Drexel University Food Lab Gathers Chefs to Fight Food Waste

A dish from the Food Lab's food-waste training.

A spin on fish and chips created by Drexel Food Lab students for this week's food-waste training program.

Food waste is a massive, but surmountable, problem. Roughly half of all produce in the United States is thrown away, pouring into landfills and depriving hungry Americans of healthy food. The Drexel Food Lab in Drexel University’s Department of Culinary Arts and Food Science, though, is working to change that.

At a food waste advocacy training held in the Academic Building on May 8 in collaboration with the James Beard Foundation, the Drexel Food Lab brought together chefs and executives from some of the best restaurants in Philadelphia to discuss the challenges the food industry faces and offer small-scale solutions for long-term progress.

“The Food Lab is really focused on uniting students and faculty around real-world problems, and food waste is a pressing, global, real-world problem,” said Jonathan Deutsch, a professor of culinary arts and food science who gave a presentation offering practical solutions to issues of sustainability and waste.

In her own presentation on recycling, Ana Caballero of High Street on Market offered suggestions for turning scraps and leftovers into food for staff meals — and saving money in the process. Day-old bread can be turned into a panzanella salad, she said. Egg whites left over from yolk-filled pasta can be spun into crepes with little imagination required. The trick, she said, is turning theory into practice by putting the reworked recipes into the restaurant’s plans.

“It’s about creating methodologies for some of these ideas,” said Caballero.

A dish from the Food Lab's food-waste training.

The Food Lab’s mission is to get students as excited about tackling challenges surrounding sustainability and nutrition as they get about “plating things with tweezers,” Deutsch said during his presentation. For this week’s event, his students had a chance to bridge the gap between those two aspects of the food world.

On the Friday before the training, students in the Food Lab hosted and worked alongside Brian Lofink, the executive chef at The Sidecar Bare & Grille and an adjunct professor in the Department of Culinary Arts and Food Science, and Ed Affinito, the chef at Kraftwork. The pair helped Food Lab students design four recipes to fit the food-waste theme, which were then served at a reception following the training.

Among other ingredients, the students were tasked with using whole barramundi, woody stems of broccoli left over after their florets were used in another class, and beet powder made from beets that would otherwise go to waste. They came up with barramundi beet tacos, beet and goat cheese arancini, broccoli stem tempura and a take on fish and chips that turned the barramundi skin into a crisp ready for dipping.

A dish from the Food Lab's food-waste training.

Silvia Pinto, an undergraduate culinary arts student who developed the arancini dish, said finding creative ways to turn even scraps into delicious food is at the heart of what happens on the sixth floor of the Academic Building.

“The Food Lab has really instilled this idea into my everyday life,” she said. “The idea of minimizing food waste is a crucial part of the food industry and we definitely have to take it into account and educate others about how food waste can be kept to a minimum.”

Wenguang Zhang, a fellow culinary arts student, came up with the tempura dish, which he said aligns with the Food Lab’s broader efforts of using food to find “benefits for society.” During his presentation, Deutsch spoke of the same idea, referring to his earlier experience in the corporate food world and efforts to translate what he learned there into a more community-focused approach.

“I realized that a lot of what we were doing with food science in the Big Bad Food world could be applied in the Good Food world,” said Deutsch.

A dish from the Food Lab's food-waste training.

Among the ideas he offered during his instructional presentation at the food-waste event: turning overripe bananas into one-ingredient ice cream (or two if there’s extra milk lying around); using past-their-prime vegetables to make relish, which the Food Lab has done in a collaboration with the nonprofit food bank Philabundance and Brine Street Picklery; and pushing frozen fish rather than fresh, which is often previously frozen, spoils quickly and often gets tossed by home cooks. The Food Lab has also been experimenting with a powdered vegetable blend that students recently turned into muffins that could be served as part of a healthy school breakfast.

Among the industry notables in attendance at the event were Ellen Yin, the co-owner of High Street Hospitality Group; “Top Chef” competitor Sylva Senat; Adam Diltz, the chef at Johnny Brenda’s; and Chazz Alberti, culinary director at Brûlée Catering and president of the regional chapter of the Chef’s Collaborative nonprofit. There were also culinary educators at the training. If Deutsch has his way, each will take some of the lessons learned in the Food Lab back to their kitchens and keep spreading the message of sustainability.

“We’re at the beginning of what I hope will be an explosion of this kind of work,” said Deutsch.