Getting Wasted in Your Kitchen: how to manage food inventory like a chef

Post by Shaun Quade

Imagine your kitchen is a restaurant.

You’re the head chef of your kitchen, so you’re in charge of controlling quality and costs. Every item of food at your disposal is stock that has to be accounted for; you’ve paid money to purchase it, and you need to maximise the value of it to keep costs down.

Now think about how much food you throw out every week at home. The unfinished leftovers; the soggy veggies sitting forgotten and forlorn in the depths of the crisper. If you were to throw out the same proportion of food  in a restaurant, you’d be out of business and fending off dumpster divers from the local uni co-op.

I put this hypothetical to the 120 guests who attended last week’s Rescue Dinner, held as part of Melbourne Knowledge Week. But it wasn’t really my talking that convinced the audience that it was time to rethink the way we consume – rather, it was the dishes served to them on the night. All of which had been prepared using only recovered ingredients or by-products that are usually thrown out.

Alongside Chef Philippa Sibley (Syracuse) and Ryan Andrijich from Whack it on the Barbie, we set out to challenge the perception of what a wholesome, resourceful and sustainable meal looks like. For me, it looks like a  quince lardy cake with beef-fat caramel and mandarin catalana – but that’s a recipe for another time.

I’m not telling you what to do, but…

Telling you to think of your kitchen as a restaurant might seem like a stretch, but you might be surprised to learn how much smarter food businesses are at managing food waste compared to those playing at home. When it comes to buying, preparing and using food, OzHarvest reckon Australians chuck out around 20% of all the food they buy – which equates to $1,036 worth of groceries per household each year. I don’t know about you, but in my opinion that’s money that I could spend on way better things.

So why does this even happen? Surely we all know better than to throw money away like this. Well, I think that it’s a combination of poor planning, consumerism and convenience – pitched against clever advertising – that leads us to this point. A society where we are too busy to plan ahead, we shop while we’re hungry and we tend to make impulsive purchases just because something is on special or confronts us with it’s bewitching chocolatey glaze at the checkout. Big businesses like major supermarkets and food and beverage brands support that cycle – encouraging us to buy more and never questioning whether or not we really need it.

Prettied up and wrapped in plastic

There’s no debate around the fact that most people are disconnected from the food that they put into their bodies. That’s partly because there’s still a serious lack of education around what food actually is and where it comes from (apart from the clinical guidelines you see on brochures, or food pyramids or spheres or rectangles or whatever revolutionary fashion diet is currently popular). These days, kids are growing up eating apples that arrive pre-sliced and packaged in a convenient lunchbox-size bag. But show them a lettuce freshly pulled from the ground, covered in dirt and worms, and they’d no doubt run away crying. Their food is grown, slaughtered or manufactured elsewhere, then prettied-up and vacuum-packed with no need for the end-consumer to ever acknowledge the process it’s taken to reach them. As the supply chain tightens and economies realise greater efficiencies, we begin to forget where our food really comes from. 

Respect the carrot

In the restaurant kitchen, I’m acutely aware of what produce we use, how much of it we order and where it has come from. It’s pretty common for fine dining restaurants to have their own kitchen garden as well, where vegetables and herbs are carefully chosen, planted and nurtured by staff before eventually being used as ingredients in a dish. At Lûmé we even have our own private farm supplier who grows produce specifically for our menu.

My point is that when I see a carrot that’s come from the farm or from the little plot of garden outside my door, there’s no way I’m going to waste or overcook it. I’ve spent too much time watching it grow from a tiny seed in the ground. I’ve invested in that bloody carrot; watered it, cared for it, protected it from weeds. I have respect for it. Which means that when it arrives in my kitchen, I have no choice but to be careful with how I use it, and consider its value.

Why you should start freaking out about this now

Don’t trust companies or governments to fix this issue for us. If we don’t start taking our food wastage problem seriously on an individual level, and look for ways in which we can rewrite our relationship with real nutrition, we’re going to be f*&#ed in a few years time. For example: it’s claimed that in the next 30 years, we may no longer have any fish left in the ocean. People will be eating fish substitute or fish paste grown in a lab because we’ll have overfished our resources. They might even be advocating the wonders of chemically-prepared food substitutes. When did this become normal?!

Fortunately, there’s a few organisations that are doing their part to curb food wastage and promote sustainable practices. Oz Harvest have just opened Australia’s first rescued food supermarket, while Yume have launched an app allowing restaurants to sell or donate their surplus food. Plus, with Chefs having higher media profiles than ever before, I think we’ve got a social responsibility to raise awareness around these issues. After all, if you’re going to be flooding TV shows, podcasts and public events, you’re kinda obliged to use those platforms for a greater purpose.

Otherwise you’re just some dickhead on TV.

— Shaun Quade


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