How This Roving Restaurant Concept Is Striving for Zero Waste

What other people often consider “garbage”, Tiffani Ortiz and Andy Doubrava see as opportunities for future flavor. Whey gets turned into a flavorful sauce. Mushroom scraps are incorporated into cocktail syrups. Carrot peels go into stock. Passion fruit peels transform water into tea. And numerous other leftover ingredients end up as pickles or turned into various miso pastes, vinegars, or any number of dehydrated, fermented, or preserved ingredients. 

“We kind of do things backwards where we look at what we already have and then amplify that with whatever we can find at the farmer’s market,” says Doubrava in how the couple crafts the menus for Slow Burn, a roaming restaurant concept they launched last fall. “There’s almost an equal emphasis on seasonality and preserved product, and then we have standby dishes where we know we can always work in items from our larder.”

Ortiz and Doubrava originally met while attending the French Culinary Institute, but after graduating, they ended up on opposite sides of the country. Ortiz went to New York City, working culinary events and helping to open restaurants, while Doubrava navigated the fine dining restaurant scene in California. Nearly a decade later, however, Ortiz flew out to Malibu to work on a Meyer lemon farm as part of a WWOOF experience, and the two reconnected. A romance was quickly born, and not long after, the couple set off on a cross-country farm tour, volunteering and cooking in exchange for room and board. The experience has forever changed their culinary careers. 

“Through the constant exposure of growing things from seed came more appreciation for the ingredients, growers, and the integrity of the plants and animals – the things we typically take for granted everyday in a restaurant,” says Ortiz. “We couldn’t help but be affected by it in our work as chefs.”

After the adventure, the couple settled back into the restaurant scene on the West Coast, with Doubrava working in Michelin-starred Rustic Canyon and Ortiz working culinary jobs spanning Los Angeles and Montana. They spent their free time experimenting with different forms of preservation, slowly building a larder. Eventually, that larder wound up taking over a sizable portion of their Santa Monica apartment, and when the pandemic hit, they decided to transform the hobby into something more, fueled by a desire to make real change rather than remain a part of an industry wide food waste problem.

Last September, Doubrava and Ortiz officially announced the idea of their Slow Burn concept via Instagram. The  post included a pledge to make menus where 65% of food purchased would go on guests’ plates, with the remaining 35% to be repurposed for future meals. The announcement garnered plenty of attention, leading to Slow Burn pop up bookings at restaurants across the world. This year, the concept will take Ortiz and Doubrava from Vancouver to New Zealand to all over the U.S. for residencies lasting anywhere from a day to three weeks.

We chatted with the couple to learn more about their mission and zero waste techniques. They also share advice on sustainability strategies any chef can incorporate, all while saving money in the process.

While your menus change from event to event, they always include a mix of self-preserved products and seasonal ingredients. Could you give us a look at what’s coming up on your next menu?

T.O.: Our next event is at [New York City’s] Death & Co., but we try to keep things as loose as possible pretty much until the last second because it’s geared towards what we find at the farmer’s market.

We’ll usually do a broth course, bread course, transition course, main course, and then we’ll fill in the gaps, and say, “Hey we have a lot of mushroom scraps, so let’s do an entire mushroom dish where it’s a lion’s mane that we treat like a steak, dress it in a condiment we’ve made from mushrooms, and marinate it in a shoyu we’ve made from a long-term ferment.

A.D.: Another example is we have a fingerling potato dish we regularly run, and we ferment whatever potatoes we have left after the event with just a little bit of salt, and that becomes the basis of a potato bread.

We’re definitely plant-forward, but I love pork and Tiff loves seafood, so we do find meat on the menu. 

T.O.: Because the shelf-life with meat and seafood is so minimal, we try to make the vegetables more of a starring act, and use the animal protein to highlight all of that. As far as preservation, the main meat presentation we do is charcuterie. 

It’s well-known that food waste is a major issue in the industry. And while I know there are many elements to sustainable cooking, if you had to share your top pieces of advice for cutting down on waste, what advice would you give to other chefs?

