Sustainability in Commercial Kitchens

Creativity, innovation and an indomitable intention to make sustainability an essential component and in some areas, the very core of decision-making in the food business, is one of the foremost trends in commercial kitchens. As an example, traditional ecological knowledge of the food system offers the products which leading chefs experiment with. How can we create a synergy between sustainability, taste and health? By choosing such ingredients which promote biodiversity, agrobiodiversity and rich cultures across the world. The Plant-Forward Global 50 initiative, is one such example, where chefs are recognized for their commitment to advancing healthy, vegetable-centric and sustainable food choices. The National Restaurant Association in the US, has listed the top 10 overall trends in 2022, of which sustainable, reusable and recyclable packaging; zero waste and sustainability; immunity boosting snacks; plant-based sandwiches; menu streamlining are some of the featured items.

While on one level, we can build in sustainable practices into a commercial kitchen and enhance our image and achieve cost efficiencies, on another level, restaurants can influence customer preferences through innovations such as above and more: nutritional information on the menu card; low-calorie, low-fat, restrictive-food options (gluten-free); low-carbon menu options; encouraging doggy bags; offering multiple portion sizes and so on. The commercial kitchen can play a ‘hidden’ front-end role by encouraging environmentally friendly eating. Can the consumer be educated on how what he consumes, has: a) resulted in a reduction on resource-usage (energy, water and others); b) conservation of bio-diversity; c) reduced production of waste/GHG emission; d) encouraged local employment or fair trade and so on. The image-enhancing benefits are apparent, but what in essence is being accomplished, in the process, is re-orienting the way a consumer thinks about “consumption of food” in general.

What is sustainability? Is it only about the environment, or are the dimensions multifarious? Environmental Sustainability is focused on meeting the resource and services needs of current and future generations without compromising the health of the ecosystems that provide them. It covers biodiversity conservation; meeting social needs, which entails fair trade and supporting local employment; protecting natural resources from depleting and retaining the harvest rate of renewable resources within their capacity to regenerate (regenerative capacity); reduce, reuse and recycle to cut down on waste, emissions, costs and improving product efficiency and limit the use of non-renewable resources and minimize waste generation. It is easily discernible that such a definition goes beyond just the environment; it touches upon social and economic dimensions, which is known as the Triple Bottom Line concept of Elkington (1997). Long-term sustainability strategies for businesses should be based on three key dimensions of sustainable development: the impact on the environment, the promotion of social equity and economic benefits.

To the above, we must add the all-important focus on consumer health, as sustainable dietary habits form an important part of the triad that is: environmental-social-economic impact. Not only is healthy food a result of the synergy amongst the three dimensions but also one of the prime motivators for engaging in the discussion on sustainability in the first place. This statement is corroborated by the EAT Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food production. The commission recommends several dietary changes to enable feeding 10 billion people (estimated population in 2050, a UN forecast), in a sustainable and resilient way. Doubling the consumption of vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes and to halve the consumption of red meat and sugar. The focus is on plant-based foods, with lesser animal source foods, as it has been well-established that meat and dairy production is a major contributor to GHG emissions, requires high water usage and is a major contributor to pollution of water bodies. To encourage such diets, research shows that chefs and restaurants have been some of the most vociferous advocates in the global restaurant business. For example, instances of chefs promoting the Mediterranean diet is well-known, as it has nutritional, ecosystem and sociocultural benefits. If McDonald’s can develop a plant-based meat-alternative, the McPlant burger, we clearly see a shift in consumption pattern and also a greater pressure on consumers to shift!

One may not see the immediate relevance of all three dimensions, mentioned above, to sustainability initiatives in a commercial kitchen, but nothing could be farther from reality. More than 25% of energy consumption across the globe is on food production and supply. While water is used in abundance in agriculture, which produces the base ingredients for food businesses, we see that kitchen operations are also water-intensive. Add the use of water in fossil-fuel based energy generation, and what we have is a massive amount of water being used for food generation. On the other hand, a glance at the statistics on food waste, would show us how much of that investment into energy, water and land use in producing food products, seems to be a futile exercise, as food waste figures are staggering. Accumulated global food waste has the 3rd largest carbon footprint after the United States and China. Agriculture uses 2/5th of the globe’s land area and 1/3rd of fish stock is overfished only to lead to a phenomenal amount of wastage, which raises serious questions about food distribution across socio-economic strata and our ability to provide one square meal on the table of an underprivileged family in a developing country. Some careful planning by food establishments can go a long way in not only managing food preparation and wastage reduction, while servicing the customer, but can also keep track of the environmental, social and economic impact along the entire supply chain.

