(This article appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
Sustainability is one of the biggest buzzwords right now in the food industry. From what goes into the products themselves to what is left over when the customer finishes, sustainability is a broad, often overwhelming topic for those just starting to consider what it may mean for their own kitchens. However, consumers are clamoring for it, and it behooves those in the kitchen to address the needs of the market. A recent survey conducted by the International Food Information Council found that 60% of consumers felt that it was important that the food they consume addresses sustainability, and that number is rising rapidly. Whether a kitchen addresses sustainability through reducing food waste, composting or solar energy, there are several ways that pastry professionals can adapt.
Being more sustainable could simply mean addressing food waste, a concept as old as pastry kitchens themselves. Pastry chef Heather Gressett has implemented two solutions in her career. While working in Chicago, she founded the Chicago Bridge Project, which helps deliver meals to the homeless created with rescued ingredients from local restaurants. When she moved to North Carolina, she continued her quest to eliminate food waste, this time in her own kitchen. Taking the advice she learned from an instructor in culinary school, she knew she couldn’t simply throw out excess ingredients left over from a menu revamp at Chestnut, a restaurant in Asheville. So, when life handed her several bags of lemon curd, she made ice cream. As luck would have it, the recipe was perfection and became a mainstay on the menu, and it was all thanks to her philosophy of avoiding food waste. The owners of The Sweet Praxis in Syracuse, New York, have the same philosophy. Today’s unsold bread and cookies become tomorrow’s croutons and cheesecake crusts. Co-owner Jennifer Walls says reusing her products is just one way to think sustainably in business. She constantly considers, “What other life does this have and how can people still continue to enjoy this in a different way, instead of throwing it out?”
The team at The Sweet Praxis also addresses sustainability in their packaging. Everything is either recyclable or compostable, and they encourage customers who dine in to avoid takeout packaging all together. Because environmentally friendly packaging has become more popular, not only are compostable options more easily sourced now, but the pricing is more affordable. And though they cannot yet control how many of their ingredients arrive, they do their best to recycle whatever they can and of course, compost ingredients in the kitchen, as well. The biggest step to deciding whether to compost packaging is understanding the availability of third-party composting partners in the area. While The Sweet Praxis benefits from a strong relationship with a vendor in Syracuse, not all areas in the United States have local partners that they can rely upon to properly compost or even recycle their products.
Gressett is in the process of developing a new ice cream shop concept, and also plans to compost and use green friendly packaging in her new space. She intends to go even further and investigate sustainable lighting inside and perhaps solar paneling for outside her building. Bread Alone Bakery, headquartered in Kingston, New York, is paving the way for such innovations, having added a solar array to the roof of their building in 2018. Currently, 30% of their energy needs are met with the solar panels, with a goal to be 100% renewable energy based by 2030. They certainly did not stop there. The bakery has energy efficient bread ovens, they partner with Toast Ale USA to turn surplus bread into beer, and they plan to release their first compostable bread bag this year. Bread Alone believes that these moves are investments for the future. “The public has spoken, and it wants to support sustainable companies,” says spokesperson Misha Handschumacher. “We try to give everyone an easy choice when buying their breads and pastries. With that said, our sustainability initiatives do require long-term commitment and hard work.”
Though sustainability has always been a part of the company ethos at places like Bread Alone and The Sweet Praxis, even small steps towards a greener kitchen can make a difference for those who may find it challenging to start the process. Walls says her bakery uses bags for smaller orders like cookies, so they do not waste a larger cake or pie box unnecessarily. Offering regular plates and silverware for dine-in service helps reduce waste as well, something Walls and Grasset both encourage. Reducing a carbon footprint by using local eggs, dairy and produce is another option. Chances are that local ingredients are fresher and higher quality, with the added benefit of reduced gas emissions from shorter transportation times.
If you are passionate about bringing change to your organization, Grasset says the most important thing to do is educate yourself, especially if you are working for someone else. Change can be hard, but it is worth it to put the work in. “Whether it’s composting or growing their own herbs or turning leftovers into staff meals, they need to pick their thing and do a lot of research,” Grasset explains, adding, “You can’t really sell someone on the ‘what if’ you don’t sell them on the ‘why’.” And whether you want to start being more sustainable or already work in such a kitchen, there are always new technologies or processes on the horizon. The goal is to never stop learning or improving, something any pastry professional can surely understand.
Photos courtesy of Heather Gressett & Bread Alone Bakery