A.D.: Your business plans are based around a certain amount of food being put in the dumpster at the end of the night. If you start a fermentation process or a larder system, it’s more work up front, but as soon as you start to create your own ingredients, you’re not buying as many anymore. 

It’s different systems that need to be put into place, and when it’s been this way for so long, changing that is no small feat. But stop calling things garbage and start calling them trim, and pretty quickly, if you do it the right way, you get a much more profitable business.

T.O.: When we started doing these Slow Burn dinners three or four months ago, our food cost was about 22%, and after running numbers yesterday, we’re at about 18.75%, and that’s because we rely so heavily on our larder. My advice is to just ask yourself, “Is this edible? And if so, why am I throwing this in the trash?” There are so many different outlets [for leftover ingredients and scraps], like making vinegar or dehydrating, and there are so many people in the preservation community who are happy to answer questions.

Do you have any favorite resources for how to get started?

A.D.: There’s a book by Douglas McMasters, The Zero Waste [Blueprint]. It’s got some recipes in it, but it’s mostly a recipe for a business model for restaurants to be more closed-loop and zero waste. 

T.O. There are lots of chefs and business owners providing reading materials. Even things like YouTube are really great sources of information. It’s everywhere. It’s just a matter of looking for it.

Can you talk about the importance you see in sourcing locally, even if it might be a slightly larger upfront investment for restaurant operators?

A.D.: We source almost everything from the farmer’s market right now. Look at the carbon footprint of an 18-wheeler that’s shipping produce from state to state, or worse, if you get something coming off an airplane – you can eliminate that right there. 

T.O.: I’ve done this everywhere from Southern California to Montana to the East Coast. In Southern California, we’re very spoiled. The produce is amazing year-round, and we’re in this cutting-edge place when it comes to making environmental decisions. When you go to the middle of the country, you have to do more leg work. But if you just cold call farms in the area, they’re usually willing to work with a restaurant because it cuts out the middleman. In opening up the conversation with local hunters and farmers, the next thing you know, people start showing up at the restaurant asking you if they can bring you stuff. It’s about opening yourself up to the different ways of doing business.

Your focus on sustainability extends beyond ingredient sourcing to your cooking methods. Some of your pop-ups have even relied primarily on live fire. Can you tell me about some of the other ways you’re trying to make your cooking more climate-friendly and the techniques that you’re using?

A.D.: We’re cooking in all different kinds of settings, but we always try to limit usage of natural gas and propane and try to cook electronically or with fire and charcoal.

T.O.: We work with a company called Breville that makes a lot of cutting-edge technology as far as induction burners and juicers that are small enough for us to haul from place to place, and they don’t take a lot of wattage. So we have these backups we try to lean on when we can, but we can’t do it 100% of the time. It’s not realistic, but we hope to get there one day. What we can’t control, we offset.

How are you offsetting?

T.O. Last year, we calculated our carbon footprint for the year based on our business size and model. We donated to Carbonfund, but you can choose what’s most important to you, whether it be clean energy or planting more trees or cleaning the ocean. 

A.D.: We’re also taking our car as opposed to flying. We have a hybrid Subaru, and we hook a trailer up to it. It takes a bit longer [to get to our destinations], but the carbon footprint on driving is a significant difference. And when we’re doing a traveling gig, we’ll also offset our trip based on mileage.

I imagine there is an education component of your mission. Are you educating guests as well as restaurant owners?

A.D.: We’re not coming from a preachy or negative place. We’re never going to tell someone that they’re doing something wrong. But when you see a chef who demonstrates they’re going to start doing things differently – to know we had something to do with that is really what it’s all about.

For guests, one of our go-to educational tricks is to make and serve a fresh cheese, and then we’ll do a pork with a sauce made with the whey from that cheese and highlight that. People always think that’s really cool, and it’s a way to show, “Look, this is a product that a lot of times would just go down the drain.”

