Restaurant Hospitality's inaugural Power List this year focuses on restaurant operators who use their businesses to change the world in big and small ways. We call them Change Agents. See the full list >>
Restaurant: Graffiti, Graffiti Earth, and Me and You, all in New York City
Change: Reducing food waste
When it comes to sustainability, chef and restaurateur Jehangir Mehta admits it ain’t easy. “Even Kermit the Frog said being green is very hard,” he said recently at a gathering of food editors and publicists.
“Being green” oversimplifies the work Mehta has been doing in New York City in pushing sustainability whether it’s promoting “ugly vegetables” on his menu, showcasing activist art on his restaurant walls or using hand-me-down dinnerware on his tables.
Mehta first made the scene in New York at L’Absinthe in 1996 and then went onto Jean-George Vongerichten’s namesake restaurant and Mercer Kitchen. When Mehta opened his first restaurant Graffiti in 2007, he started his journey into creating places where customers and staff could see how easy it could be to “be green,” if only we’d try.
“Our plates are all hand-me-downs … we didn’t buy a single plate,” Mehta said. On the menu every day at Graffiti Earth, a Tribeca spin-off of the first Graffiti, a soup made from kitchen scraps is available — and sought after.
The whole menu, with its vegetable-forward courses rooted in Mehta’s Indian and Persian heritage, is focused on unloved produce, underutilized seafood, sustainable proteins and healthy grains. The ultimate goal, Mehta said, is to reduce food waste.
He is unphased by non-flavor-affecting aesthetic flaws — cause for a piece of seafood or produce to go “unloved” at many a fine-dining kitchen. An example is a large scallop — beautiful when seared — but what if it’s broken into three uneven pieces? There is no problem that chefs can’t fix with proper training, Mehta has found.
There are other tricks, like using discarded newspapers to clean up broken glass rather than paper towels. His staff dries cooking rags on top of any available surface rather than make the carbon-footprint-damaging mistake of sending barely used kitchen towels to a laundry service.
On the walls of Graffiti Earth are pieces of art from Shreya Mehta (not related), an award-winning artist who explores social issues of identity, gender, power and spirituality, and donates net proceeds from the sale of her art to charity. For pieces sold at Graffiti Earth, proceeds go to a program for educating underprivileged young girls in Mumbai.
Mehta also serves as an educator through his work as an ambassador for The Mushroom Council and Beyond Celiac, sharing recipes and techniques at colleges around the country. He pioneered kids’ cooking classes a decade ago, and today hosts “Gastro Kids After School,” a program in which he works with kids at Public School 33 in Manhattan, part of the Wellness in Schools initiative.
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