Styles change and you must keep up with them. In my career, I have seen food styles go from traditional to nouvelle to fusion. I like to reinvent dishes, taking inspiration from the past and transforming it into something perfectly suited to today’s palates.
It has been estimated that each year, more than 100 billion pounds of food is wasted in the United States. That equates to more than 160 billion dollars worth of food thrown away each year. At the same time, in many parts of the United States, there is a crisis caused by people having limited access to healthy & affordable food options. The waste of food is not only a waste of money and bad for the environment, but it is also making vulnerable populations even more vulnerable.
Authority Magazine started a new series called “How Restaurants, Grocery Stores, Supermarkets, Hospitality Companies and Food Companies Are Helping To Eliminate Food Waste.” In this interview series, we are talking to leaders and principals of Restaurants, Grocery Stores, Supermarkets, Hospitality Companies, Food Companies, and any business or nonprofit that is helping to eliminate food waste, about the initiatives they are taking to eliminate or reduce food waste.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Luigi Diotaiuti.
Luigi Diotaiuti is an Award-winning Chef, Restaurateur, and Owner of Washington DC’s Al Tiramisu (named one of the Top 50 Italian Restaurants in the world). Chef Luigi was dubbed “The Ambassador of Italian Cuisine” by the Federation of Italian Cooks in Florence, Italy.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I was born on a farm near Lagonegro, in the mountains of the Southern Italian province of Basilicata, where we learned the relationship between people and food firsthand. We were practically completely self-sufficient in terms of culinary ingredients (with the exception of coffee and olive oil). I tended to the family’s goat herd, helped my mother and father with cheese making and other activities, and helped my grandmothers in the kitchen. Food production was our way of life. It was never a separate part of my existence, and it is still that way today. When I was 14, I had the opportunity to attend culinary school in the seaside resort of Maratea, and I knew from my first day of class that this was what I wanted to do. After school, my formal training includes working in renowned restaurants such as the Hotel Georges V in Paris, the Grand Hotel Bauer Grunwald in Venice, Il Gourmet restaurant and Hotel Bellavista in Montecatini, Tuscany and Costa Smeralda and Forte Village in Sardinia.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company or organization?
General Preziosa who is a regular customer of ours once called the restaurant and when I answered the phone, he said, “Luigi, they are not as good as yours” and I asked him, “General, where are you? What do you mean? He said, “I am on the terrace of the Hotel Excelsior in Rome and I am eating Taglierini al Tartufo (Taglierini with Truffles), but they are not as good as yours!” He was with a group of high-ranking officials and I was shocked that he called Al Tiramisu in DC to share this complement with me. Our customers are amazing and they provide me with heart-warming stories every day.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Once at Al Tiramisu we were very busy during dinner — and there were 4 simultaneous birthdays taking place. We accidentally gave one party (who had brought in a special cake) the wrong cake! We had to excuse ourselves and make some adjustments to their check — but in the end everyone laughed and enjoyed themselves. We learned never to take ourselves to seriously, and that at the end of the day, we are all human, and can make mistakes!
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leaders are people who motivate others in difficult times. They are those who inspire others and help them to grow. The leader is a point of reference to ask questions, because their experience makes them an authority who can help guide others. Leaders never say that someone is wrong, but if there is something that is wrong, instead of accusing someone in public, they offer alternatives for the next time. A good leader only gives complements in public. A leader uses the term “we” and not “us.”
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Yes, it is by St. Francis of Assisi and it says, “Begin by doing what is necessary, then by what is possible, and then, all of a sudden you will surprise yourself by doing the impossible.“ This has always been the motto of my life. When you are tired and you can’t do anything, just by doing something small you can start. During the lockdown when everything closed, instead of shutting our doors we decided to do donations to give back to the community. This kept my mind busy and created a desire to work among our staff. Customers came to donate, and then I noticed that I not only surpassed the event but I had more media coverage than before, even though that wasn’t my intent. To me, in the middle of that crisis, the idea of keeping our doors open alone was impossible, not to mention helping and inspiring others.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Let’s begin with a basic definition of terms so that all of us are on the same page. What exactly are we talking about when we refer to food waste?
Food waste is waste of anything that could be used in the kitchen and also in the food production line — the crops at farms which go to waste because they are not aesthetically pleasing enough to make it to super markets.
Can you help articulate a few of the main causes of food waste?
We live in a world which doesn’t respect food as we once did. Nowadays we want only the best cuts of each animal and the cream of each crop. If something is not perfect, we reject it. In the Mediterranean tradition, nothing is ever thrown away. Farmers bring you what they have to the farmer’s market, and less goes to waste, but with the standard supermarket system, everything needs to be the same, which creates a lot of waste. In the kitchen there are many cuts of meat and seafood as well as vegetables that don’t get used.
