Chef Skills

3 "must have" plans for successful food sustainability projects

It does not seem to matter what KPI you are going for, in food sustainability projects things will get messy if you do not have clear plans in place for skill requirements, measuring outcomes, and audience-specific communication plans.

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Yeah, yeah, yeah, we know, you need plans or the wheels fall off.  Of course.  It goes without saying.  But there are "nice to have" plans, and there are "must have" plans.  Hard-earned, coal-face experience has taught me that, when it comes to food sustainability projects, there are three kinds of plan you cannot do without: a skills plan, a measurement plan, and a communication plan.  Here is why they matter and how they are interrelated.

Skills plans

Almost by definition, food sustainability initiatives involve some changes to routines, to menu plans, and to procurement policies.  And for people to be engaged in change they normally need to know why, how and what.  "Why is this a sustainability issue?  How will we do it? What is the expected outcome?"  Staff who are fully engaged in the sustainability issues at hand - be it food waste, climate change, sustainable seafood, plant-forward menus or any other issue you care to pick - will almost always respond more positively because they understand the reasons and they can build a sense of ownership for the solution.  It sounds obvious, but it gets missed more often than it should.  And the kind of skills needed will vary in different parts of the organisation; the sustainability skills you need in the kitchen are not the same as for front of house, or for client relationship management.  Try implementing a new food concept without making sure that your client account managers or regional managers have got the skills to explain why you are doing it, and you'll see what I mean.

Measurement plans

How you measure - the tools you will use - means having a plan in place that includes a usable tool for accurately measuring the impact you are trying to affect.  A food waste tracker, an analytics tool for procurement impacts, customer satisfaction tools and so on.  Test the tools before you commit to a full-blown industry-wide project.  What you measure needs a bit more thought too.  For example with food waste, you might want to define categories of food waste that you will measure; for climate change you might want to measure recipes (to define "planet-smart" recipes) and procurement (to benchmark your actual carbon footprint).  But you might also want to measure sales of different recipes to understand which recipes sell best and how that relates to your sustainability.  And of course for food waste, wouldn't you want to measure on a daily basis?  But probably not for a project to increase the amount of sustainable seafood you are buying - here a monthly procurement analysis might be enough. One common mistake is to rely on annual audits alone.  Annual audits give us an overview of what happened, but give us no real data on how or why.  And if you are not sure that your measurements are meaningful then you cannot really communicate your outcomes very clearly. 

Communication plans

I tend to view communication plans in terms of who they are intended for: internal on-site, internal management, client on-site and external client relations.  Each group needs a different message in terms of goals, and then later on what you achieved, any new best practices, revised targets, and areas for improvement.  Each communication plan needs to be clear, concise and tailored, but linked to the measurement plans.  It's about storytelling, but storytelling is just data with a soul so your measurements and data should act as your evidence.  And get this, if you communicate a new project to someone and their response is along the lines of "I don't know why we need to do xxxx, why does it matter?", then you've got yourself a skills gap and something to add to your skills plan.

So these plans are not old school project management file cabinet fillers - they are early phase plans that you improve over time.  Assess your skills gaps, build a draft measurement plan, provide first stage communication plans.  Take onboard questions and ideas, and then revise the skills plan, adjust the measurement plan, and polish the communication plan.  Two or three iterations of this and you will avoid the trap of going ahead with a bold initiative only to find the staff do not really know what the issue is, you cannot make sense of the measurements, and key people are not really aware of what is going on and what to tell your guests and clients.

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What the future might hold: Food service in 2025?

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In a staff restaurant, somewhere near here, 2025...

Wednesday morning 8.30am, April 30th.  Weather: cloudy and cold.

Executive chef Maria checks the app for meals ordered, showing how many guests are due to eat lunch today, and who has pre-ordered the hot main dishes, salads and take-away.  Her team uses this to plan the production for the day, combined with historical data showing them how much food from the salad bar and deli station is normally eaten on a cloudy day in April, the average portion size per guest, and how much is normally wasted. 

The hot main dishes are designed to provide 30% of the daily recommended volumes of all key nutrients, and stay within the suggested carbon, water and resource-use budget per person.  They do not always stick to these limits, because not all guests like the same thing, and Maria and her team have license to create their own menu plans as long as it keeps them within reasonable boundaries.   They also receive the allergy and nutritional alerts for the guests who have specific dietary requirements, so they can ensure every guest has a good lunch option.

