Thailand: Avoiding Food Waste, Saving Resources

Interview with Food Waste Ambassador Daniel Bucher, Bangkok

Food Waste

One third of the food produced for human consumption is estimated to be wasted or lost along the value chain, according to the World Food Programme. Halving food waste by 2030 is one of the Sustainable Development Goals. Saving resources in view of high inflation and food crises is an urgent need of the hour, also in tourism. Daniel Bucher who works as a consultant and executive chef in Bangkok and is committed to saving resources and avoiding food waste in restaurants has shared his ideas on how to achieve this.

TW: Restaurant businesses have suffered during the Covid-19 pandemic, have experienced disruptions in supply chains and are now facing increasing input costs. Does this provide new momentum on the way to sustainability?

Daniel Bucher: Early in the pandemic, there was a moment of devout silence in the sustainability community and we were hoping for a rethinking. However, this did not happen to the extent we expected. What happened, however: More and more good local products are now available in Thailand.

Cheese, bacon or ham, for example, which are either not available internationally at all or have become incredibly expensive, are suddenly in demand in the local market. Due to COVID-19, logistics companies in Thailand have undergone a massive reorientation, now making it possible to purchase products locally, which were not available earlier. These are now often the only products available.

TW: Will these changes last, beyond the crisis?

Daniel Bucher: In the case of milk products probably not, as European milk products are highly subsidised, to an extent to which local producers cannot keep up with. But regarding meat or vegetables, certainly. The trend to ‘go local‘ was already clearly felt before COVID-19. When a similar local product is available at the same price or cheaper locally, no entrepreneur in Asia today would say he would prefer to import.

TW: How can the problem of food waste be addressed? Which are the typical ‘leaks’ in restaurants that make food go to waste

Daniel Bucher: Sourcing inputs is the first potential leak. For example, it is difficult to control the quality of fruits when buying from wholesalers in Asia. Therefore, what I changed: I offer a smaller range of fruits and increase the volume of those types of fruits that I offer up to the point at which I can work directly with the producers. I then have a direct supply chain and the relationship based on trust helps me waste much less, because the quality checks of incoming items work. Moreover, additionally it helps to reduce a lot of packaging.

Then, in the kitchen and at the buffet: We measured in great detail and gathered data, for example by taking photos of what’s in the waste bin. At the buffet, we checked container by container and jar by jar, deciding on the minimum acceptable amount they need to contain to make a good impression. We took photos, compiled a book of standards and distributed it to the chefs who refill the buffet. This took away worries that it might not look good.

TW: And on the guests‘ plates?

Daniel Bucher: The guests are my ‘last frontier’. In Singapore, it has become common for buffet restaurants to ‘punish’ their guests financially if they did not finish the food on their plates. That is not my approach.

What I try to do is to communicate with the guests in an interesting manner, without telling them what to do. There are certain dishes we prepare to make use of items left over. Croissants we use for bread-and-butter pudding are a typical example – though hardly anyone chooses to eat them. So I modified the buffet arrangement a bit, presenting this pudding in a special way, with handwritten info tags stating that by eating this bread-and-butter pudding guests can help to prevent croissants from going to waste. This works really well and is taken very positively.

Once we had done all we could in areas that are easier to control, 70 percent of our food waste was the food left on the guests’ plates. Before, it had been 50 percent. Not because the guests became more wasteful, we were just doing better.

TW: How do you involve your team?

Daniel Bucher: At the beginning, you need to motivate and ‘push’ them a lot, but it gets easier over time and eventually things happen rather effortlessly. For example, in our team with chefs, service staff and management we used to analyse the food that remained left over at the buffet. This brings massive improvements.

In order to open up new ways of dealing with food to my team, my chefs and I set up a small garden on the roof of the hotel. We grew a few herbs which are difficult to purchase and we even kept chicken and bees. Chefs working in the city who did not grow up with agriculture often do not know where food actually comes from. Now they are able to stand in front of the guests with a new kind of confidence.

TW: Do restaurants and caterers make efforts to increase the share of plant-based food in relation to meat?

Daniel Bucher: Shifting to plant-based substitutes for meat in Western cuisine was tried in Thailand and before the pandemic it was ‘trendy’ for some time. But now it is no longer on the agenda. I currently don’t see anyone in our market who would try ‘plant-based‘ as a strategy in order to save resources. Rather, the objective is to make people come back to eat at restaurants at all. At the moment it is mainly ‘comfort classics‘ such as French pastries, pasta or pizza that are in high demand.

TW: How can restaurant businesses potentially save the most when introducing sustainable food management, against the backdrop of increasing input costs?

Daniel Bucher: The quickest and largest gains that are financially advantageous can be realised through staff training and awareness. Whatever you do not purchase is an immediate financial success. How much you may potentially save very much depends on each individual company. Nevertheless, there is none where food waste is not an issue. By comparing data, we tried to find out how much can be saved by introducing food waste management and it was five to ten percent of food cost. This will eventually be bottom line for the company and is definitely worth it!