What are a few of the obstacles that companies and organizations face when it comes to distributing extra or excess food? What can be done to overcome those barriers?
There needs to be more interaction between food banks and restaurants and hotels. There should be a platform for them to communicate with each other. The large scale companies that feed thousands of a people at a time could make a huge difference if this platform existed. When I have very large scale events and have leftover portions that I cannot use right away, I call the local foodbank to donate them right away.
Can you describe a few of the ways that you or your organization are helping to reduce food waste?
I help to reduce food waste in the kitchen by using a root to tip approach with vegetables and a nose to tail philosophy with butchering, just as we did when I was a kid on the farm. A few of the best examples with my current menu would be our Linguine with Lobster. We always have leftover carcasses which I use to make sauces for other seafood dishes or stock. I use lemon and citrus peel to make Limoncello and other drinks as well as to use as garnishes for desserts and for fish. Asparagus and other vegetable peels I use to make soups or different types of coulis. I use the rind from aged cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano to flavor my sauces.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help address the root of this problem?
Yes, Politicians can analyze who in their district doesn’t have food and why — they should also figure out where there is a lot of extra food and how to take advantage it. 45% of world’s food is wasted according to one of the last statistics I heard from the UN — so it is not a sustainable situation. Laws that make it easier to recycle leftover restaurant food are needed. Also, restaurants, supermarkets, and hotels should find out where they can donate food before it goes bad. There is technology to tell them beforehand. If they have hundreds of a particular item that they are only forecasted to sell 50 of before it exceeds its’ expiration date, it could be donated. Organizations or the government could give an incentive to these places -a small tax donation letter, a tax break, or some type of other incentive so that people continue doing it.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. A chef’s day isn’t 9–5 or 8–5, but often 7am-1am. If you are looking for evenings and weekends free, this is not the job for you. For example, I usually arrive at 8am to check in the goods, give direction on what to do with them, prepare lunch, have meetings with vendors, greet customers, and then prepare for dinner and stay until closing. Sometimes I am even there after closing because something needs to be fixed — like a refrigerator, a door, and an oven, and those things can’t be done during open hours.
2. Special occasions and vacations are not the same for those of us in the restaurant industry. For 35 years, I have not celebrated Christmas or New Years with my family in Italy, even though they mean the world to me.
3. You are not paid by the hour, but earn an honorable salary for your efforts. In my first ten years on the job, I never had a lunch or dinner off. I had so much to learn, that I never wanted to miss a beat.
4. Styles change and you must keep up with them. In my career, I have seen food styles go from traditional to nouvelle to fusion. I like to reinvent dishes, taking inspiration from the past and transforming it into something perfectly suited to today’s palates.
5. The importance of a PR person. In order to get yourself and your restaurant on the scene, it is very worthwhile to interview various PR people and make sure that you are working with the best ones, who understand what distinguishes you from the others and how that is relevant to today’s market. Good PR is always a good investment.
Are there other leaders or organizations who have done good work to address food waste? Can you tell us what they have done? What specifically impresses you about their work? Perhaps we can reach out to them to include them in this series.
Yes! Carlo Petrini, the Founder of Slow Food. His organization has done a fantastic job of demonstrating how food should be used and that preventing waste is an integral part of sustainability. Here in Washington, DC, the DC Central Kitchen recycles food from farmer’s markets at the end of the day and uses it to provide meals to the needy. They are a very effective model that cities around the world can emulate. I am proud to be a member of both organizations, to have earned the Slow Food DC Snail of Approval Award for Al Tiramisu, and to volunteer my time with DC Central Kitchen.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I already have a non-profit organization that I started in Italy called Basilicata: A Way of Living which promotes and preserves sustainable agricultural and food traditions in Italy. One of my greatest hopes for the world is to give the farmers and the people who work with the land and food the same respect and esteem as we do with doctors. It is fundamental for our mental and physical health as well as for our sustainability. We need to promote traditional farming by honoring and respecting the biodiversity and healthful food that sustainable farms give us. California is an example for us all — water is short, fires are aggressive, industrial abuse had taken its’ toll on the land and bees are nearly extinct. This shows us that unsustainable farming and overworking the land has caused us to create deserts. It is not impossible to bring the excess water from the east coast to the west coast. If we can ship petroleum from places far away, we can also transport water. As a result, the movement that I believe would create the most good would promote traditional farming, support the farmers, and protect the land with actionable items that are needed to do so.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Yes. Steve Case. He always celebrates his birthday at Al Tiramisu, and I never discuss anything with him because I want to respect his privacy, but I would love to have lunch with him. He is an amazing entrepreneur.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Twitter: @luigidiotaiuti @altiramisu
Facebook: @chefluigidiotaiuti @altiramisu @Basilicatawayofliving
Instagram: @chefluigidiotaiuti @altiramisu @Basilicatawayofliving
This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success. Thank you so much!