How’s your relationship with your trash going? Just fine? Indifferent? For most of us, our thoughts about garbage have been pretty standard since childhood: Trash. Yuck. Take it out on Tuesdays.
Think about it: When is the last time you really thought about your trash?
Steve Phelps, on the other hand, can hardly contemplate anything else.
“We were putting out 200 pounds of trash a week. I weighed it! Beet peelings, carrot peelings, coffee grounds, the ends of the romaine, that last chop on the celery that nobody wants ... it all adds up. I knew I had to do something more,” he says with a passion not usually reserved for refuse.
Chef Steve Phelps, owner of Indigenous, has earned his salt, as seafarers say, because he’s worth his salt. Sure, he’s won all the fancy awards (Good Food 100, James Beard) and, yes, his reservation book is overflowing with requests, but what makes him exceptional is his unyielding, tireless devotion to sustainability and environmental awareness, especially as it pertains to the sea.
He’s a Local Leader for Chef’s Collaborative, a Seafood Watch Blue Ribbon Task Force chef, and has even created policy change on Capitol Hill. For the past seven years, Chef Steve has built a solid foundation of trust with his patrons because they know he really, truly, deep-in-his-bones cares about what he’s plating and how it affects the land, the sea, and the future of our world.
“I didn’t open this restaurant to make money,” he says. “For years, I was a chef at other owners’ restaurants and I kept finding myself asking ‘Why are we doing any of this?’ I finally had to create the restaurant I wanted to go to. I had to have a purpose.”
Recently, his passion for sustainability sprouted a spinoff: compost.
“That documentary Wasted knocked my socks off. I realized I was just as guilty of food waste as anybody else and thought ‘What can I do?’”
Within a week, he invested in specialized buckets for everybody’s workstation. “We saved everything we couldn’t pickle,” he says emphatically. He quickly partnered with Barbara Powell Harris of Orange Blossom Community Garden, who told him, “If you’re serious about this, we’ll come to your restaurant as often as you’d like to pick up your waste.”
He was serious.
Within a week they developed a “swap” system of 50-gallon trash cans that caught the attention of Stevie Freeman-Montes, the City of Sarasota sustainability manager. Together they are creating a pilot program that could, hopefully soon, create a compost revolution in our town.
May 6–12 is International Compost Awareness Week. To honor the event, Sunshine Community Compost and One-Stop Landscape and Yard Waste have offered to do free compost pickups from restaurants. During this week, Indigenous, along with Mattison’s, Owen’s Fish House, and Veronica Fish and Oyster Bar, will be working together to record their stats and lay the foundation for a test program to better understand the operational needs of creating a citywide effort.
“This requires dedication,” Steve says. “But the challenges are easy ones. Nothing bad comes out of this.”
Indigenous: 239 S Links Ave, Sarasota, 941-706-4740; indigenoussarasota.com