Welcome back to our sustainable chef series, where we’re connecting with local chefs to spotlight their ingenuity and creativity as they work to reduce waste in the kitchen. In our first installment, we featured Rob Rubba from Oyster Oyster.
Food waste is a big issue on both a local and international scale, and a push toward food waste reduction in restaurants will aid in reducing wasted resources, mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, and even improving local soils.
If you’re looking for a new ramen spot in DC that embodies these values and has earned a spot on lists like the Best Ramen Spots in America, look no further than Toki Underground. I sat down with Liv & Zack, two of the personalities behind the scenes at Toki, to chat about how they incorporate sustainability into the restaurant’s day-to-day operations and why this mission is so important to them.
According to Zack, running a restaurant sustainably is all about intentionality. “We have the information; we have the resources now, and there are no excuses for not choosing something a little bit more sustainable other than ‘this is how we’ve done it before’ “
Liv and Zack are both restaurant industry vets. Liv was born and raised in the food industry through growing up working at his family’s French restaurant, and Zack has been involved in the industry in some capacity since he was 15. In addition to their shared passion for food and drinks, both of them have strong ties to ideals relating to conservation and waste reduction – Liv has a background in wildlife conservation and zoology, and Zack got his start in urban planning.
Zack had been back in the hospitality industry for a few years before the pandemic, when he connected with Liv and their partnership began. “I saw in him something that I really loved which was his background in biology and his passion for sustainability as well. And I think that’s something that isn’t realized in the DC industry.
Because of these shared values, compromising on environmental ideals wasn’t an option. Unlike some other restaurants with a sustainability-oriented mission, however, Toki’s brand and marketing don’t necessarily focus on environmentalism. According to Zack, “Nobody thinks of Toki when they think about a move toward more sustainable spaces. And I’m not mad at that. We’re doing our job. We’re doing what we should be doing.”
In other words, they run the restaurant this way because they believe reducing waste should be the norm in all restaurants, and it doesn’t always have to also be an aesthetic statement in order to make a positive impact. This idea is definitely something we can get behind at Compost Crew, since making composting mainstream is kinda our thing.
When it comes to dividing up responsibilities, Zack handles Toki’s drink menu and Liv is the mastermind behind their cuisine.
Looking at the Toki food menu, Liv feels that the focus on dishes with a stock base, such as ramen, presents a unique opportunity for waste reduction. “The nice thing is, cooking ramen and soup, you can use a lot of the leftovers. For example if you have pig bones, that kind of thing – bones, skin, the meat – everything really goes into making the soup. It’s a great way to use and maximize all of the ingredients.”
Liv let me know that, in addition to the environmental aspect, minimizing food waste is also crucial when it comes to maximizing efficiency from an economic and business perspective, and Zack shared this stance on the beverage side of things as well.
“[We are] focusing in on larger format containers that are easier to ship — and also mean less waste being thrown away on a day-to-day basis. I buy my sweet vermouth in 5L bags instead of 750mL bottles; it’s small, but that’s a lot easier to ship.” Zack said, “It does involve a little more plastic and less glass, but at the end of the day I’m throwing out 1/7th of the actual waste.”
This push for lighter and better packed shipping containers comes with environmental, economic, and logistical benefits – especially relevant in the midst of recent supply chain issues that have impacted businesses globally. Liv also reminded me that there are often less tangible benefits to waste reduction as well. “[sustainable cooking] forces you to be a little more creative in terms of how you’re making dishes and setting menus — ultimately it’s a really rewarding endeavor.”
Because these changes are so beneficial, they drive home the idea that the most environmentally friendly choice may not always be the most expensive or difficult option. Liv and Zack expressed their desires to spread the word about these strategies, and to help make the restaurant scene in DC more sustainable overall.
“As long as my guests are leaving happy, and are like “I want to keep supporting this place,” then that alone gives us coverage to speak to the people in our profession who are like “oh that is an interesting idea! I never thought of using citrus in that way; I never thought of fortifying syrups in that way” – Zack Sanders
Zack noted that DC has one of the most independently owned restaurant scenes in the country, which makes it even more important for surrounding businesses to be on the same page in terms of sustainability. “We have a very locally owned feel throughout the city which is unique. But it also means that our buying power is small; we can’t make big changes for the big companies out there. But understanding what companies are doing and supporting the ones that are taking steps in the right direction is really important.”
At the end of the day, sustainability and waste reduction have a place in all restaurants, and the integration of these values is crucial as we work to fight food waste and mitigate the impacts of climate change. Thank you Liv, Zack, and the whole Toki Underground team, for your work to make sustainable cooking the norm in the DC area and beyond.
By: Sara Mack; Marketing Manager