Turning Leftovers Into Restaurant Gold
Story by Dave Eckert
This month’s Indulgences column is an especially fun one for me. It’s also something that struck a nerve within the restaurant community. It started when I overheard a chef friend of mine talking about how he was left with a rather large amount of fresh seafood after a special dinner where the prix fixe multi-course menu didn’t sell as well as he had hoped. I wondered if things like this happen in restaurant kitchens more often than we realize. I surmised that the chefs had to be both quick and creative to move the excess product. Turns out, that’s exactly the case. The following are stories from some chefs I know about what they were faced with in terms of food overages and how they managed to turn a potential loss into a win for the restaurant and their customers. I hope you find them as enjoyable as I did.
“Well, I’ve got my basil sugar story. I was back home (in Ireland). I was 17 and working at a restaurant in Dublin. Six cases, something like 50-60 pounds of basil, come through the door. The chef screwed up and ordered way too much. He says ‘everybody take a box and do something with it!’
I had my box and I look over and two boys were making pesto, so I knew I couldn’t do that.
There was a bag of sugar beside me and I thought, ‘what would happen if we put basil, which is sweet, together with sugar?’ I had never done that. I made a small bit of basil sugar to taste with the chef. Turns out, it was really good. He says, ‘so what are we going to do with it?’
I went into the walk-in and found some fresh strawberries. I thought, ‘strawberries and sugar, well, that’s a natural.’ So, I put the basil sugar on the strawberries. Wow! It’s been a dessert on my menus for 20 years. I’ve used basil sugar strawberries in seven restaurants from Dublin, to Chicago, to Kansas City, including McCormick and Schmick’s and Gibson’s in Chicago and The Reserve at the Ambassador and at Brady’s here in Kansas City! They’re amazing!”
And, for the home chef facing more than anticipated leftovers, Brady has these words of advice. “Always think soups, stews, and pies.” Maybe a strawberry pie topped with some basil sugar?
“We’re a restaurant based on overages because we have relationships with the farmers. Whenever I meet a farmer, the first thing I tell him is let me be your problem solver. I’ll take your excess, give me a bit of a discount, and I’ll create something special in the kitchen and pass the savings on to our customers. It’s a win all around.
For me, the one specific instance that springs to mind is last year with sunchokes from Powell Gardens.
I was doing a dinner out there and they told me they had a huge amount of sunchokes and no one knew what to do with them. They told me if I wanted them, they were mine. So, I wound up with 80 pounds of sunchokes! That’s a lot of sunchokes, and sunchokes are hard to deal with. They’re small, they’re knobby, they’re dirty. You’ve got to clean them really well, then you have to peel them. I knew I basically had to bring in two guys for a half day just to prep ‘em.
But, man, do they ever make a great soup. And, because they’re a root, they’ve got a pretty long shelf-life. We featured our sunchoke soup for about a month! It was terrific.”
Davis’ advice for the person at home staring down the barrel of an excess of leftovers? “Make stock or soup, and don’t be afraid to experiment. I mean, even if you fail, what’s the harm?”
“We don’t often have too terribly much left over as we mostly do a ton of catering and we have everything pre-ordered. Usually that means the restaurant and its diners benefit with some really nice perks! I do remember this one time we had a bunch of lobster left over from a party that wasn’t even prepped. I think it was about 30-tails or so. Customers got a real treat that week as I turned those tails into a lovely lobster and saffron risotto that we ran as a special in the restaurant.
Then there was another time I did a private event on stage and wound up with leftover caviar. Phil (Carey, the restaurant’s General Manager) used that for a drink special in the dining room.”
And, I didn’t get a call about either special! Bummer.
“We ran a Feast of the Seven Fishes special dinner on Christmas Eve, and while the restaurant was busy, not as many people ordered the multi-course seafood menu as I anticipated. So, I had about 25-30 pounds of monkfish and some 10 pounds of octopus left.
That’s a lot of octopus, especially since it’s a niche item and a lot of people don’t know how delicious it is. They do now. I cut them up into small nuggets, breaded them, deep-fired them, and served them with a wasabi cocktail sauce. It was an appetizer special – 6 ounces of octopus nuggets for $15. They flew out the door.
As for the monkfish, I made a monkfish sausage patty with them and served it on our Happy Hour Sliders. Then, I made tortellini with the rest of it. I still have a few pounds of monkfish frozen, but I sold most of it!”
And, yes, you’re correct if you already guessed, but Jerred was my chef friend who got me thinking about this in the first place. I might just hit him up for some monkfish the next time I see him!