losing crops that could really be utilized instead of thrown in compost or in the garbage.”

Not every restaurant concept can accommodate that degree of flexibility, and not every kitchen has the right kind of talent to make it possible. That’s not a knock to cooks, either – some spectacular actors and comedians can’t do improv.

Restaurants that do have the flexibility and talent require a lot of trust on the part of diners – trust that even if they don’t know what to expect from a chef, that’s it’s going to be good. “It’s hard to keep it, too,” Devoti said. “You have to stay creative.”

These circles of trust between farmer, chef and diner are what the Gallinas want to help build in St. Louis. And the challenge and creativity demanded? That’s the whole point. Give them your ugly carrots, your flea beetle-bitten harvest, your field radish cover crop that no one wants to eat. “It’s not avant-garde to bring in seafood from both coasts or to top everything with foie gras,” Michael said. Everybody knows those things taste good, he said, and they don’t exactly improve the industry. For a worthy challenge, try making ugly carrots worthy of a fine dining bill.