By developing food concepts that are optimised for health and environment, and by minimising waste, Maria has been able to cut environmental impacts by 40% in the last 2 years, without having to make drastic changes to the way she runs the kitchen.  She just has better information, especially now that guests can provide accurate feedback on the lunch app.  Back in the old days, she never really knew which dishes were most popular, so there was always a bit of guesswork as to whether new dishes would fly or not.  Maria can now predict pretty accurately which new ideas will be popular by looking at the guest satisfaction history.  If you're going to try a new dish, fail early and fail gently.

She is even trialing RoboSoup, the first product designed for large scale catering that takes data from their stock control and creates soup recipes that will use up any food at risk of going out of date.  The soups are pretty good too, and this could be extended to the salad bar and delis soon, as well as providing take-away suggestions.  The "food to go" trend of 2018 & 2019 didn't really last, but the remnants of it can be seen in the small but regular number of guests who want their lunch to take-away.

Wednesday morning 9.30am

In his office, Ed receives an alert on the lunch app asking him if he would like to choose his lunch for tomorrow.  He doesn't always choose, because sometimes he needs to be elsewhere at short notice, but because he has joined the company's Green & Mean cycling group, he has signed up to get recommendations for the healthiest and most "planet smart" choices for each day.  To be honest, Ed's not too sure what all the different metrics are, but the gizmo that shows him which dishes will give him the biggest nutrient bang for its environmental buck does the job.

Wednesday lunch

Ed gets an alert showing 30 seconds queuing time for lunch, so head downstairs to the restaurant, scans his smart phone and collects his lunch.  After lunch he swipes right for sweet potato curry, but swipes left for the root vegetable panna cotta, and later that afternoon Maria gets all of the feedback on her phone for that day's service.  She was right, the root vegetable panna cotta was a step too far.

Wednesday 2pm

 Maria needs to make her food order for next week and she still does most of her ordering for twice weekly deliveries.  The really fresh produce from the indoor salad gardens can be delivered every day by drone, but she only uses this for the ultra perishable produce and at certain times of year when the ordering system shows her it will be a better choice.  For everything else she gets recommendations based on previous orders, the time of year, best price options, and which producers have updated their sustainability data.  Apparently this is all provided on the Foodchain, which is a bit like the system they used for bitcoin before the crash but it deals with food not money.  Maria doesn't really care how it works as long as it helps her make good ordering decisions from the different suppliers she uses.  She knows really talented chefs who still have their recipes in their heads so that they can be creative every day, but even they use the Foodchain for making purchasing decisions because it can all be done on their smart phones.

Because it is also the end of the month, she gets her sustainability report for the food they have bought, sold, and wasted for April.  Good news; she is 8% better than March for total procurement, with 99.2% production effectiveness.  Guest food waste is down to 10g per guest as well.  Her food costs are within budget, the nutritional quality of food served in April is within the recommended ranges, and they only used 80% of their carbon, water and resource budget.  Still, she's done her six hour day, so anything else can wait until tomorrow.

 

In an office in oslo, 5th january 2018...

You may not think all of the things that happened above are (a) on the cards or (b) will be used by everyone, but the reality is that by combining better information with human talent, we can create a food service industry that is a cause for good in ways that are measurable and evidence-based.  And in fact the underlying technology for a lot of the things I described are in some shape or form already here, or at least not that far away.  The question is, how far down the road are you and how far do you want to go?  I know caterers who get accurate daily waste reports, who know the environmental impacts of their recipes (at least on some metrics), and most caterers have "level 1" nutritional and allergy data.  Guest feedback systems exist, and we are learning more about communicating healthy and sustainable diets every day.  Indoor food production systems are all the rage in the urban agriculture world and drone delivery is not that far away.  Caterers can already get monthly and quarterly data showing their sustainability across multiple dimensions (clients of IntoFood can at any rate), and a "blockchain for food" has been successfully tested for food safety.  The gaps are only really in some data areas, scale, and software integration.  Seven years to get there, so who'd bet against it?

PS - with apologies to fans of root vegetables and panna cotta, and soup gurus the world over.

PPS - I checked, 30th April 2025 will be a Wednesday.

Power to (and of) the people!

