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Not Your Momma’s Leftovers

Eighteen feet of gleaming stainless steel prep table is laid out under the bright fluorescent lights of The Commissary’s main prep kitchen. Every inch of surface area is covered with a patchwork quilt of turnips and peppers, asparagus and tofu, bok choy and carrots. At one end is a mountain of meat, much of it branded with the names of the region’s best farms, names like Anderson Farms and and R.L. Valley. There is kohlrabi and shallots and dried beans and leftover cake– this bounty sprawling across the kitchen like a model for the world’s strangest still life.

Such was the scene the morning before The Commissary’s second installation of its “Too Good to Waste” dinner series.
These dinners, which are crafted completely of leftover ingredients from the kitchen larders, are the brainchild of The Commissary’s own Kate Djupe and Karen Chrestay, as well as Isidora Diaz, a local cookbook author and frequent Commissary collaborator. A Stock & Barrel contributor as well, Diaz, who is a native of Chile, says that food waste doesn’t exist in her home country as it does here.

“When I first came to the United States,” she said, “I was horrified at what I saw people throwing away.”

Djupe also noticed a disturbing amount of waste being produced at The Commissary, especially after one-off pop-up dinners and the popular culinary competition “Knife Fight,” which sees local chefs competing in Chopped-like challenges.

“We have over 60 makers in The Commissary kitchens, and they can produce a ton of waste, especially when we have one-night-only events. It’s not like a restaurant, where, if you don’t sell something one night, you can try again the next,” she explained. “Most of the time we don’t have that option here. Same goes for “Knife Fight.” The first time we held an event, we underestimated the vast amount of waste produced.”

Djupe, Diaz, and Cherstay decided that the place that generated that waste could also play an important role in reducing and reusing it, while simultaneously educating people about how to better manage their own kitchen waste at home.

According to Diaz, the dinner was “originally conceptualized as a waste workshop on cooking for yourself vs. cooking for someone else and how that can relate to waste.” But, she says, the idea quickly evolved into a larger dinner that would be held after each “Knife Fight,” with one event generating the product for the other, creating a symbiotic relationship between the two.

And while the final result is what Djupe calls a “dinner party”, with all proceeds donated to Mid-Ohio Food Bank, the original idea of diner education was not lost. Each “Too Good to Waste” dinner involves an open kitchen invitation to all would-be chefs and curious guests. Diners are encouraged to show up early and work with the professional chefs, contributing ideas for the final menu and learning from the all-volunteer team. These sessions feel like the marriage between a traditional cooking class and a multi-disciplinary culinary jam session, with each participant offering her input on each of the dinner’s different dishes. Considering that attending the pre-dinner sessions is free, this can be a great way to score some pro-tips on the cheap. Combine that with the savings you’ll accrue at home by wasting less and the overall good feeling of living and eating more sustainably, and you’ve got one of the best values in Columbus edutainment.

The most recent session saw local chefs Laura Lee, chef/owner of the Korean-inspired food truck Ajumama, and Aaron Clouse, Limited Brand’s corporate pastry chef and owner of Cakes by Aaron, as well as Djupe, Diaz, and Cherstay, each dispensing ample amounts of technique for creatively making use of otherwise waste ingredients.

Lee crafted a dish she called “Mixed Pickle Braised Chicken” that recast leftover kimchee-style pickled vegetables, an ingredient she is more than familiar with on her truck. She also contributed a “Mexican” tabbouleh, tasty with strong notes of cilantro and lime. However, it was Lee’s “Rhubarb Hot Dog” of buttermilk-poached rhubarb, strawberry “ketchup,” mango “mustard” all served on a split top bun that was definitely the most adventurous dish of the evening and the dinner’s real “you had to be there” moment. FOMO, anyone?

Pastry chef Aaron Clouse proved to be a one-man force of nature in the kitchen, producing seven dishes, all sourced from leftovers, in just over six hours. His dishes ran the gamut from a super savory saffron risotto to a just-sweet-enough chocolate chip carrot cake topped with crème fraîche mousse. Tasked with creating new dessert and pastry creations from cast off food proved to be an especially difficult task, but one that Chef Clouse showed he was more than capable of surmounting.

Finally, Chef Diaz rounded out the menu with a superbly balanced lobster bisque, as well as a vegetable-strewn stew featuring albondigas (Spanish for “meatballs”) prepared with pork from Anderson Farm’s heritage breed hogs. She also grafted together a beautifully presented pasta dish she called “Chinese Bolognese” that saw penne pasta and braised bok choi topped with a beef gravy heavy in Chinese Five Spice and sesame oil, a dish that Diaz says was adapted from her memory of dish from Mission Chinese, the much-praised San Francisco eatery that introduced the world to Sino-American food.

When the dinner convened, what was presented was nothing short of impressive, foodwaste non-withstanding; these were not your mamma’s leftovers. Diners enjoyed a beautifully prepared spread of handcrafted specialties and one-time-ever plates, a testament to the creativity and ingenuity of people cooking for a purpose. More than one diner commented that they believed that they were eating the best meal in the city that night. This writer was inclined to agree. •

The next “Too Good to Waste” dinner will take place this fall, after the September installment of “Knife Fight”. To keep up on dates and events at The Commissary, visit thecommissary columbus.com.