Chef whips up zero-waste kitchen

Kathryn Rem

Chicago caterer Greg Christian didn’t like to see the tons of food scraps, paper plates, plastic forks and glass bottles generated by his business go into the garbage, but he wasn’t sure recycling and composting would be practical in a commercial kitchen.

So he researched the issue, drew up a plan, and today operates a zero-waste commercial kitchen — the first Chicago caterer to do so.

“I feel I’m doing the right thing,” said Christian, a chef and owner of Greg Christian Catering, who was in Springfield recently to speak to farmers about marketing locally grown food to restaurants.

More than simply recycling, “zero-waste” takes a whole-system approach to the flow of resources. It maximizes recycling, minimizes waste, reduces consumption and ensures that products are made to be reused, repaired or recycled back into nature or the marketplace.

Christian started by asking his staff to sort and separate all garbage within their workspaces. Noticing some reluctance, he removed garbage cans from the kitchen for a couple of days.

“It’s certainly not as easy as people think it is to separate garbage in the kitchen. However, after only a few days, my staff caught on and each item is meticulously separated, and rinsed when necessary,” he said.

The company kitchen contains recycling containers for aluminum and tin cans, glass bottles, cardboard, paper and plastic. Food scraps are saved for composting. Grease is reused as fuel for a bio-diesel truck.

Employees are encouraged to bring in personal items from home to add to the recycling containers. The operation at 1103 W. Grand Ave. in Chicago generates enough recycling to fill eight trucks every weekday, four on Saturdays and two on Sundays.

“When you go to throw something away, ask yourself, ‘Where is away?’ The truth is there is no ‘away,’ only landfills that grow larger every day,” said Christian.

In addition to the operation’s recycling and composting, Greg Christian Catering practices water conservation, offers reusable living botanical centerpieces, supplies invitations on recycled paper and uses biodegradable serviceware and eco-friendly cleaning supplies.

Unserved food is donated to local food banks. The staff has cut down on the use of office supplies.

Christian buys local and organic produce and dairy products when possible, and meat without growth hormones comes from Midwestern farms.

According to GrassRoots Recycling Network, a Cotati, Calif. organization that advocates for zero-waste businesses, more than two-thirds of packaging and food discarded by households and businesses is buried in landfills or incinerated.

Although the group has no statistics on the number of zero-waste commercial kitchens in the U.S., executive director Linda Christopher said they are becoming more common.

“The fact that I am constantly hearing about new zero-waste businesses all over the country is testament that it’s more widespread than one would think,” she said.

Christian started working on his zero-waste kitchen in July 2007, and it became fully operational in April. Although the initiative started in the businesses’ kitchen, green practices are now used on-site at the events the company caters — weddings, receptions, business meetings and galas.

Christian’s advice to other food-service industry professionals who want to move toward zero-waste?

Focus on one thing, such as recycling, composting or using more environmentally friendly materials. Once managers get a feel for the amount of waste their system produces, they can ramp up their efforts.

“No one thinks this, but food businesses are some of the biggest polluters on the planet,” said Christian. “It’s time for the service system to change.”

Kathryn Rem can be reached at (217) 788-1520