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A Sustainable Kitchen


    It’s safe to say we’re all familiar with the terms “sustainable” and “green”— words that have been, perhaps, a bit overused, but remain of utmost importance. You likely know what an heirloom tomato is, and you’re drawn to locally grown vegetables. You’ve tried grass-fed beef and like it. But as we’re growing more accustomed to knowing where the food on our restaurant tables comes from, have we considered what’s happening, green-wise, in the “back of the house,” in the kitchens of restaurants serving sustainable food?  Many restaurants, realizing that they consume enormous amounts of energy and produce large amounts of waste each day, have been taking the green concept to another level in order to reduce their carbon footprint. Many have done this through composting, using corn-based disposable products or creating gardens on their rooftops, to name a few examples.
Here in Chicago, the idea of having a “greener kitchen” has been slower to catch on compared to out West. With a city that doesn’t even have a formal recycling program and that’s known for having a distribution process that’s tough to change, some chefs have really had to work to help out the environment, in addition to the farmers who supply their food.
    At Carnivale, chef Mark Mendez says he’s been trying to go as green as he can.  “It’s really difficult to go completely ‘green,’ especially with a big restaurant like ours,” he says. “You try to do little things here and there, whatever is feasible.”
For Mendez, that has been buying more produce from local farmers, pooling resources with other restaurants on Randolph Street to institute a recycling and composting program, swapping paper towel dispensers for hand dryers in Carnivale’s restrooms and using recycled paper for office supplies and biodegradable to-go containers. In addition, Mendez recently renovated the roof of the restaurant to install a garden where he’ll grow some of his own produce this spring.
“As such a large restaurant, we generate so much waste,” Mendez says, noting that Carnivale’s 4,000 square-foot space seats more than 300 people. “We’re busy all the time, which is great, but having seen the impact we have on the environment, I want to do more than just improve my bottom line. I think it’s important to give back to the world and community we live in.”
The challenge, Mendez says, is finding a way to help out the community as much as possible, while still being fiscally sound. Maybe now it’s not as important for restaurants to worry about waste or energy use, “but in a few years we’re not going to have a choice,” he says.
At the Art Institute of Chicago’s kitchens that service the museum’s café, Garden Restaurant and catering operations, general manager Kris Kotte works with the museum’s food service management company, Bon Appetit Management Company (BAMCO), to remain committed to green initiatives at the back of the house, in addition to incorporating locally grown food into menus. BAMCO operates a number of food service outlets around the country with a mission “to become a model for what is possible in sustainable food service.”
Kotte has strived to reduce the museum’s carbon footprint by working with a team to refine processes in the kitchen that maximize labor and save energy.  This has included shutting down the kitchen during non-peak times and looking into energy-saving equipment.  The museum recently purchased a dishwasher with 60 percent energy savings. and is pursuing LEED certification for its modern wing, opening in 2009. LEED certification, short for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a rating system created by the U.S. Green Building Council for the design, construction and operation of environmentally friendly buildings.
    In addition, Kotte has tried to reduce waste where possible—buying more products in bulk to reduce packaging waste, cutting out a coffee cup size to reduce the need for more disposables and reducing the amount of individual-sized condiment packets offered.
He’s also been purchasing more recyclable or biodegradable consumables, including silverware. And, here’s a new one, even the containers for the eggs he uses are recyclable.
Kotte receives his eggs from Egg Innovations, a sustainable egg producer based in Port Washington, Wisc. that supplies to grocery stores, but also to restaurants, hotels and other food service operations.
Egg Innovations’ eggs come from chickens raised freely (meaning not cooped up in cages) on farms throughout the Midwest that are also antibiotic- and hormone-free and vegetarian-fed (meaning they eat organic grains, not other suspect foods like some mass-produced chicken). In fact, John Brunnquell, founder and president, says his company uses the poultry waste as fertilizer for other farms to use in growing the grains for his chickens, further completing the “sustainability cycle,” if you will.
But in a country where most eggs come in Styrofoam packaging, Brunnquell has focused just as heavily on creating a packaging system that will better help the environment. According to Brunnquell, Egg Innovations became the first egg producer to move to plastic for its packaging that’s fully recyclable, but also efficient at holding the product without breakage.
“We have also done away with a glue strip label and instead use soy-based ink to make our packaging more recyclable,” Brunnquell says.
By working with suppliers who are involved in the green movement, Kotte says, “We’ve made an effort to cut off potential extra waste at the purchase point rather than dealing with it later.  It makes recycling efforts much easier.”
    Tim O’Shea, chief executive officer of Clean Fish, a seafood supplier that works with sustainable fisheries around the world, has also worked to lessen the impact of his packaging on environmental waste.
“We have been working to develop more eco-friendly packaging, getting away from Styrofoam boxes,” which O’Shea says, have traditionally been the package of choice for fish suppliers. Instead, he says, Clean Fish delivers some of its fish shipments, notably shrimp, in large, plastic tubs that restaurants can either recycle or reuse for other purposes in their operations.
Rather than simply ensuring that the fish Clean Fish supplies have been safely harvested without overfishing or damage to the country’s oceans, “it’s important that the way in which we transport our product also continues those sustainable practices,” O’Shea says. The tubs also come with printed information about the source of the fish. “That way, top chefs who use our products can also read about where they come from, too.”
At the moment, O’Shea’s Chicago customers include Carnivale, Frontera Grill/Topolobampo, the Peninsula Hotel, Vie, Weber Grill, Red Light and other restaurants. Clean Fish has also worked with Fortune Fish Company, a major fish distributor in Chicago to grow their supply routes.
O’Shea says the cost differences between using the plastic buckets and Styrofoam is miniscule. The next step, he says, has been working with more packaging companies to come up with more recyclable or environmentally friendly solutions for its containers. “No one in the seafood business can afford not to be concerned about our impact on the environment,” O’Shea says.
Curious about other restaurants incorporating green initiatives in their kitchens?  Here is a brief list of some Chicago eateries doing just that:

