Farm to Kitchen: 5 Lessons from a Vegan Restaurant

My Experience as a Kitchen Helper at a Vegan Restaurant

(Approx. 6 min. read)

An Instagram Ad

Last November, as my time at the Brunnenburg farm was winding down, I scrolled past an instagram story: “kitchen helper wanted.” It was the only vegan spot in Bolzano. I had just returned from a mid-hockey-season trip to Scotland and my search for engineering jobs had thus-far been sidelined by my monolingualism (I know, typical American). I texted the number from the ad and quickly got a phone call. To my surprise, the voice on the line responded in English.

The Experience

That English voice had a bit of an unfamiliar flare to it. Stephen, the founder of Rockin Beets, is a high-energy Irishman who first moved to Bolzano almost 30 years ago to open its first Irish bar. After a brief chat with him, I found myself on my latest adventure, assistant in an Italian vegan kitchen.

Pasta Mountain

No matter how stressed or busy the kitchen is, Stephen is the kind of guy who’s always got a smile on his face and is quick to make a joke. He and his wife, Petra, opened the restaurant inspired by the thought of leaving behind a better future for their two young boys and frustration with the lack of movement on climate action.

On my first day, Stephen wasted no time messing with me. Our head chef was out sick and there was a lot to do. Equipped with my stylish hairnet, Stephen tasked me with my nemesis of vegetables – butternut squash. Prepping the three massive gourds took me over two hours. Not yet knowing Stephen well, my internal dialogue was something like “Don’t embarrass yourself. You can’t chop off your fingers on the first day.” And trust me, I came close. Only weeks later, when Stephen gave me a giant can of crushed tomatoes, a broken can opener, and a smirk, did I catch on to his Irish humor.

Thankfully, my fingers survived unscathed and our head chef made his return to the kitchen. Chef Mario is, in a lot of ways, opposite to Stephen. An enduring rain cloud lingers above his head. Each morning my cheerful “Buon giorno! How are you, Mario?” was met with “Shit! Everything is shit! There is so much to do!”

I quickly learned that Mario’s raincloud demeanor is not representative of his character – he’s one of the most generous people I’ve met since moving to Italy. For one example, upon finding out I was having some delays with Italian bureaucracy, he promptly took it upon himself to call the police station and negotiate an appointment several months earlier than I was able to arrange for myself.

Seriously nice guy, but seriously stressed out. That has a lot to do with our business model. The kitchen is a waste-free food delivery service that sells meals in glass lunchboxes around the city. All of the packaging gets reused, the meals are delivered by high-energy Stephen on an e-bike, and by being vegan the carbon footprint is even lower. This system introduced a few challenges that Mario wasn’t used to in the traditional world of being a chef.

Each day, we awaited the forecast of meals required, which Stephen estimated based on which dishes were selling best earlier in the week. This helped us reduce the number of wasted meals, but also required agility with the preparation. We had to cook and fully cool the meals in time to plate them and pack them with labels. Often, we needed to wait for the previous day’s lunchboxes to be returned, collected, and then cleaned and dried in short time for repacking. But the rush works: Rockin Beets is producing significantly less waste than the average restaurant. Stephen estimates that 80 less bags of garbage are sent to the landfill each month compared to a comparably sized traditional restaurant.

On top of creating a better model for the environment, Chef Mario and Stephen’s meals taste damn good. With a menu that changes weekly, I was exposed to a new world of vegan cooking. Here are my top five take-aways:

The Lessons

#1 – Use Tools: Veggies require a lot of prep work (see above, battle with giant squash). Washing, peeling, and chopping are all really time consuming. To combat this we utilized a lot of tools, but surprisingly, we used mostly household appliances. This multi-blender, in particular, was amazing for shredding beets, slicing carrots into rounds, and most importantly finely dicing onions. We chopped a lot of onions in the kitchen. Chef Mario could barely stand to watch me crying my eyes out each time and would often go to lengths to give me other tasks so he could have the burden of the onion chopping. The blender saved me a lot of tears on days when Mario couldn’t.

#2 – Do It By Hand: Despite the first bit of advice, somethings are better done by hand. For example, combining mixtures, especially in the quantities we were working with, were best done with gloves. When you have a delicious container of rainbow salad with six different veggies, a grain, beans, and greens, a spoon just won’t do the trick. The same goes for veggie burger and veggie meatballs: the mixture will just not come together right unless you squish and squeeze it in your hands.

