Ronna Welsh is the owner and chef at Purple Kale Kitchenworks, a Brooklyn-based studio and business that organizes cooking classes, pop-ups, and other culinary initiatives—all based around a “revolutionary, ingredient-driven, zero-waste strategy for cooking creative, delicious, and improvisational meals at home.” Food Tank sat down with Ronna to discuss food waste, sustainability, and home cooking.
Food Tank: How did you get involved in the food industry?
Ronna Welsh: Twenty years ago, I was in my last semester of a graduate degree in Rhetorical Theory and Criticism when I got my first cooking job–rent money while I finished my thesis. As I began to burn out on theories of argument and negotiation, I learned simultaneously how easy it was to build fast, lasting community in our tiny, tight kitchen and in the community through feeding others. I was hooked to this new life skill and ability to build community, so steeped in tradition and powerful enough to affect immediate change.
FT: What types of programs and initiatives are you working on at Purple Kale Kitchenworks?
RW: Purple Kale began as a small exercise out of my Brooklyn apartment to teach friends strategies for cooking more efficiently and creatively at home. I shared with these friends concrete tools for putting together something delicious to eat, without plans or recipes, with little waste, and maximum efficiency, no matter one’s skill or experience. I offered both freedom from recipes and strict meal plans while showing respect for their time and money. I made accessible to the home cook the highest standards of sustainability and taste. The combination struck a chord. Classes caught on quickly and what started as a local business out of my home grew into a popular blog and platform for advocacy. Currently, I am writing a cookbook outlining this very methodology. We have plans to launch “Otherwise, Trash” pop up dinners, which will showcase some of the recipes we’ve developed using parts of ingredients we’d otherwise throw away.
FT: Can you tell us more about your approach to cooking?
RW: My approach relies on using the best, wholly intact ingredients and expanding their individual and collective culinary possibilities. You don’t start cooking by asking, “What’s to eat?”–you ask, “What do I have?” It’s an ultimately intuitive approach to cooking, but one lost to the last two generations of home cooks. It begins with tasting each ingredient raw, in all its parts. Then it offers ideas for how to best prepare each part of each ingredient, depending on how it tastes, how much of it you have, your mood, time, kitchen space, etc. An ingredient-driven approach necessitates that you view the by-products of the cooking process, whether peels, stems, waters, or oils, as fair game. Once you’ve spent time with your ingredients, you take stock of everything you have.
FT: Where do you buy your groceries? Have you developed relationships with any farmers or producers?
RW: I am lucky to belong to a food co-op with direct ties to local vegetable, fruit, dairy, and meat farms in New York. Most of my food comes from there. I have a favorite fish purveyor I’ve known for years through the restaurant world who sells a lot of fish from local shores; I won’t buy my fish from anyone else. Living in New York, it’s a treat to have the best of spices, oils, and nuts from around the world. The city is my market.
FT: Why is sustainability in the kitchen important to you?
RW: Sustainability is about security, for local economies, the environment, and the craft of cooking. When you start with excellent, responsibly sourced ingredients, you use every part of them, you save resources, open yourself to creative possibilities, practice a necessary life skill, and enjoy your time at the stove more. It is a compelling practice.
FT: What can the average home cook do to reduce food waste in their kitchen?
RW: I often tell people to look first at what they throw away. Then try not to throw it away at all. This usually isn’t as easy as, “I’ll make sure to cook it next time.” There was a reason you didn’t the first time around and it often has little to do with cooking itself. So figure out what is making it difficult to use one particular kind of food you buy and change that. For instance, do you always toss half a bunch of celery? Next, time cut the whole bunch into small dice…