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Much has been made of the way that Instagram, by emphasizing the visual, has affected food trends and restaurants. There are countless accounts devoted to beautiful food, showing plate after plate of photogenic meals. I myself follow quite a few chefs and restaurants on Instagram, watching what they’re cooking and how they present it.

It’s easy to complain about the new obsession with appearance rather than taste, or to label Instagram as “good” or “bad” for food. Instagram is shallow, of course, but it is also just one tool among many to connect with customers. As one of my former chefs would remind me, if my plating grew sloppy, “customers eat with their eyes first, mouth second.” Popular food-centric accounts reflect the fact that the visual has always mattered in restaurants, and especially in fine dining.

Enter Rick Venutolo.

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“Pepito mixto – grilled chicken, grilled steak, cheese, potato, sauce.” 
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“Queso dip. Chorizo enchilada. Al pastor, barbacoa, and chicharron tacos. Esquite.”

Someone recently pointed me to Rick’s Instagram account, a subversive take on the perfect Instagram-worthy plate. Rick posts photos of his meals, after he’s eaten them. His feed is a series of empty plates, baskets, and bowls. There are bones, containers, and dribbles, but no recognizable food. His Instagram bio tagline self-deprecatingly sums it up: “This is so dumb. Why would anyone do this?”

Rick’s photos push back against prioritizing aesthetic over taste, or stepping out of a moment to document the moment. But there is something else in his feed that is more beautiful, more laudable to me: all of his photographed plates, baskets, and platters are clean. There are tidy piles of bones, or scraped out sauce cups, but for the most part, he has eaten everything on his plate. He is visually documenting his membership in what my mother used to call “the clean plate club”.

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“Beef rib. Death row last meal good mac and cheese. Baked beans.”
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“Burrata (with a great tomato jam). Cacio e pepe. Porchetta. Panna Cotta with peaches.”

At my restaurant, I get a glimpse of who, exactly, is in the clean plate club. I cook your dish, and then I watch it walk out of the door. I never get to see you eat the food. I don’t hear what you say, how you react, or what you grab first. But, later, I see your plate come back in the kitchen. There will be a server balancing it on his arm as he unloads the leftover food and dishes into the dish pit.

It’s then that I see what you did, or didn’t eat. I always talk to the server, because I want to know if there was something wrong with my cooking. What made them avoid all the olives? Why did they leave those greens on their plate? Why didn’t they finish the snapper? And why don’t they want to take any leftovers home? The server frequently has no constructive criticism; more often than not, the customer simply seemed sated with what they had eaten and then left the rest.

There is food waste in every step of the restaurant industry. Food spoils, or fails to meet certain standards during harvesting, packaging, transportation, storage, and preparation. Some food waste is seen as inevitable in our current system, the product of long supply chains and unrealistic expectations in the industry. But food waste is an enormous contributor to methane emissions, food insecurity, and misused natural resources. There are so many ways to cut down on food waste in the restaurant industry, from buying more locally to composting food waste during kitchen prep. It’s is a pressing topic worth examining in detail (anyone want to see Wasted! with me?), because food waste can be stymied at many different points in our food system.

But, tonight, as I watched servers throw away meticulously prepared vegetables or the last delicious bites of uneaten pork, I kept returning to that last link in the long chain of food production to food consumption: the customer. Who is reminding the customer that they are part of the food system as well? And that, by being conscious of what and how they eat, they can affect a change?

“Finish your food” is something you say to children, to picky eaters and spoiled youngsters. Rarely is it promoted as a value for adults. After all, we can make our own decisions, order our own meals, and act on our own dietary preferences.

But our choices, as diners, as consumers, matter. The pursuit of a clean plate will change the way you eat at a restaurant, how much you order and how you think about your meal. It will change your food waste footprint. This is why I love Rick’s Instagram account: this man is glorifying, and beautifying, cleaning your plate. Perhaps he is just one very, very hungry man who finds it easy to finish his meal. But he also makes it look enviable.

The next time you’re at a restaurant, take a moment to think about what you are going to order, and what will be left after you are full. See if you can visualize yourself, as an adult, being a member of the clean plate club. If you need some motivation, do like Rick does, and take a picture afterwards for Instagram. Write what your meal was, in the caption. Make everyone you know jealous of a meal so good, you had to eat every last bite.

