How Drexel Food Lab Engages in Mindful Cooking

Located at the intersection of culinary arts and food science is Drexel Food Lab, a Philadelphia-based food product design and culinary innovation lab located out of Drexel University’s College of Nursing and Health Professions.

Research at the lab is focused on developing real-world societal outcomes for food waste and insecurity, bringing sustainability, health promotion and access together. Dr. Jonathan Deutsch, a professor at Drexel University and director of the Drexel Food Laboratory, works to bring these basic concepts together to make food affordable and healthy for “as many people as possible.”

“We emphasize the idea of mindful cooking,” he said. “A lot of us are very skilled in mindful eating – making sure that everything we put into our body is kind of intentional and thoughtful, and so we apply those same ideas to cooking.”

Dr. Deutsch’s background as a chef and experience in food product development, along with a gift from the Octavia Foundation, enabled him to found the lab in 2014. He previously worked in fine dining establishments, a segment of the industry in which he indicated food waste is prevalent.

An “emphasis on perfect,” is the main culprit of waste at upscale restaurants, and chefs play an integral role in the business ensuring profitable operations. Typically, chefs are evaluated based on their food waste percentage and inventory management. It behooves a chef to hire staff with exceptional knife skills and provide training to minimize waste and spoilage – such as cutting away the bruised parts of fruits and vegetables and using the remainder.

The Drexel Food Lab recently collaborated with a Philadelphia fine dining establishment on seasonal menu development. The restaurant served a compressed watermelon salad as part of its summer selections. While the perfect compressed disk of seedless watermelon,” was a visual masterpiece, what remained of the rest of the fruit wasn’t making it to the plate.

“For a little while, they were making pickled watermelon rind, and they were serving all the ugly scraps of the watermelon that didn’t make the plate as staff meal,” Dr. Deutsch explained. “After a few days of having that as a staff meal, it really wasn’t very popularly received. Everyone was sick of watermelon very quickly.”

As a result of the work with the Drexel Food Lab, the kitchen was able to change their system to utilize other parts of the watermelon. When the salad appeared on the menu, a watermelon cocktail was available as a drink special.

The basic concept of repurposing all of parts of a fruit or vegetable can also be translated to home cooks. 

“By making retailers, including those foodservice, savvier about food waste, I think it has multiple benefits,” Dr. Deutsch said. “One is it improves their own operations for sustainability and profitability. But it also helps them educate their consumers. We don’t eat out at great restaurants on a daily basis, but the things you learn from doing that you can then incorporate into your life in other occasions, and that’s a big emphasis of ours.”

Efficiencies can be scaled up with the use of technology as well. Software enables foodservice operations to track and understand where their food is being waste, whether it’s in procurement or overbuying. While understanding where waste is creating is the first step, the rest is often left to chefs to figure out. In September 2020, the Drexel Food Lab worked with Terrain Cafe, an Urban Outfitter-owned outlet on data analysis and menu creation.

The restaurant enjoys a bustling brunch business, with cantaloupe as a main staple on the menu. New items were created, leveraging the entire fruit from curry cantaloupe broth with scallops and soba noodles to ice cream.

“That really kind of showed off how you can use the whole product and not just part of it on the plate and throw the rest of it away,” Dr. Deutsch said. “Those changes extrapolated out over the year. They added about $40,000 to the bottom line of the restaurant at just one location. With COVID, staffing and other pressures, this revenue is more precious than ever.”

Dr. Jonathan Deutsch will present about culinary solutions at the Food Recovery Forum at WasteExpo May 9-12 in Las Vegas during “Keynote Session: Solutions for Food Waste and Wasted Food Prevention, Reduction, and Recovery; Actions for 50% Reduction by 2030. He will also moderate the panel, “Using Data to Inform Total Food Waste Minimization Programs for Foodservice Along the Hierarchy.”

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