Invest in your retirement. I was probably told this a hundred times, as we all were. Yet so many of us don’t understand the importance of this until far too late in life. And especially when I preceded this advice by saying to follow your passion — oftentimes your passion, while making you happy, will not feed you once you have stopped working.

It has been estimated that each year, more than 100 billion pounds of food is wasted in the United States. That equates to more than 160 billion dollars worth of food thrown away each year. At the same time, in many parts of the United States, there is a crisis caused by people having limited access to healthy & affordable food options. The waste of food is not only a waste of money and bad for the environment, but it is also making vulnerable populations even more vulnerable.

Authority Magazine started a new series called “How Restaurants, Grocery Stores, Supermarkets, Hospitality Companies and Food Companies Are Helping To Eliminate Food Waste.” In this interview series, we are talking to leaders and principals of Restaurants, Grocery Stores, Supermarkets, Hospitality Companies, Food Companies, and any business or nonprofit that is helping to eliminate food waste, about the initiatives they are taking to eliminate or reduce food waste.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chef Rob Connoley.

Rob Connoley is the chef and owner of Bulrush restaurant in St. Louis, Missouri serving contemporary interpretations of early 19th century Ozark foods. The James Beard semifinalist chef focuses on foraged, hunted and locavore foods and has become a vocal proponent of the Zero Waste initiative among restaurants.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Cooking is Career Three for me. I earned a doctorate from Purdue in 1995 which led to a variety of non-profit management positions focusing on access to healthcare for the uninsured, homeless youth, and ultimately running a methamphetamine treatment program in rural New Mexico. That last position is the one when I decided it was time for a change. To that point I had never worked in a restaurant but had spent 15 or so years dining at some amazing restaurants. So, I followed the old adage of doing what you know and what you love. I have not looked back since. I certainly work more hours than I ever have, but also have never been as happy.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company or organization?

Running such an unusual restaurant, everyday has something interesting about it. Whether it’s slaughtering our own animals, foraging the night’s mushrooms, or meeting the esoteric cadre of customers that we attract (I have THREE paleoethnobotanist friends as a result of my restaurant — likely three more than almost everyone reading this interview!). The story that still stands out the most was when we were included in the Saveur 100 in 2012. My previous restaurant, The Curious Kumquat, was in the small super-remote hamlet of Silver City, New Mexico. I was operating an illogical foraged food modernist tasting menu in a town of 7000 residents, which was three hours to an airport or major city. As a self-taught chef, who had yet to learn about PR companies or national media, the idea that my work could catch the attention of the national press was beyond comprehension. Being titled “The most far-flung modernist cuisine” certainly changed my professional trajectory.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Being an obsessive type, when I needed to expand the dining space at the Curious Kumquat, I decided to add on to my building — thinking I could do the whole project in a weekend. My plan was to wall-in an existing carport, and have a friend run some wires, while I would do the framing, insulation, and drywall. The timeline was ridiculous, but I was actually able to do everything up to the mudding of the drywall.

Then Monday morning rolled around, and the city’s building inspector showed up asking to see my permit and the permits for my commercial contractors. What can I say except I had never renovated a commercial property and didn’t know these things were required. The inspector made me hire a commercial contractor to remove all my work, and have it rebuilt with plans and permitting at great expense.

I certainly learned to ask a lot more questions before I follow my obsessiveness.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is authenticity in practice. The pandemic has been a great magnifier of this idea for me. As chefs, we should be setting the example for how we interact with our food and our guests. Chefs should be aware of the implications of the food they serve considering the impact on the farmers and laborers. They should be conscious of the impact of food miles, industrial farming practices, and waste on our environment. And chefs should be aware of the role model they present to their guests and staff, who will mirror their behaviors long after a restaurant meal.

A small, but tangible example of this is how the pandemic led many restaurants to offer carryout foods for the first time and their choices for packaging. Chefs who had built careers on sustainability, farm-to-table, and locavore ethics, quickly stocked their shelves with disposable containers. Often, they would use compostable packaging that isn’t truly compostable for the vast majority of consumers. Yet there are better options, albeit much pricier. So for me, leadership is continuing to speak my values, offering viable strategies for success, and when necessary be willing to accept the consequences (costs) to do the right thing.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Robert Browning wrote, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?” This quote crossed my eyes early in my high school days and has draped itself around me ever since. I find comfort in stretching myself and putting myself out there for criticism, testing, and judgment. This is the space where so many of my life’s achievements have been born, including my entire culinary career.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Let’s begin with a basic definition of terms so that all of us are on the same page. What exactly are we talking about when we refer to food waste?

Food waste in my restaurant is the food that goes in the trash can when a guest can’t or doesn’t finish their meal. It is the food scraps in the kitchen bin from peeled vegetables that could have been scrubbed and not peeled. And it is the piles of soiled vegetables in my farmers’ compost bins when they return from a farmers market with unsold produce. Each of these aspects of food waste can be addressed by the restaurant community, and each can be magnified to demonstrate waste and regional and national levels beyond restaurants to include industrially prepared foods, corporate farming, and international agricultural practices.

