Updated: May 3, 2021
Promoting a sustainable lifestyle, the curbing of food waste and ways in which one can repurpose food and materials to protect our planet.
Photo Courtesy of Jehangir Mehta
“I practice sustainability through vulnerability.”
Hailing from India, Chef Jehangir Mehta is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. After graduating, he opened three restaurants in New York City, all gone due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Mehta, who has always been dedicated to environmental sustainability and social responsibility, moved up a level when he opened Graffiti Earth in 2016. This restaurant, which not only boasts a vegetable forward menu, also integrates recycling practices by using renewable materials when it comes to decor, tableware, and furniture. His cuisine emphasizes sustainability in many ways. It includes using smaller amounts of meat and seafood in ways that maximize flavor as well as cooking ugly produce and other ingredients chosen with the ultimate goal of reducing food waste. Today, Chef Mehta pursues his commitment to sustainability by teaching at various universities and spreading awareness of the importance of environmental protection.
Welcome Chef Jehangir to Chefs for Impact!
By Jehangir Mehta as told to Chefs for Impact
Where does your dedication to sustainable practices come from?
“I was born in Bombay where I had a very comfortable way of life. But from the beginning, it was always about giving back. Having spent all my childhood in a developing country, wastefulness bothers me. So, I decided that in my kitchen I won’t let anything die until it’s really dead.”
What are your best practices for a more sustainable gastronomy?
“Even a small little thing can make a change. At our restaurant, we used old newspapers as placemats to give them a second life before they can be recycled again. We make our napkins from materials in the fashion district that were about to be thrown away. All of our tableware and silverware comes from friends and family. For someone else it may be considered as trash; for us, it’s treasure.
Our food is about buying “ugly” produce. At the end of the day, we go to the farmers market to collect food that nobody wants and that will be thrown away. We buy broken fish from local fishermen. Nobody wants to buy the broken scallops, but I want to give life to those products as well as giving income to those people.”
“Even a small little thing can make a change.”
How do you raise awareness on the importance of sustainability in restaurants?
“The main thing I emphasize the fact that many of us do pay attention to waste. But we don’t want to talk too much about it because there is shame associated with it. I’ve always been into sustainability, but the conversation changed five years ago when I felt that vulnerability was the only way to showcase your true self. I practice sustainability through vulnerability. It became my mantra for the restaurant and for what I do. That was when I decided to open the restaurant “Graffiti Earth”, which was my biggest move that I made to express what we do.
I started approaching different restaurants to collect waste, scraps, and produce what they don’t want to cook. We built strong relationships with them to the point where they were sustainable and I was doing things that made sense for me. I always collect leftover food to give to homeless people. I don’t care what people think about me. I just don’t want to have food waste. I do my little part and if anyone picks it up and thinks it’s the right thing to do, I’ll encourage them. If they don’t, I respect that too because I was once in their shoes.
I started speaking through different engagements and I got involved in universities. I work with Rutgers, Rider, and Stevens institute. I try to showcase what is getting wasted, what can be reutilized, and how we can fine tune a recipe or change the way we cut. I enjoy teaching a lot. I do feel that I do have a bigger impact because it’s a larger audience.”
Where do you see yourself post-covid? Would you like to reopen a restaurant eventually?
“I don’t think so. I’d rather work on causes. Whether it’s for a non-profit or a private sector, I want to work on projects that can make a difference on life.”
Are you a food activist?
“I am just a good citizen of this world.”