Sustainable Chefs: Rob Rubba

At Compost Crew, we are proud to work with businesses and individuals that prioritize living sustainably. In the United States, restaurants produce 22 to 33 billion pounds of food waste annually.  For this reason, restaurants that abide by zero waste principles can help lead the way as we work to fight food waste both locally and globally. In order to encourage and spotlight the ingenuity displayed by sustainable chefs, our team is proud to present a new blog series! Stay tuned for more posts featuring local chefs creating at the highest level in a way that reduces waste in the kitchen. 

For the first edition of this series, I sat down with Chef Rob Rubba, founder and chef at Oyster Oyster in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington, DC. Rob is a classically trained chef, and has worked in French Michelin star restaurants in big cities like New York, Chicago, and Las Vegas. 

In 2012, Rob moved to the DC region. After opening his first DC-based restaurant, Restaurant Hazel, in 2016, Rob re-evaluated whether or not he wanted to remain in the restaurant industry. 

“I started to reflect on everything I had done… and started to see the waste and the impact of restaurants themselves.”

After evaluating the negative aspects of the industry, Rob let me know that he realized what it would take for him to continue to do what he loves: “It’s the only real trade I have, so if I want to do it I need to make some sort of impact. So, sustainability came up and kind of changed my whole life.”

At this point, Rob became a vegetarian and a dedicated environmentalist. Through this process, he began his endeavor to create a restaurant that “makes sense” in terms of sustainability and reducing waste while also remaining relevant in a large metropolitan area such as Washington, DC. During our conversation he emphasized the need to be a steward of the Earth while still providing a delicious and fun dining experience. 

Oyster Oyster cook preparing ingredients with a stalk of broccoli in the foreground

This mission definitely came to fruition through Oyster Oyster. Recently recognized by Washington Post food critic, Tom Sietsema, as being the best restaurant in DC for 2021, this 28-seat “vegetarian restaurant that serves Oysters” is receiving a lot of attention throughout the city and beyond. 

It’s not just the plant-focused menu that demonstrates Rob’s dedication to sustainability. Oyster Oyster has eliminated single use plastics, which is a big deal in fine dining restaurants because it is a common resource for modern cooking practices like sous vide, and even just when it comes to prepping ingredients. 

Under Rob’s guidance, Oyster Oyster also keeps sustainability in mind by opting to steam things rather than “waste” water boiling large pots, utilizing LED lights, choosing black t-shirts instead of high maintenance chef coats, and even exclusively selecting sustainably sourced wines. Rob let me know that Wine Director, Sarah Horvitz, prioritizes sourcing sustainable wines over exclusively local wines: “We source from around the world because we want to highlight those individuals that are producing things responsibly; from even the way they treat their team members who harvest the grapes to the actual production of the land.”

At Oyster Oyster, food waste reduction also inspires creativity. Although Rob and his team also compost their scraps, they take fighting food waste to the next level by utilizing food scraps that would otherwise be composted as unique elements in their dishes.

“We have a dish of brassicas; so it’s like cauliflower, broccoli, turnips, radish, mustard greens —  everything from that family in a dish. And then we have a lot of trim — the hearty stalk of the broccoli. we could easily throw them in the compost, but instead we juice those and then we use that as the water in the bread that we serve with that course. So we have this broccoli essence bread that goes with the dish, and that’s a way to eliminate waste — or at least upcycle something that normally would be considered trash.”

For a restaurant with a plant-focused menu, it’s worth noting it is named for both Oyster mushrooms and the shellfish type of oyster. As it turns out, Rob shared that this is another intentional choice made in the name of sustainability. Located in the Chesapeake region, Rob was concerned about issues of over farming and over fishing when it comes to area seafood. 

For this reason, serving oysters has been a conscious choice made to support efforts to rebuild the waterways that have been destroyed by this type of overconsumption over time. By sourcing the oysters sold at the restaurant from sustainable farms, the removal of the oysters doesn’t contribute to ecosystem degradation. In fact, the shells from the restaurant go back to Chesapeake recovery after the oysters have been consumed. 

Rob shared with me that, throughout the pandemic, consumer interest in local and sustainable food has continued to grow. Oyster Oyster is an inspiring representation of dining done in an environmentally responsible way, and we are thrilled to continue aiding them in their mission by composting any remaining food scraps once the kitchen is done with them. 

Thank you to Rob, and Oyster Oyster, for your dedication to sustainability, and for being our first feature in our sustainable chef series! 

By: Sara Mack, Marketing Manager