It is a bit of a corporate mantra isn't it?  "We are only as strong as our people".  Or for Richard Branson: "Clients do not come first. Employees come first".  All well and good, no arguments there from me.  I am not here to argue whether organisations walk the walk or not, but I do think I can argue that, for sustainability, there is no doubting the power of employee engagement.  Sure, you need to measure and manage your impact against goals, but in my experience a critical factor is also about the people, and how they engage your customers.  Why is this especially important in sustainability?  Because shifts to a more sustainable way of doing things involve change by definition, and normally require a new way of looking at things.  And change is always our biggest challenge.

In food service the need is clear.  I have seen food waste initiatives struggle because of a lack of leadership, and new menu concepts die because of lack of engagement from front of house staff or resistance from key members in a kitchen  But I have also seen 25% reductions in climate change impacts, 20% increases in servings of fruit and veg, 50% reductions in food waste, with both happy teams and happy customers.  Part of this is down to smart solutions, but a big part is down to the people.

Organisations, NGOs and advocacy groups are latching on to this too.  The Chef's Manifesto, part of SDG2 Advocacy Hub, is a great example of getting chefs together and creating awareness and solutions.  As they say, working together we can help deliver a better food system for all.  When it comes to food waste, renowned food waste reducers Winnow are running a chefs campaign For The Love Of Food, focusing on food waste.  Again, getting chefs talking and sharing solutions.  At IntoFood we have recently taken a very concrete "skills-based" approach.  In the autumn we ran a set of surveys and interviews with chefs in order to learn more about what they knew about food sustainability.  While the sample size was small, the message was clear.  Only 5% of chefs felt they had a good enough understanding of the environmental impacts of food.  Indeed, the majority said they wanted to know more about key impacts such as food waste, climate change, biodiversity loss, ocean habitat loss, deforestation, and how to apply this knowledge to their jobs.  These are the sort of issues that research is clear on: we need change.

Start 'em young for sustainability training!

Start 'em young for sustainability training!

Why does this matter?  Because if you really want to succeed in sustainable food service, you cannot just tell people what to do.  You need to engage them in the "why", not just the "how" and "what".  And you cannot just pin all your hopes on the chefs.  Like I said, I have seen initiatives fail because middle managers assumed the on-site staff would just nail it, or the front of house team totally disengaged from what the kitchen team were trying to achieve.  But I have also seen restaurant managers walking around talking with guests about food sustainability, and inspiring people to go on that journey with them.  It's not just down to the chefs.  So we need to give people across the industry a good understanding of why it matters and what they can do in their jobs, every single day, to be part of the solution.  All the way down from the CEO to the dish wash team.  And if you really want to create change... start 'em young with more focus at catering colleges, schools and apprenticeships.  Food sustainability should be a core education for food service professionals at all levels and all ages.

Food service will benefit from this on a business level too.  The people who understand the issues (the "why") are not only more likely to implement initiatives successfully, but they are also more likely to find new solutions on their own.  Which means you have a greater opportunity to let them get on with it, rather than always checking that they are doing what you asked them to do.  I have not seen any research on staff turnover, but my gut feeling is staff that feel part of a cause for good are more likely to stay.  I know I would anyway.  So we need to give power to the people in order to benefit from the power of the people.

IntoFood helps food service businesses with two key things: reducing food-related environmental impacts and training their staff.  You can see more about our software solutions for measuring and managing impacts here, and our online sustainability training courses at The School of Sustainable Food Service.

8 no brainer "meat free" dishes, and their "less meat" cousins

The last 5 years have seen a welcome acceptance within the food industry that we need to eat fewer animal products ("we" being us lot in developed countries, by and large).  The practical implementation of solutions is more challenging however.

Here we  do our bit and throw into the pot 8 no brainer "meat free" dishes, and their under-estimated cousins, the "less meat" equivalents.  The key point is that "meat free" is not the only way to reduce consumption of animal products.   Great tasting "less meat" dishes can actually achieve more in the long-run.  A little every day, and so on.

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1. Curry

Anyone who can make a good curry will tell you that it's all about the spices.  You don't really need much or any meat to make a curry shine.  I often use lentils as the base ingredient, because they are packed with protein and have a meaty feel to them.  Cauliflower also seems made in heaven for curry. 

And your "less meat" equivalent?  Well here's the thing, if the flavour is in the spices then the amount of meat you use is only really indicative of your customers' expectations.  If you re-frame the dish as "Lentil and chicken" rather than "Chicken", then you shift people's expectations, and you don't need to use 100 or 120g of meat.  80g is plenty in a well-spiced dish.