Clearly, sustainability is much more than just the environment; it has diverse implications, some which mean – being serious about giving away excess food to those who need it, resulting in social equity and providing economic benefits to communities who so diligently provide quality produce that is used in commercial kitchens.

Since social equity is one of the dimensions, it is natural that food safety and security should also feature in the discussion on sustainability. Given this complex inter-mingling of factors impacting our individual and collective futures, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals has included eradication of hunger and poverty, clean water, sustainable land use, responsible production and consumption, mitigating climate change and sustainable life on land and water as some of the prominent goals. None of these can be achieved without the conscious contributions of individual food businesses, whose joint efforts will make the required impact.

What emerges is a clear vindication of the stand that, restaurant and food businesses must contribute to a circular economy, instead of a linear one, so that inputs such as raw materials, ingredients and energy and output such as emissions and waste are reduced. While a circular economy seems inevitable, what should also be borne in mind is that, we need to be aware of conflicting challenges, when we speak of circular food production systems, where nutrients are recycled, as the process shouldn’t lead to accumulation of pathogens and spread of infectious diseases.

How to Evaluate the Environmental Impact?

While it is standard practice to evaluate the consumption and user behaviour across the areas of energy, water, waste generation (during preparation, service or consumption) in a commercial kitchen; another approach to evaluate waste is to consider the Life Cycle Assessment Methodology. The potential environmental impact of a product, process or service is evaluated by examining the inputs and outputs throughout the life cycle, in this methodology. One could carry out such an assessment for a single item on a menu, evaluating its environmental impact (usage of water and energy; waste generation and emissions) subject to the level of quantification possible and access to technology. Such an exercise is not only illuminating for a commercial kitchen but will also help with future benchmarking.

Researchers have also attempted to combine Porter’s (1985) value chain analysis that covers the full range of activities required to produce a product or service, with the food product flow approach, where the sequence that food follows within the food service operations is tracked. Sustainable restaurant initiatives are then tracked along four dimensions covering sourcing, production, marketing and servicing.

Classification of Sustainability Initiatives in Commercial Kitchens

The environmental impact of a commercial kitchen goes far beyond the kitchen; it should ideally be seen as impacting the whole supply chain. With this in mind, a business can incorporate a whole host of initiatives. While food businesses focus on energy, water and waste management along with emissions with regard to sustainability initiatives, we believe food that promotes health and well-being cannot be considered as any less important, as a sustainability dimension. We all want real food on our table, with minimal processing, with the assurance that they are wholesome, fresh and nutritious products, sourced locally, which are organic in their production methodology and with diversity and seasonality being major drivers in all procurement decisions. With all of the above initiatives taken into account, also using local farmers or producers, who are able to supply the above, would mean scoring a perfect 10 on adopting sustainability values in your business. This may not be realistically possible, but we would want to get as close to it as is possible.

We look at certain high environmental impact areas, where commercial kitchens are most commonly seen to falter, along with certain innovative ways to look at sustainability in commercial kitchens.

Innovation through Indigenous Knowledge and Traditional Food

Innovation has been the cornerstone for certain leading chefs, who focus on creating a sustainable food system through the inclusion of underutilized and traditional species in their recipes. An example being top restaurants in South Africa where samphire, dune spinach and soutslaai (indigenous fynbos edibles) are found on their menu. This closely resonates with what many of us have heard from our homes, the specialty of our grandmother’s recipes, which contained an exotic mix of spices, herbs and locally sourced ingredients. This could be a major sustainability initiative, with a possibility to grow on a mammoth scale, in a country like India, which boasts of vast diversity in the cultural landscape. Cuisines differ from state to state and very often even within a state! How can this knowledge be leveraged and how can traditional cooking methods, improve the nutritional value, while giving us resource optimization benefits, are pertinent questions for chefs!

Food Waste

Food waste can be generated in large volumes in a commercial kitchen. It can arise at the preparation, consumption or service stage. Food waste hot spots refer to certain types of commercial food businesses or food items that typically generate waste. While restaurants feature in this list as a food waste hotspot, in dishes we find salads and side dishes most commonly being wasted. These are easy fixes for a kitchen, where an educated interface with customer can lead to serving based on individual preferences. The findings in this respect could vary according to country and it would be prudent for regulatory authorities and associations in India to periodically share data insights in this respect with chefs. More accurate ordering options can drastically cut down food waste, including: options for different portion sizes, charge customers by weight of food ordered rather than portion, encouraging only a la carte rather than buffet (which leads to enormous food wastage)

In the preparation, some of the best practices include developing recipes that use the produce in totality, referred to as the nose-to-tail approach. It includes activities such as using bones and carcasses for stock, vegetable skins for broth or chutneys, re-using oil for dressing and so on. The idea is to value by-products and leftovers during the cooking process and to innovatively use them in different dishes.