Spinach, tricolor quinoa, string beans, black beans, lentils, and cherry tomato salad

#3 – The Illusive Burrito Folding Technique: I’m a big fan of burritos. Breakfast burritos filled with tofu scramble or dinner burritos with black beans and rice (Chipotle style). But I could never quite get the folding down. In the kitchen, I got my practice and finally have the technique sorted.

We often sent out 40 wraps in a single day and this influx of volume gave me enough testing ground to understand how to actually wrap a wrap. It’s a trapezoid, not a rectangle! Let me explain. With your ingredients centered, pull the two sides into the midline and smear the ingredients flat. With the sides creating a kind of bowling-alley-bumper preventing anything from spilling sideways, bring the edge closest to you all the way over the ingredients and tuck them in. And now, here is the trick, tuck the left and right sides of the top edge inwards, creating a trapezoid, before closing the final side (Video from TikTok). Voila! Spill-proof wrap, ready to go.

#4 – Un-boring Leftovers: Food waste is a big problem. Globally, about one-third of all food grown for human consumption is either lost or wasted. Food waste alone accounts for 8-10% of all greenhouse gas emissions.

I dutifully did my part by taking home leftovers whenever offered. But the real success was in the freezing and the strategic planning of the weekly menus. One technique was to make an incredibly versatile array of veggie burgers and “meat”balls (or as the Italians call them polpette). Did we make too much rice for our curry dish? Too much orzo or couscous? Too many beans or chickpeas? Combine nearly any grain or veg into super yummy unconventional falafels. The trick is in using chickpea and rice flour to give it the proper stickiness such that it forms a ball. Spray with a bit of olive oil and pop it in the oven for a great addition to your meals.

#5 – Acidity: This last lesson learned surprised me the most. Although I used to follow recipes exactly, with a bit of experience, I’ve learned to mix in audibles: I will substitute alternatives for missing ingredients and adjust quantities to my own taste preference (subtext, I’m going to double the garlic). However, I never really knew what to add when something tasted a little bland or a little heavy. Chef Mario taught me that vinegar is the addition you didn’t know you needed. It makes bowls taste lighter and sauces a bit more saucy. Apple cider vinegar has now become a staple in my personal cooking.

Final Thoughts

My bonus sixth lesson was one that applies to much more than the kitchen: you simply can’t make everyone happy. When we asked for feedback we heard all sorts of contradicting opinions about spice levels, quantities, and menu selection. The fact is, when you set out to do something different, like create a vegan restaurant for non-vegans, it’s going to set off lots of opinions. Thankfully, the interest of Bolzano locals to do their part in reducing the impact of their meals has spurred a lot of interest in Rockin Beets.

At over 1000 meals served each week and demand rapidly growing, the company continues to make a big impact from a small idea.

Hey there!

I’m Jacquie and I’m an American hockey player living in Bolzano, Italy. I write about hockey, sustainability, and food.

More About Me

  1. veganducks Avatar

    Wow very interesting, thank you! I can so relate to using tools… Sometimes the longest thing can be peeling potatoes. Looking for a revolutionary device that will peel potatoes for me please! 😀

    Like

    1. jpierri11 Avatar

      Thanks for reading, veganducks! My “secret trick” for potatoes, and something we did often at the restaurant, is to use yams or sweet potatoes and leave the skin on 🙈

      Like

  2. greensportsblog Avatar

    What a great and tasty story, Jacquie! Are you still working at Rockin’ Beets? Also why did you go to Scotland last November? Love The Trapezoid! YUM!!!

    Like

  3. Rosio Delphia Avatar

    Hi, I do believe this is a great blog. I stumbledupon it 😉 I’m going to come back yet again since I book-marked it. Money and freedom is the greatest way to change, may you be rich and continue to guide other people.

    Like

4 thoughts on “Farm to Kitchen: 5 Lessons from a Vegan Restaurant

  1. Wow very interesting, thank you! I can so relate to using tools… Sometimes the longest thing can be peeling potatoes. Looking for a revolutionary device that will peel potatoes for me please! 😀

    Like

    1. Thanks for reading, veganducks! My “secret trick” for potatoes, and something we did often at the restaurant, is to use yams or sweet potatoes and leave the skin on 🙈

      Like

  2. Hi, I do believe this is a great blog. I stumbledupon it 😉 I’m going to come back yet again since I book-marked it. Money and freedom is the greatest way to change, may you be rich and continue to guide other people.

    Like

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