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Chef Sean Telo: Making Food Waste Delicious in Brooklyn

image/21 Greenpoint

image/21 Greenpoint

At Sean Telo’s Brooklyn restaurant, 21 Greenpoint, food waste that would usually be seen as garbage isn't thrown out. In fact, it's served to customers.

Sounds weird, but it’s actually genius.

Food waste is a problem plaguing the country. The USDA estimates nationwide food waste to amount to about 30 to 40 percent of the food supply, and according to a 2005 study at the University of Arizona, restaurants are a main culprit, with more than three percent of food brought into restaurants being wasted at the end of service.

At 21 Greenpoint, though, carrot tops, fish bones, and scraps from cutting perfect pavés of eggplant for fries are featured in a unique tasting menu called 21 Sunday. As a result, there's only about one bag of trash a night, a bag that, according to Telo, is filled with more plastic gloves and aluminum foil than anything else. Any food that truly cannot be served to customers isn’t thrown away, but rather composted at a heat-treated compost facility in New Jersey.

The Genesis of a No-Food-Waste Restaurant

Telo was at Glenwood, a farm in the Hudson Valley, with Mark Bittman and his former boss Steven Satterfield when he decided to do something concrete about food waste in his new restaurant.

“I mentioned to Mark that the owners [of 21 Greenpoint] were going to eventually want to do brunch, which I hate,” explains Telo.

When Bittman asked what Telo would prefer to do, the idea seemed to emerge fully formed.

“I came up with this idea where we just do a tasting menu, and then bring in the idea of using whatever we have, food waste,” he says of the 21 Sunday concept: several courses to share, all for 21 dollars per person.

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From the Organic Authority Files

21 Sunday at Night

Telo has recently upgraded the tasting menu to the Sunday evening service, but the concept is the same – still $21 per person, and still a hodgepodge of delicious items to share.

To use up any scraps, Telo and his team have to get creative. Veggie skins are often thrown onto pizzas, which Telo perfected as the executive chef of STG, a trattoria in Atlanta, or into soups or salads. Whey left over from making mozzarella in-house is turned into mozzarella butter, to be served with bread in place of butter.

“We did this thing called eggplants tops and bottoms spread, so we'd do eggplant fries on our dinner menu, and as a result of making these perfect pavés of eggplant, we have all these scraps," explains Telo. "So we just roasted them all in the oven -- it's mostly just skins. And then we'll purée them with a lot of olive oil and roasted garlic, and then serve that with biscuits.”

On a recent visit, I ate, amongst other things a spicy dandelion green salad, a simple broth with vegetables and beans, and pizza with lamb bacon, cheese, and honey.

Of course, that was just me.

“Depending on how many people you come in with, that'll also depend on what you get,” says Telo.

“If you'e a two-top sitting next to a four-top, we'll try to make it different, so you’re like looking at each other, like, ‘What have they got?’” This, Telo says, makes dining more interesting and interactive, something that he, as a chef, is constantly trying to highlight.

Restaurants in New York are constantly opening and closing; Telo hopes that 21 Greenpoint’s success will lie in the fact that while it did get a lot of press at opening (owner Homer Murray is the son of actor Bill, who did a stint as a bartender in its first days), it remains, above all, a neighborhood restaurant with a sustainable approach to dining out.

“We've made a really conscious effort to do our part,” says Telo. “No restaurant can be opened forever, but while we're here, while we're in power and opened, we can do our part as a conscious business.”

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