T.O.: Big changes don’t happen fast, and it’s really important that we keep the dialogue open about that. We tell chefs we’re just learning as we go along too. It’s these little changes over time that can make a big impact.

I imagine you read the article in the New York Times about the forthcoming closure of Noma, in which chef René Redzepi calls the modern fine-dining model “unsustainable” – both financially and emotionally. You guys have years of experience in the industry, and I’m wondering if that ethos played any role in your decision to start out going the pop-up route?

A.D.: We ended up in the pop-up structure for financial reasons. We didn’t want to take on investors. We want to open something, but the right way and our way, and like René said, the industry is not sustainable. Most places that a normal person is going to eat – you don’t know where anything’s coming from.

T.O.: And it’s down to things like tipping structure, where you’re not depending on the kindness of a stranger to pay your employees. That’s one of the big first steps we’ve taken. 

The other reason we went the pop-up route is that this is the first time we’ve worked together in eight years. Without having the brick and mortar, it gives us the space to figure out what kind of food we want to serve, what we stand for, and to make mistakes. A year from now, we can make an educated decision about what’s important for us and where there’s room for growth. One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen over time is people marrying into a concept too soon.

Where do you see Slow Burn going in the future?

A.D.: I definitely want to open a physical location down the road because I do better when I can operate out of a home base and have reliable systems in place. Tiff is more of a free spirit, traveler.

T.O.: I’m someone who learns through experience. I’m a sponge, and I prefer to move around and learn what I can. But I do foresee us having a brick and mortar in the next couple of years. It’s about finding the right people who are aligned with us. It’s also about, where do we want to spend the next part of our lives?

You mention you don’t currently operate using a tipping wage model. Beyond the food, how do you envision creating a future brick and mortar concept that’s sustainable on all fronts, and how do you see yourself offsetting some of the costs of that?

A.D.: It really just comes down to having to charge more. The hard part is convincing people that the value is there. We are very transparent about our wins and our losses. But it’s proving that we’re charging more because it’s more valuable. It’s this whole idea that no one thinks a taco should be more than $1 because you can get Taco Bell. But it costs more to do things the right way.

T.O.: Right now, we keep our staff really small, even if we have to work harder. Because our staff is at the bare minimum of what we need, we’re able to pay everyone pretty well. We also let people name their price, and luckily everyone’s been reasonable. We don’t have any permanent staff because we’re on the road, so we usually source from local talent, and that’s been great because we’re exposed to new points of view.

While we don’t do gratuity, if you feel like you really enjoyed your meal and want to give back, people can donate a free drink or dessert or donate towards a free dinner for a stranger. Just from our last dinner in San Francisco, we have six desserts, three snacks, and three drinks to give away at our next event.

What do you think it’ll take for the industry to start more seriously addressing the issue of food waste?

A.D.: In the next couple of years, there will be ingredients that we’d never think we’d have to live without that are going to become scarce. You can already read articles about coffee and chocolate predicting in the next five years that they’re going to get really expensive.

Unfortunately, I think that’s what it’s going to take for companies to start changing. When the profit margin starts to go down, they’re going to have to operate differently

T.O.: Sustainability will also be about addressing scarcity of labor, which we’re really seeing right now. The pandemic woke a lot of people to the changes we need to make, and those small changes are eventually going to be something everyone has to do.

You mentioned the benefits of adopting techniques like preserving and fermentation. Do you have any other suggestions for ways operators can begin the process right now of making their own restaurant a little more sustainable? 

T.O.: The garbage can is one of the best places you can start. Where’s your garbage going? Can you team up with a local farmer to pick up your compost? Then you can start working on how to reduce that pile of garbage.

A.D.: A practice I’ve heard from a chef in San Francisco is to take all of the garbage cans out of the kitchen except for one, and put somebody in charge of it so they know exactly what’s going into it. Then you can think about where you can use some of that waste. Make a vegetable stock with trimmings and peels instead of whole vegetables, and just right there you’re saving yourself $50 to $200 a week.