Can you help articulate a few of the main causes of food waste?

It is very common for a mid-sized restaurant to have a 45-gallon trash can filled with food scrap each day. This is caused by not having a plan in place to utilize peels, cores, and blemished ingredients. Kitchens often serve obscenely large portions, and over the years have trained their customers to expect leftovers to be packaged for tomorrow’s lunch. But often the food simply gets tossed. Kitchen staff are pushed for efficiency of time, not efficiency of ingredients. Restaurant owners focus on COG versus sales, instead of the harder calculations related to usage and waste.

What are a few of the obstacles that companies and organizations face when it comes to distributing extra or excess food? What can be done to overcome those barriers?

The greatest barrier in the restaurant community is having a staff member to be responsible for reducing waste. It is always easier to simply throw food away instead of planning ahead to utilize all parts of all ingredients. Most kitchen operations don’t view this as money well spent, but I would argue that the actual commitment of a restaurant’s resources can be minimal if a point person is assigned. There are also legal restraints that vary by state and community, although quite a bit of work has gone into this challenge already. Most larger cities now have organizations that can gather, process, and redistribute leftover food from restaurants.

Can you describe a few of the ways that you or your organization are helping to reduce food waste?

First, we constantly monitor our portion sizes to make sure guests are satisfied, but that food doesn’t come back on the plate. Second, we constantly watch what ends up in our trash can and ask if it can be composted. And finally, we watch our compost bin and ask if we could have used the ingredient to create something else such as miso, vinegar, or dehydrate items into a spicing agent. This has led to us creating an extensive variety of new ingredients to use back on the menu for both the kitchen and bar. And most importantly to me, I am in regular communication with my farmers to find out what produce they need help off-loading, and we find a home for it on our menu.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help address the root of this problem?

I have been pleased to see the pandemic lead to a handful of farmer-direct websites where consumers can purchase fresh farmed ingredients, delivered to their door. Farmer hubs are the next step in that process. When harvest ends, farmers need a place to send their produce for storage and have someone that can help distribute their produce to the consumer.

As far as politicians’ roles, I wish they could follow the lead of so many other countries and get fresh, scratch food into the cafeterias of schools across the country. Enough pilot programs have shown that kids prefer fresh, diverse foods, and we know that this will change their dietary trajectories for a lifetime. But that can’t happen when the federal subsidy for lunches is 1.88 dollars per student. Imagine a more direct relationship between farmers and schools, and the financial impact on farmers, the professional impact on the cooks, and the nutritional impact on students.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Don’t do something to please others. If you do something because you believe it to be right, then others will be supportive, and you’ll be able to meet the needs of those around you. The Curious Kumquat started out as a gourmet and international grocery in Silver City, NM. The town was so remote that there was no place to get unusual ingredients. Friends suggested I start a business where I would drive to Tucson and shop for the community, but I knew that they were really asking for the food to be available in town and simply couldn’t imagine such a business being successful. Despite the endless line of nay-sayers, the Kumquat opened and operated in the black for its entire run, ultimately evolving into a restaurant. And even as the same nay-sayers declared that the town was too rural for a tasting menu restaurant, I knew it was what I wanted to eat, and so I created it. My commitment to the idea, and the passion I shared with my guests is why we succeeded.
  2. At the end of the day, an employer must make decisions that are best for its own self-continuation, so take care of yourself, and that means finding an employer that is a good fit for what is important to you.
  3. All throughout my college-prep high school days I was told to build networks. I viewed that advice through jaded eyes when I was young. I wish they had said to choose the people that you want to be surrounded by at your happiest moment and in your time of greatest crisis. Maybe my jaded eyes would have been more receptive to what I now know to be a crucial part of my success.
  4. I think back to the college subjects where I didn’t have interest and skated through and the lost learning opportunities. I wish I had been told it was okay to step away and explore what my current interests were instead of following the maze that I thought was being imposed upon me, when really it was under my control all along.
  5. Invest in your retirement. I was probably told this a hundred times, as we all were. Yet so many of us don’t understand the importance of this until far too late in life. And especially when I preceded this advice by saying to follow your passion — oftentimes your passion, while making you happy, will not feed you once you have stopped working.

Are there other leaders or organizations who have done good work to address food waste? Can you tell us what they have done? What specifically impresses you about their work? Perhaps we can reach out to them to include them in this series.

Big name chefs like Dan Barber and Jose Andres certainly have the loudspeakers to shift the needle. I am even more excited by Noma alum, Dan Guisti and his school lunch work. His is truly a work of passion and not prestige.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

City mandates to plant food in public spaces. Replace dead ornamental trees with fruit trees. Remediate and provide funds for groups to grow food on vacant lots. Support foodscaping over landscaping in all public spaces. Why pay to mow lawns and prune trees when we could pay to grow and harvest food?

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Lyonpo Yeshey Penjor is Bhutan’s Minister for the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests. Bhutan’s work to become the first fully organic nation is so inspiring. I think more than the strategies to achieve this goal, the attitude and spirituality related to the initiative is deeply moving.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.