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The Chef Who Suddenly Found Himself a Food Waste Crusader

Tim Ma's thrifty cooking is good for the planet, and good for business

Leah Koenig

November 26, 2018

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Tim Ma Photo: Kyirisan
Photo: Cristian Zuniga

We're not the only ones focused on reducing food waste these days: chefs all over the country are sharing recipes, tips, or simply highlighting the efforts they make in their restaurants to get the most out of their ingredients. Below, Leah Koenig dives into the food waste evolution of Washington, D.C. chef Tim Ma, from channeling his mother's no-waste instincts to menu-planning with full-use in mind. Ma, who brought his globally inflected Asian cuisine to the James Beard House in 2015, has since expanded both his business's footprint in the nation's capital, and his role as a vocal advocate for sustainability.

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Tim Ma never set out to be a crusader of the anti-food waste movement. As chef and owner of Kyirisan, an innovative Asian–French restaurant that opened in 2016 in Washington, D.C., Ma has gained notoriety for his creative culinary approaches for keeping kitchen scraps out of the waste stream. But unlike other high-profile, food waste–focused chefs like Dan Barber of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York, and Steven Satterfield of Miller Union in Atlanta, Ma insists that his motivations have been less about sustainability and more about his bottom line.

Shortly after he and his wife Joey Hernandez opened their first restaurant, Maple Avenue, in 2009, they ran out of money. “There was no one coming in the door,” Ma said. “Finding ways to pinch pennies and stop throwing away revenue while we grew was the only option.” He began to closely monitor the ingredients coming into his kitchen, finding ways to repurpose things that might otherwise end up in the trash. In 2015, Ma sold the (by-then thriving) business to two former employees, but he took with him a core lesson of smart restaurant management.

For Ma, who grew up in a Chinese–American household without a lot of resources (“most of my memories include living in small apartments above dog groomers,” he said), culinary thrift also holds deep personal significance. “There is a waste-nothing mentality in Chinese cooking that you see in traditional dishes like fish head soup,” he said. Ma distinctly remembers his mother coming into his first restaurant, looking into the garbage and asking, “Why are you throwing this away?” Now, that question stands at the heart of his cooking philosophy.

In practice, Ma’s dedication to creative repurposing takes on several forms. Like in many restaurant kitchens, vegetable and meat scraps—things like carrot peels, papery onion skins, parsley stems, and chicken bones—typically end up in flavorful stocks that later serve as the base for a variety of sauces. “Stock is a great catch-all,” Ma said.

In other cases, whole dishes are crafted from the traditional “throw-away” parts. At Kyirisan, a dish of sautéed heirloom carrots, for example, comes dressed with crispy strips of fried carrot peel and drizzled with a vibrantly green carrot top–pistachio pesto. (Any excess pesto is used for family meals for staff.) “Carrot peels are something that home cooks might not know how to use,” and so might just toss in the garbage, he said. “But if you season the peels correctly, they taste like French-fried onions.”

Mapo Tofu Gnocchi Photo Kyirisan
Kyirisan's mapo tofu gnocchi (Photo courtsey of Kyirisan)

Portion control also plays a role in Ma’s strategy. “American restaurants are guilty of serving giant portion sizes where most of the food gets packed in a to-go container and the leftovers are then often thrown away,” he explained. After all, even the most enticing restaurant dish loses some luster after a night in a plastic clamshell. At Kyirisan, Ma’s team aims to serve portions that fall into a sweet spot: satisfying customers at dinner itself, while reducing the food left on the plate. “We love when dishes come back clean,” he said.

At his newest restaurant, American Son, which soft-launched inside D.C.’s Eaton Hotel a few weeks ago, Ma made food waste reduction a priority while menu planning – such as serving different parts of an eggplant in two separate dishes. He also sources poultry from Green Circle Chicken, a zero-waste farm that feeds its chickens vegetable scraps sourced from commercial kitchens and farmers’ markets.

Of course, customers at a high-end restaurant don’t want trash on the brain—eliminating food waste as a concept may be sexy, but dwelling too long on what Ma calls “the nasty bits” is not. Some dishes are simply too hard a sell for diners. In a recent panel conversation at the Food Tank Summit in New York City, Ma recalled a salad made of organ meats served at Kyirisan. “That was a great reuse (of the leftovers),” he said. “But ultimately, the hardest thing was getting people to eat it.”

Kyirisan’s website makes no explicit mention of the kitchen’s food waste-cutting efforts. Instead of being pigeonholed as sustainable or nose-to-tail, Ma prefers that Kyirisan be thought of as simply a great restaurant that happens to follow certain sustainability protocols. “It is a core part of what we do, but it is not the focus,” he explained.

And yet Ma has become a respected voice within the national conversation. In addition to speaking at conferences, he signed on as an ambassador of Zero Waste Kitchen, a sustainability initiative by the culinary software company BlueCart. And while Ma remains primarily driven by the economics of a thrifty kitchen, his interest in the larger environmental and social implications of curbing food waste has grown. “It is ungodly how much food is wasted,” he said. “As I’ve done more research and met more people in this realm, I have seen how much these efforts affect every point along the supply chain.”

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Leah Koenig is a food writer, author of several cookbooks including Modern Jewish Cooking (Chronicle Books), and cooking instructor living in Brooklyn, NY. Follow her on Instagram at @leah.koenig.