Elizabeth Meltz is the Director of Environmental Health for Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group. The restaurant group, owned by Mario Batali, Joe Bastianich and Lidia Bastianich, includes some of the country's best restaurants in New York City, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Chicago. Apart from serving up delicious food rooted in Italian tradition, B&B is also an industry leader in sustainability. Its eateries incorporate a variety of green initiatives into their operations, including food waste composting, recycling, Green Seal certified cleaning products and a no-bottled-water policy.
Elizabeth has been the driving force behind most of these initiatives, and we talked with her about how she got her start with B&B, how she incorporates green practices into her own life, and why peanut butter might just be the greatest gift to mankind.
Jonathan Bloom, who we also recently interviewed, complimented you and Mario Batali for fighting food waste long before it was “cool”. How and when did you first become introduced to the issue of food waste?
That’s hugely flattering coming from him. We’ve always been composting; we have a commercial partner who comes and gets our compost. And then all this new stuff started to come on the scene: the LeanPath - which actually probably wasn’t that new but it was new to me - and I read Jonathan’s book and the Mayor’s Food Waste Challenge in New York City. The more I learned I realized that composting was all well and good but the Food Waste Reduction Pyramid is probably what put me over the edge. That’s when I realized composting is really only one step above the landfill. And that we need to do more.
We’ve seen that you’ve been in a Food Safety and Sustainability position and now you’re the Director of Environmental Health at Batali & Bastianich. How did you end up in a job role that combines both food safety and sustainability? That’s a unique pairing.
Food Safety and Sustainability is such a mouthful and I got so tired of explaining how they intersect so I just went with Environmental Health.
I started as a cook at Del Posto in 2006, just after we opened. I worked in banquets and then upstairs on the hot line. The executive chef there Mark Ladner is very progressive, James Beard- award winning, very intelligent. For example, when I got there they already had a compost program in place, they were one of the first to do it. It was around this time I realized I didn’t want to be a chef, and I didn’t want to be a restaurant owner, and I wasn’t getting any younger. I had a varied background, a liberal arts degree, worked for a magazine for a little while, I spent some time in Italy, so I started helping Chef with various things around the kitchen. Menu translation, PR requests, recipe keeping, health department compliance, and so we created this Kitchen Manager role. Del Posto was huge, it was like its own little machine. I started taking on some of the sous chef’s responsibilities that were less integral to them cooking and performing as chefs and more administrative and office stuff. That’s a very long way of saying that what emerged from that was that food safety and sustainability were two dominant themes, where there was the biggest opportunity for change and where I excelled.
One of the first unique things we did was get Green Restaurant certified at Del Posto and when that was successful we started replicating it at the other restaurants and that’s how the job was born.
You mentioned LeanPath earlier. We read that you worked with them to build a smaller version of their scale to measure food that doesn’t make it to consumers’ plates, and plan to test it at Eataly in New York City and possibly other restaurants. Did you run into any resistance or unexpected champions?
We did a pilot at Carnevino in Las Vegas a couple of years ago and then we did another one in Lupa here in New York. And we were talking to Andrew Shakman [co-founder and CEO of LeanPath] about a system that maybe didn’t need the whole scale and we wanted to test that out at Eataly and I’m actually meeting with Andrew this month. We haven’t done anything in Eataly yet.
At Carnevino it went remarkably smoothly, I was surprised at how well everyone got on board and just did it but at Lupa, a little bit of a smaller restaurant where staff is spread a little more thin, we ran into some challenges there with people doing it consistently and seeing the value in it.
Can you elaborate more on the behavioral and cultural change that’s gone behind a lot of the sustainability initiatives?
My process is to not just come down to the restaurant and hand down from on high a new initiative: “We’re going to use a new chemical, we’re going to try and use a new waste machine” or whatever. Unless of course Mario or Joe says so! I try to get the staff, the chef, and the GM involved during the process because they’re the ones who know how it’s going to work on the ground and whether it’s going to work. So generally I feel like I see the challenges and hiccups beforehand and can either make the decision to proceed and we’ll work through them, or we solve them, or ditch the idea!
"My process is to not just come down to the restaurant and hand down from on high a new initiative...I try to get the staff, the chef, and the GM involved during the process because they’re the ones who know how it’s going to work on the ground and whether it’s going to work."
It seems so obvious, yet a lot of people actually don’t follow that which is unfortunate.
I think it’s also a product of having come from the kitchen so I have a little bit more information about how things work in practice - how it’s not always that easy to run your scraps to the dish pit or how dishwashers work. I feel like I’ve learned what “sustainability” really means: If I have the greenest chemical in the world but the dish washers hate it and it comes in a giant, plastic 5-gallon bucket that I can’t recycle, is that really more sustainable than a slightly more toxic chemical that comes in no packaging and the dish washers are much happier with? The big picture is that it’s not just the sustainability of the product itself but how the staff interacts with it.
Do you find yourself working the line every now and then to refresh yourself on how it works?
No, I mean I’m in the kitchens a lot and certainly if there’s a private party I’m always happy to volunteer to help. But things have changed even in the last 10 years. With all of the new technology in there, I’m not sure I would even be able to hang.
