By Chris Mohney
After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, Joey Ward returned to his native Georgia to cook in Atlanta. He worked with Top Chef’s Kevin Gillespie at both Woodfire Grill and Gunshow, then left to create his own restaurant. Somehow one restaurant became a side-by-side pair. Southern Belle serves New Southern fare, while through a connecting passage, Georgia Boy offers a multi-course tasting menu. Both restaurants operate using a zero-waste philosophy.
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I got interested in zero waste by doing a charity fundraiser for a nonprofit called DIG—Developments in Gardening. They go to different countries in Africa and show people in underdeveloped regions how to grow, harvest, and produce their own food, and to use every part of the product. One of the events was a challenge to make a dish utilizing as much of the product as you could. I was able to do a dish with zero waste, and it was actually quite tasty. That opened my eyes to the creative part of it, which is really interesting to me—to not only make something taste good, but to utilize every part of something.
Being successful financially is not really the most important thing for me as a chef. I would rather be impactful to my industry and to my city. The restaurant is near a concentration of homeless people. Seeing that, I wanted to figure out a way that we could utilize our gifts and and give back to the community. And so that’s when I started really diving into zero-waste thing, and how we could turn our scraps into nourishing meals.
Luckily, I had a lot of time on my hands back then. I had left my last job as the executive chef at Gunshow here in Atlanta back in February 2019. And so from February until we opened, I was figuring out what we wanted to do with Georgia Boy and Southern Belle. We’re about two months in now, and we’ve been very, very good with the zero-waste program.
We approach zero waste from a three-tiered system. The first is using our creativity to figure out how to turn those normally scrapped or wasted parts of vegetables or meats or whatever into something delicious, and to put it on the menu and to make a profit off of it. I mean, as a business that makes the most sense.
For example, we repurpose a lot of fruit in our bar program. Our bar juices lemons and limes throughout the week. For garnishes, they use grapefruit and orange peels, but they don’t actually use the juice. So we take those husks from the lemons and limes, and we vac those in in a bag with sugar, and produce a syrup. We mix that with the juices of the oranges and the grapefruits and the tangerines that we have in the kitchen, and we make our own version of Five Alive or Sunny Delight. We serve that on Sundays for our brunch. That’s what you get with your mimosa. We call it the zero-guilt or zero-waste mimosa.
Our second zero-waste tier is donating any extra product left over from the kitchen—things we didn’t serve. We turn the product that doesn’t go into the menu into meals that get picked up by a local company called Goodr. We mark down all of allergens and reheating instructions, and they take those to places where they can nourish the community and the folks in need.
Goodr would just take the scraps right from our kitchen for their program. But I think we’d lose out on the chance to exercise our creativity that way. So I challenge the team to come up with dishes, using whatever product that we identify as going into the compost in abundance throughout the week. We say, “Hey, we’re going through a lot of carrots. Let’s figure out what to do with these carrot peels.” They’ll make a carrot soup, or carrot fritters, or something like that. And so we actually give Goodr composed dishes that are ready to be picked up in chafing dishes, rather than just scraps.
Our final tier is working with a local compost company called CompostNow. We pay them to come in and pick up our compostables. They service the Atlanta area, and they turn that stuff into compost. It goes back to the very farms that we buy the ingredients from in the first place. So it kind of completes the circle.
We also try hard to cut down any other waste we might create. All of our straws are metal straws that we wash and reuse. We’re actually paperless to the point that we don’t accept cash. There are no ticket printers. We have these kitchen display screens, like tablets, that the orders come in on, and then we tap them when done and the orders go away. Of course that was also selfish because I didn’t want to hear a ticket printer anymore.
We have felt coasters that we launder, so no bar napkins. We have linen napkins for our lounge area that we launder. We have linen hand towels for the bathrooms as well. We try to keep it to zero paper—except for the toilet paper. And even there, I would install bidets if everybody would use them.
We use compostable tasting spoons in the kitchen that go right into our compost bins as we prep throughout the day. All of our to-go packaging is fully compostable.
Cooking and working with a zero-waste philosophy feeds different members of the teams in different ways. For instance, we ferment a lot of our scraps, and we’ll make our own vinegar, or make kimchi out of the greens of the turnips. My chef de cuisine loves doing ferments and vinegars. That feeds his passion. Another part is looking at how you do things. A perfect dice in a traditional French kitchen creates a lot of waste. How can we change the way we cut things so that we’re utilizing more product, but it still looks purposeful? And when we do produce that waste, what can we do with it?
For instance, we do a traditional one-by-one dice for the sweet potato that goes on our ceviche, but that produces a lot of waste. So we make a purée with the waste, and that becomes a crispy tuile or cracker that goes with the ceviche for a crunchy element. That’s what gets me excited—where you’re trying to look at things from a different point of view, and imagining what they can become instead of going into the bin.
Recently I was in a large group chat with the local charity organization, the Giving Kitchen. On their Facebook page, somebody posted, “Is anyone doing zero food waste or close to it in Atlanta?” And a lot of folks were replying, “No, it’s not possible. There’s no way.” And I chimed in, “Yes, it is possible. This is how we’re doing it. And if you want more information, please reach out.” I saw a lot of good feedback from that. Folks seem really interested as to what we’re doing. I’m hoping other colleagues and peers around town start to take note and realize zero waste is not that hard. It’s just a matter of taking one or two extra steps, instead of just throwing everything away.