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Sorry, All Out

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It’s a Saturday night, and you’re on the most special of dates. You two saw a show, so you made your reservation at the restaurant for a bit later in the evening. When you sit down and glance at the menu, the fish dish catches your eye. You put the menu down, already decided on your dinner.

The server comes over, and gives his opening speech. You hear about his recommendations, the wine by the glass, and finally, he informs you that unfortunately, the kitchen has run out of that fish dish you had been eyeing the moment before.

The kitchen has run out of the fish? What? What kind of restaurant is this?

As I’m going to argue, probably a good one.

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Selling food can be a logistical nightmare. Food products have a range of limited shelf lives, and the peak time to sell something can be quite narrow.

The better the restaurant is, the fresher and more perishable most of the product is. Those tomatoes only keep their firm texture and sweet crunch for a few days after they come from the farm, and that arugula started to wilt the moment it was harvested. If a restaurant is getting the freshest fish, they are probably getting shipments every few days, trying to minimize the time between the catch, the filleting, and the actual cooking for your plate.

There are also items that are prepared far in advance for your plate: the sauces that simmer for hours on the stove, right next to the long-braised greens and the slow-cooked pork shoulder. These are components that may have an extended shelf life in the cooler or freezer, but must be prepared far in advance of your dinner order, and used quickly to maintain their peak flavors.

Fresh and prepared ingredients contain a lot of a restaurant’s profit, because they are what the restaurant is selling. If the pork goes bad, that is profit souring. If there are items that are old and need to be thrown out, those are potential sales that have been wasted. Restaurants try to avoid food waste as much as possible.

Large corporate restaurants, with thousands of dollars in sales and sizable, stable menus, can somewhat hedge their bets against food waste. They have large amounts of diner data and streamlined systems for serving food. But for small, independent restaurants with changing menus and relatively tighter margins, this is harder to do.

Any restaurant faces the same unpredictable element: you, the diner, can walk in the door and order anything off the menu. An experienced chef can guess what will be a big seller, based on the clientele, the time of the year, the weather, or the past records. It is also possible to steer the customer through the menu phrasing, pricing, or recommendations by the server.

But the dining public is unpredictable, and the chef is left with a guessing game. The kitchen is trying to overestimate the ingredients needed to serve an entire dining room full of unknown people, but by the minimum amount possible. Over-preparation is expected, but minimized, as cooks try to estimate and prepare only for the maximum amount of particular dishes they think will sell a night.

Sometimes, there is a miscalculation: the chef didn’t anticipate the weather change, or the imperceptible shift in public opinion. Suddenly, it’s Saturday night, and even though the fish dish has been selling miserably for two straight weeks, the entire dining room has become enchanted. Fish dish after fish dish order rolls in, and the cooks are scurrying around, eyeing their depleted ingredients.

This is when you, the average diner, hears that we are out of the fish dish tonight, terribly sorry. And this is when I humbly urge you, the average diner, to stay calm and try to understand.

(First, a small caveat about timing- if it is late on a Saturday, for example, the last day of the week’s dinner service for many restaurants, the shortage is probably the result of the chef making a miscalculation on inventory. However, if it is 6pm on a Friday, which is usually when at restaurant is most heavily stocked with ingredients, something else has most likely gone wrong. Perhaps a purveyor forgot to include that week’s beef delivery, or there was a break in the supply chain. I’ve also witnessed a nightmare slow-motion spilling of an entire tray of prepared porchetta onto the kitchen floor, minutes after Friday service started, causing that dish to be taken off of the menu for the night.)

No chef wants to take an item off of the menu and limit diner choices. It does not reflect well on the restaurant. But if it happens, it is probably because the chef is running a tight ship that does not contain a lot of room for excess. Perhaps the chef uses very fresh ingredients, instead of relying on freezing or half-cooked components. Perhaps the supply chain is made up of smaller, local producers who are not as blindly reliable as international, corporate food companies.

Or perhaps the chef, even at the best of restaurants, runs a messy, human business. Good restaurant owners, who are trying to run a non-wasteful venture that keeps food at an affordable price, will sometimes need a little flexibility. They cannot predict the way a full dining room will order any more than you can predict the weather (which sometimes heavily influences how a full dining room will order, but that’s another story). Things happen in a business that is full of fire, perishable items, and humans.

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So yes, unfortunately, the fish dish is off of the menu tonight. But the restaurant is still here, still open, still serving you the best food possible. Could I recommend the porchetta, instead?