Make great food. Make it fresh. Serve it with pride. And then, as day turns to night and the night winds down, slash the price by half, so that every last morsel is eaten and nothing goes to waste.
That’s been the quiet weekly rhythm for a while now at the Junction’s rustic Farmhouse Tavern, where proprietor Darcy MacDonell and chef Ashley MacNeil take up the waste-not-want-not challenge every Sunday, aiming to end the night with happy patrons, bellies full and wallets still surprisingly fullish — and as little as possible left over for the green bin.
It’s a fresh twist on an old story in the hypercompetitive Toronto restaurant scene, where tight profit margins sometimes force chefs to reinvent yesterday’s roast chicken into today’s chicken pot pies. But unlike other establishments, the Farmhouse Tavern, is upfront about its no-waste ambitions — and caters to a like-minded clientele who place their trust in the freshness of the food and the virtue of the smallest environmental footprint possible.
“The key for us is freshness — farm-freshness — sourced from small-scale farmers within 100 kms and delivered directly to us,” chef MacNeil told The Star. “So we’re not talking about taking old food and repurposing it. Everything we serve is in season and made fresh that day.
“We’re open Thursday through Sunday and so the goal with our Sunday night deal is to sell out completely and then come back and start anew on Thursday. And people — especially the younger folks here in the Junction — they are aware. The no-waste movement is gaining momentum.
“Our thing is farm-fresh ingredients inside a 100-km limit — farmers that we’re connected to delivering directly to us, farmers who are also-waste conscious,” MacNeil said.
MacNeil says the quest for zero-waste “is like a weird game of teeter-totter — a bit stressful but really fun at the same time. We have a certain number of fixed reservations but we’ll have walk-ins and so as we place our orders with suppliers you aim for that elusive spot between too little and too much.
“It helps to have relationships with the farmers. Take beets for example — we get our beets with the tops intact, which are great in a puree or a chimichurri sauce,” says MacNeil. “So knowing the farms, knowing the farmers, helps us plan out how we’re going to be creative with what’s coming in the door.”
Chef John Higgins, director of the chef school at George Brown College, hails the Farmhouse Tavern’s twist on reducing wastage with Sunday night price drops on entrees and appetizers. In fact, he adopted a similar approach at his college’s culinary campus at 200 Adelaide St. E., where the first-floor Chef On The Run canteen — which offers student-made meals Monday to Friday for as little as $6 — slashes its price to $2 after 2 p.m. every Friday.
“I love what Darcy and Ashley are doing at the Farmhouse. It’s a very good place with very good ethics. We made our policy at Chef On The Run with the very same intent — let’s sell all the food made in our labs at chef school and on Friday afternoons, the food made that day goes for $2. Everything sells rather quickly and nothing is wasted.”
Higgins and other food industry experts observe that while the vast majority Canada’s food waste occurs at the more industrial points in the food chain — production, processing and distribution — innovation is more commonplace at the restaurant level, where profit margins of as little as 3 per cent make waste-awareness a critical survival tool.
“I was once contacted by a pickle factory in Scarborough wanting to know what they should do with their wasted pickle trimmings — and it added up to about 40 per cent wastage,” said Higgins.
“The problem is people are conditioned to want what I call perfect Hollywood dining — all the food in perfect rounds and perfect squares. And in the case of the pickle company, they were cutting them into rounds and the waste didn’t look right or fit in the jars. But it tastes just as good. We’ve got to do a better job of making use of it.”
The Second Harvest Food Rescue, which distributes more than 12 million pounds of unsold food each year to a network of 373 social service organizations, put that wastage into shocking perspective in a report in January titled The Avoidable Crisis of Food Waste.
The trove of insights from more than 700 food industry experts, gathered in partnership with Value Chain Management International, determined that 58 per cent of all food produced in Canada is wasted — and that 32 per cent of that waste is edible and potentially rescuable, but ends up being classified as waste simply because it doesn’t have a market.
“I love hearing about approaches to food waste like what the Farmhouse Tavern is doing — and it doesn’t surprise me because restaurants typically understand their waste far better than every other part of the food chain,” said Second Harvest CEO Lori Nikkel.
“Our goal now is to see that kind of innovative thinking trickle up into the other ends of the food chain, to the producer level. When people think food waste, they used to attribute it to the food retailer, the restaurant or the consumer. But our latest research shows that just isn’t fair. We need the no-waste approach to extend to the processing, manufacturing and distribution levels as well.”
Toronto chef Jagger Gordon, founder of the Feed It Forward movement, learned about the Farmhouse Tavern’s Sunday night specials in the recent article by Jonathan Bloom, creator of www.wastedfood.com.
“It’s just so viable, what they are doing — I heard about Farmhouse and I just want to go there and see for myself. Small places like this are amazing,” said Gordon.
Mitch Potter is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @MPwrites