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2. Pasta

Obviously, anything where you are using garlic, tomatoes and olive oil.  No need to tell chefs how to do this!  Many different vegetables can bulk out the dish so that its not just a bowl of carbs.  Your use of seasonal vegetables fits really well here: spring greens, summer veg, autumn roots.  All on a base of garlic and tomato sauce.  Or pesto. Etc.

And their "less meat" cousin?  Bacon.  Does any other animal product provide so much flavour for so little volume?  Or a good smoked ham if you are feeling fancy.  You could just go for a carbonara, but its more interesting to use small amounts of strong flavoured meats with your seasonal veg, no?

So you get the idea.  Here are the other dishes that make sustainability easy!

3. Pie (part 1: pastry-based pies)

A vegetable quiche is nothing new to the culinary world and, again, plays very well with your seasonal sourcing goals. And the "less meat" cousin?  Quiche lorraine with a twist.  Smoked fish (please go "beyond salmon").  Amazing flavours for tiny amount of meat or fish.  20g goes a long way.

4. Pie (part 2: Shepherd-ish)

I know people say you shouldn't mess with classics, but really?  Classics are only classics within the time-frame we give them, so let's give the food snobbery a miss and see the opportunity.  A meat free shepherds pie is a wonderful thing.  The key is to use the right vegetables: mushrooms, beans, lentils (hello again) are great for that fill-you-up pie feeling.  And you go "less meat" by using some meat, but not too much.  Lamb for the shepherd's pie purists, beef for the cottage pie converts.  But you don't need to make it all about the meat. Change the name, change the game.

5. Pælla

Ok, so you want to annoy some purists?  I'm with Jamie Oliver on this one.  Food purists are only a few steps away from food fundamentalists, and that's not what we need right now.  Pælla is perfectly suited to both meat free and "less meat" options.  Why?  Because the flavour is in the dish and its clever use of ingredients (see curry, pasta and so on).  You can use tiny amounts on chorizo and mussels to give a pælla a lift.  If you go meat free, charring some of your veg to accentuate the flavour, or even smoking them (smoked red peppers?) will add an extra flavour dimension, and loads of colour.  And colour counts in a dish like this.

6. Risotto

Same principles as pælla.  Say no more.

7. Burgers

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Recent work by the Wold Resource Institute looks at the concept of "power dishes" - those dishes that are culturally influential and good options for re-framing how people think about their food.  Burgers are one of these "power dishes".  And with good reason, partly because you find burgers everywhere, and partly because they are the kind of poster boys for unsustainable food systems : the massive associated environmental impacts from beef and connotations with junk food.  But they're popular, so there is a lot of scope for creating change.  Most people will have seen good and bad veggy burgers, but it is fair to say that the "standard" is improving.  The best in my opinion combine the stodginess of beany/starchy ingredients with the some crunch.  We could of course just wait for the Impossible Burger to get their price low enough and off we go, but I fear that is going to be a long and winding road my friends.  And here is the beauty about a burger... whilst there is a strong burger trend for all things "gourmet", not many people have seen the light with "less meat" burgers.  You don't really need 150g of beef to make a great burger.  Swap out 60g of meat for beans, sweet potato, lentils, mushrooms and so on and you create something with a new dimension in flavour and texture.

8. Burritos

Ok so we are dipping deeper into fast food territory here, but let's be honest, there is a growing trend for good food on-the-go, so we might as well get it right.  Apply the same rules to a burrito (or any of the wrap family) and you can make something truly delicious with no meat.  Again, your protein rich veg features a lot here, partly because of the "proteiny-ness" but also because they can handle a bit of chili.  And the "less meat" cousin?  Instead of 150g of meat in a large burrito, use 75g.  Easy.  We had a client who did just that.  They did the marketing for the new dishes really nicely and everyone was happy.

So there you go.  Lots of menu areas where meat free and "less meat" ideas are already considered mainstream (mushroom risotto,  carbonara and so on).  What we need to do is add some good old chef creativity and we create a whole new food movement around new twists on old classics.  The real challenge is how to change menus when they are rooted more in meat as the star of the show.  Steak is a really easy example of course  Half a steak, anyone?  Clever chefs can reinvent these dishes too though, but it is admittedly a bit more challenging.  The trick is to focus on the dishes that you can change, make a big deal about them, and over time you can start to make changes in the more challenging dishes.