Bread on bread with radish and radish. Slice of sourdough bread, fried bread spread, slices of radish, quick-pickled radish leaf stems and crispy radish leaves.
A conversation with author Vojtech Vegh, Surplus: The food waste guide for chefs.
by Aimee Rigby/26th-July-2020
Welcome to Zero Waste Kode, would you like to introduce yourself?
Hi, everyone. My name is Vojtech Vegh, zero waste and plant-based chef and consultant for Hospitality businesses. I have also opened the first zero waste, vegan restaurant back in 2018 in Cambodia, which I sold. Afterwards, I moved back to Slovakia. And I recently published my first book Surplus: food waste guide for chefs, which is a, as the name suggests, is a guide for every chef on how to reduce and implement the food waste ideas in the professional kitchen.
Fantastic. So where did your passion for sustainable and plant-based cooking come from? What’s your background?
I’d say it developed over time. I started basically, the only work I had ever done was in the kitchen, I started in the kitchens when I was like 18 years old. And I went through quite a lot of kitchens and I’ve seen always like the common notions of putting like meat as the centre of the everyday age. And like creating, more in a fine dining space, like extreme amounts of waste during the preparation. And the more time I spent in the kitchen, the less sense it made to me. And once I’d seen that it is indeed possible to reduce that waste simply by changing the way we prepare food or the way we designed the menu, I got a really curious about all the sustainability in the hospitality industry and the food waste in general, because I find it so interesting- just the sheer amount of waste that is created in kitchens every day can be reduced simply by changing your approach and setting a different mindset about how you worked with ingredients in the kitchen.
Have you always been interested in sustainability since you were young?
No. But thinking like back to the years that I was like a kid growing up at home, because I’m coming from a small village in Slovakia, we used to have like our own garden growing vegetables. And it’s been like 10 or 15 years since I moved out from home. So, it’s really like connecting it all right now. Because while I wasn’t exactly aware of it as my in the beginning, when I started my current kitchen, it just all came together afterwards. Like realising how it is normal for me, it’s so natural for me to not waste ingredients in general, because I was taught that way- we never had much when I was growing up. And the ingredients that we’d grow in a garden, we must have stretched it throughout the winter. And they’re like walking into the kitchens and seeing like how sometimes chefs can be like treating ingredients, I don’t want to use the word disrespectful, but like putting too much in the waste bin. And then I was just thinking like, why would you? Why do we do that? Why is it so automatic- like it’s all on autopilot. We don’t even think about it. Like, I’m not saying anyone is doing it with bad intentions. But it just happened to be a standard right now, in so many restaurants. And it really got me thinking like, it’s just not right, because I mean, it’s not that hard to not waste the food. I mean, it’s the easiest thing that we can do is to just, if we would eat all the food that we grow and we buy, the food waste problem is gone, mostly, because that is really the only issue. But there’s still a very long way to go, I’d say, it takes some time to change minds. And you know, this is something that became a standard so fast. And it’s like so hard to change, even though the interest is creating that, I mean sustainability issues a massive topic and I only see that growing.
Vojtech Vegh, zero waste and plant-based chef and consultant for Hospitality businesses.
So, do you ever actually produce any food waste? What do you then do if you do have something that is flavourless in the bin? How do you then approach that food waste?
Food waste happens. It just happens. Even if you’re a zero waste restaurant, there will be some food waste, just because it’s not possible currently in a system where accidents happen or whatever happens. I mean, the second-best option is compost. Always compost anything. Any food that is compostable, it should go to compost. Because this is the next best thing. If you’ve already come across something that is not edible, it’s either spoiled or wasted by mistake or whatever happened to it- then just compost it- that is literally your second best option.
Okay, so you mentioned it in the beginning, you wrote a book: Surplus: the food waste guide for chefs. So, what made you decide to write that book, and what are your best tips for any of our chefs listening?
Originally, I never intended to write the book, I was just starting to write a small directory of ingredients and how to use them. Because I really found, not only professional chefs, but generally people who love to cook, are interested in how to reduce their food waste. So, I wanted to put together a small directory of ingredients and how to use every part of the ingredient. Which I then kept expanding on with more and more chapters or giving more context to it. And then I added the guide and then I added my thoughts. And then it happened to be like a fully printed 275 page book on food waste, which is great. And the reason I also wanted to put that book together was because there is simply no other resource for chefs right now that I am aware of that is targeted for professional chefs. So, I really feel like it’s really important to provide chefs with something, so they know where to start, how to start with that food waste. Number one tip on food waste in general is focusing on the prevention, it’s always the prevention of the food waste that is the most effective way to reducing the food waste. So, we should always be looking at what is on our menu, and how we can design it out by designing the dishes, because I believe that the food waste in general, currently is designed into our system. In the most recent year, we are all focusing on consumerism, it’s like we just like to have everything, everywhere, all the time. And we got used to that. So, I think that if you look at the waste and what we put in there and build a menu, by the way that it does not create waste, that is the most effective approach that chefs can do in a kitchen.
