Of fish bones and carrot peelings

  • Nation
  • Sunday, 29 May 2016

Every last bit: Taylor’s University culinary arts students cooking spaghetti Bolognese with about-to-expire but still good to eat surplus ingredients. They produced enough to feed 300 needy people. — SHAHANAAZ HABIB/The Star

We do love our huge buffet spreads. But they pose a challenge to chefs and hotels when it comes to reducing food waste.

THERE is an art to buffet dining.

You don’t just load everything in sight on your plate and then sit down to eat.

“The art of buffet eating is how many times you go to the buffet line. It is OK to go back 10,000 times but just eat that portion. As simple as that,” says Siti R. Ismail who teaches culinary arts at Taylor’s University.

When Siti is at a buffet, she will go up to take food a minimum of six times! But the portions she takes each time are very small: “I will have my salads first, then my bread and soup, after that my cheeses, then my main course. Usually I eat a very limited main course. Then I will have the desserts.

“Being a chef I feel I need to try every single thing but I try only a bit,” she says.

What about taking a lot of some items, usually cakes and desserts, for the whole table to share?

For Siti, that is a no-no: “Once you are aware of the art of buffet dining, you will never do that,” she says.

Malaysians are such lovers of food that we delight in huge buffet spreads at hotels or restaurants – the bigger, the better! Call it greed or being kiasu, or over-ambitious, it is common to see people heap food onto their plates and then leave half of it uneaten to be thrown away.

The Dorsett Putrajaya is a new hotel that has yet to have its official opening but already about 30kg-50kg of food goes to waste every day, says chief steward Husairi Ali.

He knows all about the wastage that happens at hotels: at a hotel resort he worked at a few years ago, the food waste was a whopping 800kg a day.

He says there is a lack of awareness among consumers when it comes to wasting food and what happens to the food.

“They pay a lot of money and want to consume a lot. When it is not according to their taste or they can’t finish it, they just leave it on the table. During peak periods, food wasted at resorts can come up to more than one tonne a day,” he says – enough to feed 300 to 400 people if it was converted to rice!

Siti says many hotels have started to put out smaller portions in buffets these days to prevent wastage. Desserts, for instance, sometimes come in bite sizes, and there are also food stations where you get food cooked on the spot.

“In the mornings, there would be chefs doing eggs at the egg station even though there is already scrambled eggs in the buffet. A lot of customers like the personalised service. They prefer to see their food being cooked.

“This is a win-win situation because the customer wants it fresh and hotels can reduce wastage,” says Siti who is the deputy dean in the department of Culinary Arts and Food Service Management at Taylor’s University.

Siti says reducing wastage and, hence, food costs is knowledge that professional chefs need: “It is part of the business mindset. The bosses will check how you reduce costs. So you would need to know how to use your creativity to get full use from ingredients.

“If you do not utilise all parts of the salmon, what are you going to do about it? Can you make a fish stock with the bones? When you peel the carrots, can you use the peel for something else?’’

All this is part of the culinary arts syllabus and during exams, the examiner will actually check the student chefs’ garbage to see how much is being wasted – because it all affects cost.

Dorsett’s Husairi adds that food wastage is not confined to the kitchen and prepared food that is not eaten. Waste starts from the very beginning, at the delivery stage, he points out.

“We have a problem with suppliers. We expect the food to come in proper containers and packaging but some suppliers don’t have a proper policy for hygiene and sanitation. So goods sometimes come in dirty containers and boxes that make it easy for the food to spoil.”

When it comes to food that goes off easily, like meat and chicken, there is also the need to check if the supplier is using a chiller or refrigerated truck to deliver the goods to the hotel.

As for leftover food from the buffet, Husairi says it has to be thrown away even if it’s untouched and still looks fresh. It cannot be donated to the homeless or the needy or even given to hotel staff, as regulations do not allow it.

“Those are the regulations from the Health Ministry and Jakim (Department of Islamic Development Malaysia). When we do charity, we cook fresh new food to give away.”

As for Taylor’s University, they do a bit of cooking for charity, too.

Siti says when some of the food they have in the department’s kitchen is about to expire but is still good, the students look at how they can use up those ingredients.

Last Sunday morning, for instance, they had tomatoes and meat that was about to expire, so they made and packed spaghetti Bolognese for 300 people and an NGO they work with distributed the food to the needy that day for lunch.

“We have been doing this since 2007. The students understand the need to pay it forward and give back to society.

“As a chef, these are the easiest things that we can do. It doesn’t take much because the ingredients are all right there at the school. Students get to volunteer, engage with organisations and cook for kids or whoever needs it.”

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