The Immeasurable Value of Zero-Waste Cocktails
At Providence, the upscale seafood restaurant in Los Angeles, Chef Michael Cimarusti imaginatively pairs abalone with avocado and tortilla, and white seabass with artichoke and buttermilk. It’s a thoughtful menu—not only in terms of its creativity, but also in the products it highlights. He sources only wild-caught, sustainable fish, largely from American waters.
In an era when the overused word sustainability has lost meaning and induces eye rolls, it’s refreshing to see a chef like the James Beard Award–nominated Cimarusti put such an emphasis on traceability through pioneering efforts like Dock to Dish, an organization he helps lead out of his Cape Seafood and Provisions shop. Signing on to the program means that he’s buying at least 300 pounds of seafood each month from local fishermen, all in weekly installments. Menus are drafted based on whatever the fishermen catch the day before.
If a restaurant is that devoted to quality and to shunning farm-raised catches, how could the bar at Providence not espouse a similar reverence? That’s why head bartender Kim Stodel, determined to provide an environmentally sound alternative behind the bar, developed the concept of zero-waste cocktails.
“Hearing Chef Michael talk about seafood sustainability inspired me. I remember when I first started working here, it was during lineup and chef was talking about not serving tuna because he just didn’t want to be a part of the overfishing problem at the time,” Stodel says. “This made me think about making positive choices in the way that I do things.”
Thankfully, this concern dovetails with a now larger shift in the beverage industry as it moves toward prioritizing ecological impacts. In restaurant kitchens, transparent sourcing and salvaging waste have been championed for years. For example, the WastED pop-up from chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York re-imagined the negative connotations of food scraps to much fanfare, just as Silo, in Brighton, England, abides by a zero-waste philosophy through elements like up-cycled furniture, hand-churned butter, and the presence of a composting aerobic digester.
The drinks world is finally catching up. Jimmy’s in Aspen, for instance, banishes plastic straws, embraces energy-efficient lighting, and composts the majority of its trash. The Bywater, Chef David Kinch’s ode to New Orleans in Los Gatos, California, conserves water via a pebble ice machine for its cocktails.
New Orleans’ iconic Tales of the Cocktail festival also underscores this significant turn. For the second year, the annual booze behemoth has bestowed a number of businesses with Sustainable Spirit Awards. This year’s recipients included the Good Lion in Santa Barbara, a bar that recycles old liquor bottles and uses compostable utensils; Lucas Groglio of Lo Hacemos Bien, a bar catering service with a strong composting and recycling program intact; Bombay Sapphire, whose Laverstoke Mill distillery harvests rainwater; Tequila Ocho, which transforms organic byproduct from the distillation process into fertilizer; and Real Minero, the mezcal producer that—concerned about dwindling supply—plants a new stash of agave each year.
For the first time, Claire Sprouse and Chad Arnholt, the founders of San Francisco– and New York–based Tin Roof Drink Community (the duo behind the Bywater beverage program), presented a Sustainability Summit at Tales of the Cocktail. Sprouse and Arnholt, who weigh in on everything from minimizing water waste to responsible transport systems for their bar clients, assembled a daylong seminar devoted to topics spanning the supply chain, the use of eco-friendly ingredients in drinks, and the effects of waste.
Stodel homes in on some of these components, with at least 60 percent of his Providence drink menu “utilizing second-life ingredients or zero-waste techniques. The more cocktails that do this, the happier I am.”
It’s a two-fold process for him, beginning with walking through the kitchen and talking to the cooks to see what they’re getting rid of. “Nowadays I don’t have to hunt so much. All of them know what I’m trying to achieve, so if they have anything they’re discarding they’ll come to me to see if I can use it. It’s great because now they have a hand in the cocktail program. It’s an ecosystem,” he says.
He sets his sights on one specific ingredient and figures out how to use it in multiple ways. Currently, a few cocktails on Stodel’s menu—like the Muay Thai, a Mai Tai riff infused with ginger, lemongrass, and kaffir lime leaf, and the Berry Negroni, a twist with strawberry-infused gin—feature garnishes fashioned from pâte de fruit scraps.
The She Sells Pea Shells cocktail is also unlikely, starring tequila infused from discarded pea shells. “Obviously the kitchen can’t use them; they’re not very edible, but they’re jam packed with pea flavor,” he points out, noting how he rounds out the drink with fresh mint, lemon, and Sancerre.
Scraps from a nectarine shine in another of his libations, the Tall and Skinny. Once the segments are used for cooking, the remaining fruit is saved by the prep cooks for Stodel, who makes syrup out of the remnants by letting it sit in sugar and water. “Once the sugar has dissolved, I strain the syrup into a bottle. This nectarine syrup sweetens the drink,” he explains. “What’s left is sweet fruit pulp, which I then blend into a fine purée and spread over a sheet to dehydrate. The purée dries out and hardens. I pulverize it into a powder and season it with a little salt and citric acid to rim the glass.”
Kristin Canty is the managing owner of Woods Hill Table in Concord, Massachusetts, which she opened “to bring the same organic sustainable ingredients—a mix of practicing and USDA–certified—that I long shared with my family to the entire community.” The menu, which changes frequently to reflect the bumps in produce selection, skews to comforting dishes such as Beaujolais sausage, braised pork, and chili spaghetti Bolognese. It is buoyed by a bar that pours both biodynamic and organic wines, and crafts seasonally rotating cocktails prepared with small-batch American liquors like made-in-Ipswich Privateer rum.
Syrups, tonics, amari, and Campari are all made in-house, just as honey and mint from the restaurant’s very own New Hampshire farm are integrated whenever possible. During honey season, the Bees Kneez is one of the best-selling drinks, a spin on the classic capturing “the more floral aspect of the honey with Privateer’s Tiki-Gin and lemon,” Canty says. “For garnish, lemon peel with a honey comb are flagged on the end of a pick, and bee pollen is dusted over, adding an earthy aromatic. As Concord is the home of the Concord grape, we forage in the fall while they grow wild in the woods—including from some of our regular guests’ backyards—to create our Concord Grape Martinis.”
Such a niche cocktail program often leads staff to double as educators. “Many customers come to the restaurant with their favorite drinks in mind, and those may include big-named alcohol brands that we don’t have. When this occurs, our staff tells them about the spirits we do offer and the small businesses we support by doing so.”
At Providence, Stodel is also happy to share the details of his program with patrons, but he is mindful of inundating them with too much information in a fine-dining setting. “If it’s appropriate, like an edible garnish that’s a byproduct of a zero-waste process, I’ll inform them. But otherwise, I try to make the experience less about the drink and more about the guest.”