Delicious Efficiency: Creating More With Less
Chef Mike Thibault is changing the way we look at food one carrot scrap at a time.
Chef Mike Thibault gets to work by four o’clock each morning. He is by far the first employee to arrive at athenahealth’s employee parking garage in Watertown. “At least I get the same parking space every day,” he jokes.
Once he opens Nourish, the campus cafe he runs, jokes turn to focus as the day begins. Hundreds of people will pass through his doors today, enjoying freshly-made espresso drinks from the coffee bar or a slice of their wood-fired pizza. Maybe they will peruse the well-appointed lunch and snack bars. Whatever they choose, few will truly appreciate the amount of thought and consideration Thibault and his team put into each and every item to make sure it is as delicious as it is nutritious and environmentally responsible.
Where did the inspiration for such creative economy and conservation originate? Childhood. Thibault’s earliest memory of his father cooking is making a dish from hunted woodcock with cranberries and orange.
“I grew up bird hunting and fishing with my dad and brother. Watching my dad take what we caught and turn it into dinner made me appreciate what it took to make a meal,” he said. “We weren’t trophy hunting, we were hunting to eat.” Anything not consumed was used for bait or training their hunting dogs. “I really appreciate the conscientious effort to have as much respect for the process as we did for the environment we went into,” he said.
That fastidious attention to creativity and waste management carried over to his career. After graduating from Johnson & Wales University in 2009 Thibault spent years honing his craft at restaurants like the Golden Door Spa in San Diego and Sel de la Terre in Boston, learning from culinary rockstars like Geoff Gardner, Frank McClelland and Chris Bauers. In 2011, he was recruited by Guckenheimer Corporate Restaurant Management Company to develop and open Nourish, a position he’s held ever since. In 2016 his efforts garnered him a prestigious Distinguished Visiting Chef invitation from Johnson & Wales, joining an exclusive group including Paul Bocuse, Joel Robuchon and Emeril LaGasse.
“As I was cooking in various kitchens at the start of my career, I noticed some things were used and others weren’t.”
This inconsistency drove Thibault to start asking questions that would inform his culinary philosophies. “When I developed my own program at Nourish, I asked why can’t we use everything? If we have a bunch of cauliflower scraps from a stock, why not use them for a cauliflower bisque?” he questioned. “This is perfectly good flavor. Let’s not throw it away.”
Nothing is overlooked. Thibault and his sous chefs are constantly looking for ways to retask and utilize every last bit of food. Leftover pineapple cores are simmered with sugar and water to make flavored syrup or pickled for kimchee. Melon seeds are fermented into vinegars used to finish sauces. Apples a bit too bruised to sell on the snack bar are turned into chutney, pectin for handmade fruit jams and even the seeds and leftover pulp are pureed and slowly baked into a thick, flavorful apple butter. Everything is used.
This philosophy has led Thibault and his team to come up with some ingenious (and delicious) solutions and ideas. “We explored how to use carrot peelings,” he said. “We ended up dehydrating them overnight and then pulverizing them into a powder.” The powder is mixed with flour to make pasta, giving it a gorgeously deep orange hue and subtle flavor.
Beyond his food, Thibault’s sense of environmental responsibility is seen throughout the cafe. Paper products are made from 100% decomposable plant matter. Recycling bins are everywhere (Thibault was a catalyst behind the composting culture across the entire athenahealth campus). Even Nourish’s color palate of earthy browns and leafy greens reflects the connection felt with the environment.
Thibault’s intense desire to utilize every part of food possible in cooking extends to his views on home cooking as well. “There isn’t a culture of mindfulness like there is in more sustainability-focused countries. It’s gotten much better over the last twenty years because of fantastic organizations like Lovin’ Spoonfuls and others that recognize the value of a bruised apple that might otherwise be tossed by a supermarket.”
His hope is that home cooks will start exploring how to better use the foods they already have. “People are so attached to the idea that a recipe is an absolute. If the recipe says to make quinoa with water, they do,” he said. “Why not go exploring? Take some trimmed ends from asparagus and make stock. Then use that stock instead of water to make the quinoa. Add some spring peas to emphasize spring flavors and you have a simple and delicious meal!”
And where do things go from here? Where does he see the world of sustainable and responsible food headed? Chef Thibault reflects for a moment and says,
“Change in the food industry starts with us - the cooks, the restaurant workers. In order to grow as a society, we need to foster change and support the people who are producing the food. Getting away from mass-produced food, and returning to the way food was intended to be harvested and eaten. Natural flavors. Humanely-raised animals. Real food. Without that, I don't think we're going to thrive.”