By Connie Pearson | Photography courtesy of Boyce Restaurant Concepts
Eliminating food waste motivates Chef James Boyce to find creative ways to “re-purpose” ingredients on his menus.
Chef James Boyce, owner of four flourishing restaurants in North Alabama, has several passions in his personal and professional life, but one that is gaining in intensity for him is avoiding food waste. He describes a feeling of being “irritated with our culture.” Several years ago, Boyce noticed the bins full of bruised fruits and vegetables being thrown out in some popular grocery chains. In his mind, what made it worse was that two blocks over, there was a food bank with 200 people waiting for anything they could get to put a meal on the table for their families.
“The big thing,” says Boyce, “is that we identify all of the people (farmers and ranchers) who produce the proteins and food products for us, so we can build a relationship with them. The staff sees these people bringing their items in; then, when they use those things, they know what it takes to create them and how much time and effort went into getting them to us.
“It helps to give them the proper respect, so they will use it well and not waste it,” he adds. “We also let them know how much everything costs, and we educate them on the feasibility of using these items. Our whole mantra is quality, not quantity.”
Boyce is involved in donating leftovers to charity when the opportunity arises, and his staff cooks for charities several times a year. They solicit produce from their farmers that might not be perfect enough for general sales but can be used in these cases. Even though his are comparatively small restaurants, they are happy to donate any overabundance that accumulates. They are also involved in gathering food for about a hundred families that have been identified as food insecure through local churches. Boyce is concerned that so many area children don’t receive adequate food when they are out of school. He would love to see a central kitchen set up where all of the area restaurants could work together to feed people, especially children, who are food deprived and often go hungry.
As for repurposing ingredients in his restaurants, his standard procedures include turning stale bread into bread pudding or bread crumbs; scraps of vegetables go into soups and purees. He wishes there were more items that could have dual purposes.
With proteins, Boyce explains, “It is possible these days to order very specifically with finite instructions. That way you don’t really have a lot of excess. Fish, for instance, can come in with the belly and tail off. You use certain pieces for soup and stock and then serve the filets. Our overarching rule is ‘what we order, we use and what we use, we use purposefully.’”
With his Garden and Galley restaurant in Birmingham, a bounty of blackberries, lettuces and herbs are grown right on the property and are then taken directly to the kitchen for garnishes and flavor enhancement. Ashes from the wood-burning stove are scattered throughout the garden.
Boyce believes the keys to avoiding food waste are properly educating his culinary staff, astute ordering, and purposeful use of everything that enters his kitchens.
Eleven years ago, the opportunities in Huntsville, Alabama, lured New York-born Boyce and his California-born wife Suzan, also a trained chef. Until then, the couple had never lived more than five years in one place. Now it is safe to say that Alabama has captured their hearts, and they have no plans to leave. They love the quality of their children’s education, their neighbors, the sense of community, and their customers.
Alabama has embraced the family as well. Boyce’s restaurants – Cotton Row, Pane e Vino and Commerce Kitchen in Huntsville and Galley and Garden in Birmingham – are invariably listed among the best in those cities. When Boyce first set foot in the South, he thought the cuisine would be very simple, leaning toward heavy and homespun. In the past five or six years, he feels that the regional cuisine has become more elevated, more farmer-driven, single-ranch driven and seasonal, depicting the true origins of the South.
In addition to his passion of eliminating food waste, several others emerge quickly in conversations with Boyce. He is committed to a process ensuring that every dish coming from the kitchens of his restaurants reflects superb preparation with the best regional ingredients. Another passion he shares with his wife is training their two children to appreciate fine food and to have impeccable table manners. The end result is that this family of four can walk into the finest restaurants around the world and enjoy great cuisine with knowledge and confidence.