Chef Irene Li
We recently spoke with Irene to find out more about the world of mobile foodservice and its differing processes from work-life in a brick-and-mortar restaurant kitchen.Read Bio
Making Sustainable Proteins Pop
What was your main inspiration prior to entering the world of foodservice and culinary sustainability?
I've always wanted to be a chef, for as long as I can remember. There are pictures of me as a 4-year-old in the kitchen. It's something about making people happy, feeding people and the way that people look and act when they're around food and drink. That's kind of my main inspiration.
How do you go about sourcing your local, sustainable ingredients and what are the benefits of doing so?
We go directly through farmers, so we have really good relationships with a lot of the farmers from the lower mainlands, all the way up into the Okanagan as well as our foragers. The benefits are that we get to support the local businesses with our farmers, making sure that they're going to be around for a long time and be able to produce these great ingredients.
Our menu changes all the time, almost every week. Right now, as we go into fall, we're getting a lot of mushrooms from our foragers and Okanagan stone fruits like peaches, avocados and plums. We just finished using up a lot of our local tomatoes and berries as well. It all just depends what's in season at the time.
We also do preservation; we try to buy ingredients when they're at their peak, whenever they're coming into season, and we'll buy more than we need, preserving them by freezing, canning or dehydrating them. Canning is great because it preserves the natural flavor, pickling is also key. Dehydrating intensifies the flavor of certain items, so we dehydrate a lot of mushrooms because it turns them into this flavor bomb you can have and keep for a long, long time.
What are some of the alternative proteins you lead toward when selecting for your menu?
We like to use a lot of game meats here such as, elk and boar. We also like to use sweet breads, bone marrow and we make a lot of our own charcuterie so we're using different cuts of the animal as well.
For example, we have a bone marrow dish on the menu and purchase half wagyu beef all the time, so we utilize the fat in different items for preserving, making charcuterie or incorporating them into some desserts.
Share with us the flavor process you incorporate when preparing your more meat-centered dishes.
The way I would describe it is, we try to source really high-quality ingredients and my process isn't wanting to mask those flavors too much but to accentuate them. I tend to find different ingredients that aren't going to overpower flavors of the proteins.
For example, bone marrow is one of our most popular dishes. We serve it with fermented mushroom puree and sautéed leeks and mushrooms, plus homemade sourdough bread. You taste a little bit of the acid you're accentuating while cutting through the fat in the bone marrow. To ensure you don’t overpower too much, we add leeks and mushrooms because they’re not incredibly strong in flavor but they add a nice texture.
Describe the role spices and seasonings play when you’re preparing these dishes.
I think they're flavor-builders. I try to use them in different steps of the cooking. You can get a lot of spices that need to be cooked out or be utilized in a way that's not just sprinkling it into everything, expecting that it's just going to have that flavor. You need to build the flavors of anything. Take that bone marrow again, you need to pair ingredients with a spice or seasoning that's going to pair well with it while not overpowering the other flavors.
Another example would be if you're using a curry spice. You need to cook out those spices, so I would add them in the very beginning of the process, cooking them for a long time so you don't get grittiness. These kinds of harder spices tend to not dissolve so you need to break them down and really bring out the oils and flavors that are inside of them.
Please describe your process for wasting as little of a protein ingredient as possible.
Our process is doing whatever we can to make sure we're not wasting anything. We'll get half animals in and we'll use everything. The trim will go into charcuterie and making sausages. The more prized cuts will be a dish on the menu and the bones will be made into stock which goes into sauces or cooking other ingredients. It's less of a process to me. It is a mindset and philosophy, you just have to do it.
How does your protein process differ between serving private dinners and various pop-ups?
It doesn't really, depending on the size of the dinner. It's still the same approach. If I'm hosting pop-ups or private dinners, I won't be buying ingredients that I don't need. Sustainability is huge so I'm not going to buy a whole animal for a small dinner of twelve people. The key is to find butchers who have the same mindset and philosophy towards utilizing a whole animal. This way I know that if I'm buying proteins from them, they're coming from good farms and are good, quality products that you won’t want to waste.
What advice would you give chefs or restaurants wanting to improve their sustainability behind the line?
I believe it starts with suppliers, first and foremost. If you are using a supplier that supports those initiatives, it's going to be easier from the get-go. One of the ways we've done it is that we put all our waste into clear plastic bins so, at the end of the night, you can look at it and see what we could have done with it. You're not going to necessarily use carrot peelings for something or onion peels but there are lots of others you can use.
You don't always realize how much you chop off a vegetable when you clean it, or all the different pieces and trimmings of meat or fish. You could use a spoon on the backbone of a filet of salmon and use it for tartars or mousses, for example. You can then use the bones to make a stock as well.
There are just so many different ingredients that we waste on a regular basis, that no one really pays attention to. It is the tiny little things that matter, otherwise you’re just throwing money in the garbage.