Can you give us a top five tips of how any commercial kitchens can start doing what you’re doing?
Number one, start measuring your food waste in whatever means available to you. Because you need to measure before you can manage what you’re doing. And once you have at least a rough idea of how much waste you’re creating,
then make sure your kitchen and your team is extremely well organised. That would be my second top tip. Because you really need to have a rough step by step plan of how you’re going to approach it, what you’re going to change.
Then the third step is create the dishes with the bin in the mind, like maybe during the creation of the dishes, hide your food waste bin for a day, or put it in a separate place and try to work without it, to see how much or how creative you can get without it. Because sometimes it really helps when you push yourself to not having the bin, and creating dishes as such. Fourth step; implement all the changes and make sure you’re really focusing on your staff and do the correct training. Because if your staff is not on board with what you’re doing, then you’re going to have a really hard time to implement all the changes because essentially the staff is who makes things happen; your chefs, your cooks, during the service. So, focus really on good communication and a good training with your staff. And lastly, make sure you pass all this information with a nice warm communication to your customers. So, they understand why you’re doing what you’re doing. They can even choose your restaurant over the other because sustainability is a massive selling point right now in hospitality. And if your customers are on board with you, your team is on board with you then I mean you are on the best way that you can go with food waste.
Above images Different dishes that Vojtechvegh has used in his quest for zero-waste food
So, why do you feel that monitoring and managing your food waste is one of the most important things to start doing?
Monitoring your food waste is extremely important, because, as I said, if you don’t measure it, then you can’t manage it. So, I mean, most of the chefs are seriously underestimating how much food waste they’re creating in the kitchens. And if you are only guessing what is in your food waste bin, then you can’t manage it or reduce it effectively. So, you really need to know what you are wasting and at which point: is it in a preparation? Is it due to the spoilage, is it the waste on the plates that are coming back? So, if you can collect those separately and measure them separately, at least during some monitoring period, a week or two, then you can have a great idea of how much food waste you’re creating. And it’s important to reduce it- for some businesses, it’s a financial motivation. So, they can save money on the customer, money on the ingredients, basically. And for many of the restaurants, it’s also because they just simply don’t want to contribute to the climate change and all the environmental reasons, which are, of course, very obvious reasons. But I think it’s just like a common sense to not waste food, because it to me personally, it is a common sense to not waste food that is edible. And food in the bin is nutrition in the bin, it’s flavour in the bin- is the efforts and it’s lots of work in a bit too. So that is all those things are wasted. So just don’t waste food.
Definitely. Yeah. So, do you think that sustainability is a massive selling point now more than ever? Or has it always been something that’s been a big selling point for restaurants?
I think it’s growing right now because the general consumers and general public are more and more aware of why sustainability is important? It’s a big talking point right now. It’s, I say, even more than before, because like the planet is changing way faster than we expected. So, I see that the guests and customers love to choose ingredients or brands and places where they shop or where they go to eat, because they support these kinds of ideas. And if some customers don’t know, like, where to start on their own, the easiest thing that they can do is simply support the business that is already doing it. So, this is literally the best thing that the people who are like too busy for like doing anything on their own can do- is to simply support the businesses that are already having like massive sustainably efforts.
Great. So, would you like to tell us about Surplus: the Plant-Based Food Studio? So, what is it? How did it start?
The Plant Based Food Studio is something I wanted to continue on from my restaurant Surplus. I moved on to creating a plant based food studio surplus, which I started a very unfortunate time right at the beginning of the pandemic. So, while I had the intention of creating a physical space, as kind of like a kitchen kind of thing, it never happened because of the pandemic. So, it’s still in my plans to do that. Instead, right now I’m focusing more on growing the business online. So, I will turn it into kind of a virtual space on my website that I’m building right now, which will be a kind of a full book for professional chefs focusing on food waste. And I also plan to do like training courses and things like that. I’m currently doing workshops, either online or even offline in Slovakia.
Finally, where can our listeners in hospitality follow your work and perhaps purchase your book if they want to know how they can start reducing their food waste and find out more about you?
I’m most active on Instagram, which you can find under my name @Vojtechvegh. And Surplus Food Studio is on Instagram too, and on my website www.surplusfoodstudio.com and you can buy my book directly from me or on Amazon- it is sold worldwide. And I’m also active on LinkedIn.
Fantastic, well after the pandemic has hopefully died down and we wish you the best of luck for your projects.
Thank you so much.