A revolution of sorts is happening in the produce industry. The fruits and vegetables that just a few years ago were deemed “weird” or “no good” are sneaking past the compost bin and making it into supermarkets.
Mega stores such as Whole Foods and Walmart recently joined the party, adding so-called “ugly” fruits and vegetables to their shelves after being presented with a Change.org petition signed by thousands of “ugly produce” supporters.
Consumers have been warming up to the idea of purchasing imperfect produce with the help of humorous campaigns showing wonky looking carrots and scary statistics that illustrate how much food is wasted each year.
But chefs have always been fans of “No. 2,” “ugly” and “imperfect” produce.
Awareness of ugly produce is growing, according to Jordan Figueiredo, anti-food-waste activist and founder of @UglyFruitandVeg. But he said the U.S. still has a ways to go to make an impact on food waste.
“Just a few years ago, there weren’t any large supermarkets selling ugly produce, and now there are four; there was hardly anything in the news about ugly, and now there’s a story almost every week over the last year and a half,” said Figueiredo. “In the category of really taking a big bite out of the 20 billion pounds of produce, mostly ugly, that’s wasted in the U.S., however, we’re still in the very early stages.”
Marra St. Clair, co-founder and operator of Project Juice, based in San Francisco, said, “I’m thrilled that natural food leaders like Whole Foods are beginning to experiment with customer acceptance of ugly fruit. I think it’s indicative of a huge step in the right direction. While the produce may not look as perfect as we’ve been conditioned to expect, it’s nutritionally perfect and delivers awesome farm-fresh flavor.”
Chef Maneet Chauhan, owner of Chauhan Ale & Masala House in Nashville, Tenn., said one of the biggest problems is awareness.
“People have this perception that if it doesn’t look good it’s not good enough to eat,” Chauhan said. “In this day and age, chefs are being conscious about waste and how to manage it, and I think taking steps to utilize ugly fruit makes you a better operator.”
It’s also a way to support local farmers, added Greg Gettles, chef de cuisine of Mercantile and Mash in Charleston, S.C.
“Our flawed sense of what’s good or tasty just based on appearance is one of the reasons why our communities are suffering,” said Gettles. “The only real way to fill that disconnect is to get out and meet your farmers, express interest in those cast-offs, and get creative with ways to prep or process them.”
Using ugly produce in menus
Over the years, chefs have found many creative ways to integrate No. 2 produce into their menus—soups, preserves, sauces and chutneys are just a few ways these cast-offs have been given a second life in the restaurant space.
“At Project Juice, we use ugly produce, also known as ‘juicing produce,’ as a way to prevent delicious and nutritious produce from going to waste,” said St. Clair. “This practice has allowed us to provide an additional revenue source to farmers for crops that would have otherwise been unusable through standard grocery channels.”
Tom Borgia, executive chef of Boston’s State Street Provisions, uses No. 2 produce for purees, soups, stocks and pickles and preserves, for example.
“The restaurant industry has always been known for tight margins; if you get stuff you’ve paid for, it’s important to utilize it somehow, no matter what it looks like,” he said. “Working directly with the farms is often more economical, and even if the produce doesn’t look picture perfect, the flavor is almost certainly better.
“We also have a number of rotating menu items, so connecting with the farmers provides us with inspiration for new and seasonal ways to change things up,” Borgia added.
At Woods Hill Table in Concord, Mass., house-made tomato preserves top the WHT Burger, for example, said Charlie Foster, executive chef.
“Tomato season is short, but the demand for tomato flavor on a burger is constant. To address this, we buy hundreds of pounds of tomato seconds during peak season and make enough jam to get us through the year,” said Foster. “Other examples include not-so-baby Hakurei turnips shredded with potatoes and served as a rosti for our vegetarian entrée, and malformed, undersized and slightly bruised alpine strawberries that are steeped in bourbon to create an excellent Manhattan.”
Figueiredo sees ugly produce as a potential restaurant goldmine.
“Why would a chef pay full price for ‘perfect’ and more-expensive fruits and vegetables when they could have stuff that’s just as nutritious and delicious and fresh for much less? “ he said. “And, when most meals call for slicing, dicing, mashing, etc., it all ends up looking the same on the plate.