How Fermentation Will Help Us Make Campesino a Zero-Waste Café

chef Irving bottling hot sauce
“We’re not just excited about the flavors that we’re creating through fermentation—we’re excited about preventing food waste by getting creative with these processes.”

Food waste is a tremendous problem for people and planet. In the United States alone, food waste is estimated to be between 30 and 40 percent of the country’s entire food supply according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture—that’s over 100 billion pounds of food that end up in landfills instead of nourishing communities. This loss occurs at every step of the supply chain, from farms to shipping containers to grocery stores to restaurants—but it doesn’t have to.

At The Ecology Center, we’re always exploring new ways to reduce food waste, from sharing surplus ingredients with food-insecure families to transforming overripe fruits into delicious jarred preserves. Our newest project, Campesino Café, will be an exciting new expression of our zero-waste ethos, utilizing fermentation techniques to repurpose unused kitchen ingredients and create vibrant new flavors.

To help us in these efforts, we’ve recently hired fermentation expert Irving Zarate, who will bring a wealth of knowledge—and delicious fermentations like miso, kombucha, and more—to our forthcoming café. Read a conversation with Irving about the exciting world of fermentation below, and click here to help us bring our zero-waste vision of Campesino Café to life.

Can you tell us a bit about your culinary background?

I spent a lot of time working in kitchens in San Francisco, most recently as a sous chef, and then I also got a chance to spend a year in a fermentation lab in Denmark, which really set me on the path I’m on now. Being in that environment and learning all about fermentation techniques got me really excited to see what I could do with that knowledge working back here in California.

What was it about fermentation that interested you?

One of the main reasons is its potential to impact food waste. “Food recovery” is what we call the process of looking for new uses for food that would otherwise go to waste. Everything has a purpose—even ingredients that may not look as pretty as others, or wouldn’t normally find their way into a finished dish, you can use fermentation to transform it into something new and delicious. Fermentation is a really powerful process for helping solve the problem of food waste.

What fermentations are you working on right now that will be part of the Campesino Café menu?

One thing we’re working on right now is making miso from the beans that we grow here. Miso is a two-stage fermentation that starts with kopji, a fungus that traditionally grows on grains, breaking down proteins and starches. The next stage is adding a legume and mixing it with the koji to create a savory, umami paste. Miso is a three-month process to ferment, and we’re hoping that we’ll be able to use them to elevate some of our dishes at the café. Miso can be used in a lot of different ways, as a spread or a sauce or even in a dressing, and it can really add a lot of flavor. But we’re not just excited about the flavors that we’re creating through fermentation—we’re excited about preventing food waste by getting creative with these processes.

What are you most looking forward to about having a farm-to-table café at The Ecology Center?

I’m really looking forward to the cross-utilization of ingredients between the café and the fermentation lab, since the relationship between the two will be a full circle where unused ingredients get upcycled into something new. I’m also excited by the fact that this is all happening in one place, at The Ecology Center, so people who are interested in the process can walk around and see the farm and the café and the fermentation lab and the Farm Stand and really understand the vision that we have for the food we grow and serve here. We’re looking forward to sharing that story and having the community come be a part of it.