Frontera Grill / Topolobampo
445 N. Clark St., 312-661-1434

    Rick Bayless has committed to a recycling vendor and sends food waste to the Resource Center, a non-profit organization that provides composting solutions for restaurants.  Bayless also works with the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC), a nonprofit group that has spearheaded a campaign with restaurants to improve their green efforts.

 Blue Water Grill
520 N. Dearborn St., 312-777-1400

    This River North restaurant is one of several concepts operated by B. R. Guest Restaurants, a restaurant group certified by the Green Restaurant Association. The GRA is a non-profit organization seeking to help restaurants incorporate environmentally friendly practices, including recycling and composting, using energy-efficient and water-saving equipment, uniforms made with organic cotton and other green initiatives.

5148 N. Clark St., 773-334-9851

    Owner Mike Roper says, “Wherever possible, we support sustainable agriculture and practices.” In addition to incorporating locally grown and organic foods in Hopleaf’s menu, the Andersonville restaurant also recycles all glass and cardboard, along with its cooking oil, and strives to avoid excessive packaging where possible. As far as cleaning materials, while Roper says its hard to avoid using bleach because of its effectiveness as a disinfectant, he does try to use other chemicals as sparingly as possible, swapping some out in favor of natural cleaners like white vinegar. Roper also works with ELPC.

 A Mano
335 N. Dearborn St., 312-629-3500

    Amid the bottled water backlash, owner Dan Sachs and chef John Caputo came up with a solution by installing an advanced water treatment system created by Natura which dispenses still or sparkling water into carafes for customers to drink from at the table. The result is good, clean water that’s better than tap, but without the excess waste of bottled water. 

Shaw’s Crab House
21 E. Hubbard St., 312-527-2722

    In addition to serving up sustainable seafood and local foods that reduce gas and other resources created by far-reaching deliveries, this seafood giant has switched to compact-fluorescent light bulbs in the back of the house and has been researching recycling efforts. The restaurant has also installed Energy Star-rated cooking equipment to save energy and spray valves on dishwashing machines to save water use and uses eco-friendly dish soap. Like Frontera and Hopleaf, Shaw’s and its parent company, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, also works with ELPC to incorporate green initiatives in its group of restaurants. 

Intercontinental Hotel
505 N. Michigan Ave., 312-944-4100

    The Mag Mile hotel, in addition to working on creating a green roof by this summer and attaining LEED certification, has switched over to non-disposable serving ware and cloth napkins where possible and is also in the process of sourcing napkins made from recycled paper for use in the lobby bar. The hotel has also committed to purchasing green sustainable energy credits to supply 50 percent of its annual energy consumption.

Published: April 06, 2008
Issue: 2008 Spring Green Issue


Entertaining Customers
This is a great article. I keep referring back to it when trying to find a restaurant to entertain one of our office supplies customers. Tremendous suggestions. Keep up the great work.
Joel Jonstone, Feb-04-2010