"If I have the greenest chemical in the world but the dish washers hate it and it comes in a giant, plastic 5-gallon bucket that I can’t recycle, is that really more sustainable than a slightly more toxic chemical that comes in no packaging and the dish washers are much happier with? The big picture is that it’s not just the sustainability of the product itself but how the staff interacts with it."
Moving now to the consumer side, can you speak to what B&B is doing to educate consumers on issues like food waste and food safety?
I think the most valuable tool we have is Mario’s reach. So when Dana Gunders comes out with a new book or Jordan Figueiredo of @UglyFruitandVeg is doing something, we can get Mario to Facebook or Tweet the message. We always do something for Earth Day. This year we’re actually doing something around “ugly” fruits and veg, which I’d love to start calling something else because beauty is in the eye of the beholder. We try to lead by example. One of the other things that happens is that people seem to think, “well if Batali’s group can do it, then it probably can be done, it can’t be that expensive or that inconvenient,” and so that’s where I think our biggest traction/leverage is.
Some of the best things we can do for sustainability are not "advertisable," it’s just things that we’re able to do quietly that tip the scale.
"Some of the best things we can do for sustainability are not 'advertisable,' it’s just things that we’re able to do quietly that tip the scale. "
We’re curious as to how you balance the juxtaposition of greening initiatives that involve lots of small details behind the scenes, like what sink you choose for a restaurant, with the front of house or what people actually see in the restaurant.
That’s a tough one. I think press certainly helps pull back the curtain on some of those things like the water saving initiative or the energy saving initiative, the boring stuff that’s not visible to the customer. We try to get that out there either on Mario’s website or through various publications. But we try not to burden the menu with too much peripheral information. We’re kind of just hanging in there in that balance between some people are going to know and we’re just doing it because it’s right.
I also feel like some of what we do and how I think about this is similar to what you guys do. It’s not that novel to make juice out of misfit fruit but to advertise it and make it part of your branding, it breaks the mold. Here you are glamorizing this thing and showing what can be done and leading by example. Taking that risk and being like, “Yup, this is made from misfits.” But that’s how change happens, I think.
On that note, what has been the reaction in the community to B&B’s sustainability initiatives? Have you seen other restaurants following suit in terms of implementing similar systems and practices?
I just had breakfast with a former coworker this morning and part of her job has a kitchen component and she wants to make it the greenest kitchen ever. I get a lot of people reaching out from other restaurant groups who don’t have this position or can’t afford this position because they are smaller. Years ago, people were surprised that Mario would be so “green” and now it’s more expected.
Outside of the restaurant, what are some ways that you reduce your footprint in your personal life?
I have two step children who I adore, and when you have children it’s like, “I want a burger, just kidding I’m not hungry anymore” or “I don’t like this burger, I thought it was going to taste like that burger.” So we have a lot of conversations about if you want to try something new – because I totally encourage that - let me know beforehand so that I won’t order as much or we’ll be prepared to take it home, whatever the solution needs to be. That dialogue takes place a lot: “I think I want it, but I’m not sure I’m going to like it or not sure I’m going to eat it all.” I think in general, just having that conversation with children is a huge contribution.
I can tell you that my freezer is sometimes filled with bags of compost that I bring to the market or that we have these LED lights in our house that I hate. But relative to what’s happening in the world, my compost bags and my LED lights are not making a big difference.
I think one way to make personal change is to change your mindset or approach: we live in a very disposable world right now. If you make an effort to eat that carrot that’s sort of wonky and sad in the back of your fridge, hopefully that attitude carries over to when you dine out – maybe you take home your leftovers, or just don’t put as much on your plate at the buffet. Maybe you reuse that plastic bag. These actions can be contagious. A friend of mine who owns her own business recently told me that a young employee quit after a month. I was surprised. My friend told me she feels like “everything is disposable these days, try on a job and if it doesn’t fit, throw it away!” I think this kind of mentality is dangerous.
"If you make an effort to eat that carrot that’s sort of wonky and sad in the back of your fridge, hopefully that attitude carries over to when you dine out – maybe you take home your leftovers, or just don’t put as much on your plate at the buffet."
What’s next in terms of sustainability and food safety in restaurants or more broadly, in our communities in general?
Continuing on that disposable theme: I feel like plastic is a big one. Every time you go somewhere, even if it’s the smallest thing they put it in a plastic bag. There’s tons of plastic in our oceans; it’s not just about recycling right, it’s about reducing how many disposable items you bring into your life. Do you send your kids to school with a jar that they have to bring back or sandwiches wrapped in plastic wrap?
I think food waste is not going to go away for a while. Sustainable seafood is another one. I also think that “less meat, good meat” is definitely something that’s going to pick up some traction. This idea that not everyone is going to be a vegetarian but you can eat just a little bit less meat and make it the really good, sustainable, humanely raised meat. We could make some progress in that department as well.
We’ve already seen various grocery stores popping up around the globe that are using little or no packaging at all and it seems like that’s something that will continue into the future.
We don’t use plastic straws in our restaurants, that’s a big one that’s an easy thing and does make a difference.
And the no plastic bottles policy is awesome, such an easy solution!
Ok, last question. Just for fun! What’s your all time favorite meal? What is something that brings you joy when you eat it?
I have to say that I think natural peanut butter is the best thing that ever happened. I just think peanut butter is a serious gift to humans.
P.S. Check out our exciting announcement about our partnership with B&B here!