A kitchen could also avoid over-production, through accurate forecasting, using technology and software to captures trends in customer orders and changes in customer preferences.

As far as kitchen waste is concerned, the option is to either compost it, sell it to a vendor or feed animals with it. In any case, kitchen waste can be put to several practical uses and commercial kitchens would do well to have a detailed plan, including purchase of relevant machinery for composting or anaerobic digestion. Collecting fat, oil and grease (FOG), for handover to an authorized recycling company is important as well. FOG, solid food waste and cleaning chemicals, are certain recognized items that should not be allowed to enter the drainage network.

Left-over food from consumers, is often given for animal feeding or used to generate bio-fuel. In this regard, untouched food and excess food production can be donated to foodbanks and promotes social values, as mentioned earlier.

Specifically for food waste, a useful guideline is the one proposed by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, which provides a hierarchy of options for reducing food losses and waste, which could well meet our sustainability goals. The hierarchy recommends as first recourse ‘Source reduction – reduce food losses and waste”; followed by re-distribute process – feed hungry people; 3nd best option is to recycle – by feeding animals or composting; 4th best option is to recover energy – nutrients and finally when none of the above is possible, send the waste to an incinerator or landfill.

Locally Grown/Seasonal Foods/Organic Foods/Procurement

The use of locally produced foods, not only encourages local employment but also reduces carbon footprint. Seasonal foods are considered one of the best sustainability initiatives by chefs, as non-seasonal foods not only require more intensive production methods, consuming more energy and resources, but may also be modified or grown with chemicals. Organic foods are encouraged as they do not use toxic synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. In case of utility items/non-perishables, the mantra for procurement is to focus on environmentally friendly products such as bio-degradable, reusable and recyclable materials.

As far as purchase of meat and fish products are concerned, research studies show use of sustainably harvested fish as one of the top initiatives. While, we have stated the general trend towards a plant-based diet, meat continues to be one of the dominant categories on the menu and conscious restaurants ensure that their meat is sourced locally; animal welfare in meat purchases is considered, antibiotic free meats and certified ethically produced products (or known to follow ethical standards) are usually purchased.

In general, sustainable procurement involves relying on shorter supply chains, purchasing directly from farmer markets and locally owned stores. Specific requests are placed for minimal packaging material also in some instances where food businesses place sustainability initiatives at the core of their product offering.



Raw Material Wastage

Ingredients and semi-processed foods, which are used for cooking fall into this category. It also includes all packaging material, cutlery, napkins and so on. Commercial kitchens would do well to replace all disposable plastic ware with reusable items as this is one of the most popular sustainability initiatives and easy to implement. This would include using cloth napkins, glass cups and ceramic ware. Where take-aways are involved, using biodegradable material is another common practice. Ingredient stock planning and appropriate storing, to prevent wastage is another common checking point.

Energy and Water Usage

Purchasing energy-efficient equipment and products is a standard sustainability practice. While implementing renewable energy programmes, such as use of Solar and Wind Power is not as common, it is the direction in which most establishments are moving, given the focus on renewable energy in India’s energy mix. Energy efficiency also includes, regular maintenance and cleaning of equipment and appliances to ensure optimal energy transfer; preventing excess energy usage due to inappropriate kitchen design layout (placing the refrigerators close to the heat generating appliances), ensuring equipment is used for the intended purpose and turning off equipment, when not in use. While monitoring energy and water usage through audits is recommended, periodical training programmes, would go a long way in building the right sustainability values. Use of water-efficient devices and equipment and low-flow faucets wherever possible, without hampering kitchen operations, is another standard practice.

For more detailed practices on energy, water and waste management, please see blog on Absolute Zero Waste.

Before we conclude, we draw the reader’s attention to policy and government interventions. We see policy support as very crucial in guiding sustainability principles. A fine example is that of mandatory nutrition labeling, launched in 2012 in the US for restaurants. This led to the introduction of new menu recipes with fewer calories, smaller portion sizes, healthier cooking methods and healthier options. Such governmental support, can go a long way in disciplining the food culture, while keeping sustainability goals within everyone’s line of sight.

The above discussion on sustainability in commercial kitchens can be encapsulated as an attempt to deliver on the environmental, social and economic dimensions of sustainability while looking at the larger picture of how produce is created on the farms (industrialized versus sustainable system) and the micro picture of linking what’s happening on the farms to what one can deliver in the kitchen, in a sustainable way. When the whole process from farm to fork to waste disposal becomes one harmonious story of healthy living for all concerned in the supply chain, in the present and for the future, then truly our commercial kitchen demonstrates its allegiance to sustainability.