From chef to recycler, Jimmy Mitchell's second life
The parking lot at Alamo Drafthouse South is nearly empty at 8 a.m. on an icy Wednesday. The cleaning crew has finished bagging and dumping bottles of liquid courage from the previous night's crowd and heads for their cars. Behind the theater, a crew from Restaurant Recyclers hauls barrels of glass, plastics and food products into a truck. Despite plastic drums teeming with pungent recyclables, company owner Jimmy Mitchell says the Alamo must have had a slow night.
Steam rises like an erupting volcano from the cup of black coffee propped on the edge of the truck. Mitchell and his business partner, Nathan Vonderau, work quickly, tossing cans and bottles into their diesel-powered truck and replacing old recycling bins with new ones. Their company picks up, sorts and composts recyclable waste for about 30 area restaurants.
Mitchell has seen firsthand the amount of waste restaurants produce. Before he started his recycling business a little more than a year ago, Mitchell worked as a chef.
Early in his career, Mitchell held an internship at Valley Oaks Food and Wine Northern California, where a 5-acre farm with more than a thousand fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers sparked his interest in sustainable restaurant practices.
From 1994 to 2000, he worked at Houston's Rainbow Lodge and at Vallone's steakhouse as executive chef. In 2001, he went on a culinary tour of Australia and New Zealand. Upon returning to the United States, the chef worked at Gaido's in Galveston and the Hilltop Herb Farm in the East Texas town of Cleveland. At each location, he said, he made an effort to "green" the kitchen and use local produce.
In 2009, Mitchell moved to Austin to start Restaurant Recyclers. Since tending his own restaurant garden at Rainbow Lodge, Mitchell said he'd been mulling the idea of starting a company that would recycle exclusively for restaurants.
"It came to a point where I was really tired of working every weekend, night and holiday," Mitchell said. "I've seen such waste at restaurants. So, I decided that at this point I wanted be involved with restaurants, but also give back and educate restaurants how to recycle."
Despite the fact that he's no longer in front of the stoves, it's still important to him that restaurant owners see him as a chef.
"It's kind of like once a Marine, always a Marine — once a chef, always a chef," Mitchell said. "I carry the title to help identify to restaurants that I'm on their side. I have been there and I can show them how to run a green kitchen."
The company's clients include Vespaio, Green Pastures, Guero's Taco Bar and all three Opal Divine's locations.
Michael Parker, a co-owner of Opal Divine's, said it's never been a question whether to recycle but rather how best to go about it. Before he hired Restaurant Recyclers, Parker used other recycling pickup programs, but said few offered composting and some were unreliable.
"Given Jimmy's restaurant background, the switch made sense," said Parker, who describes himself as "a hippie at heart" who has been recycling since before it was fashionable. "He understands the program that we want, so it was a natural hook-up."
In the same way that organic hamburger meat has become widely available, Parker said he hopes recycling will someday become the norm for restaurants. He said programs like Mitchell's will make that transition possible.
Mitchell's company hauls compostable food to Organics by Gosh, a provider of Dillo Dirt, a manure-based soil made infamous at last year's Austin City Limits mudbath. The dump site looks a lot like human-scale anthills of food decomposing in the sun. Surprisingly, it smells fresh and earthy — much better than might be expected from giant mounds of wet popcorn, cardboard boxes and wilted lettuce. He says recycling loads are much heavier around holidays like Mother's Day and Valentine's Day and that loads of aluminum and glass beverage containers skyrocket during the Austin City Limits and South by Southwest festivals.
Restaurant Recyclers picks up recycling six days a week, providing the bins and holding teaching sessions in which Mitchell trains restaurant staffs how to throw away as little food as possible during preparation. Mitchell said he wants his clients to have ownership of their recycling practices.
"Chefs are not only responsible for what they put on a plate — meaning portion sizes and nutritionally healthy food — but they also have a responsibility to what they do to the Earth," he said.
Cameron Alexander, co-owner of Mother's Café, said he likes that Mitchell's company not only recycles cardboard, a service his previous recycler didn't offer, but also food and other difficult-to-recycle items. So he made the switch.
Alexander said he was apprehensive at first about whether his kitchen staff would embrace the increased labor of recycling food rather than just tossing scraps in the trash. "Their reaction was, 'Cool, it's about time we recycled food,' " Alexander said. "They didn't see it as a chore; they saw it as something that we should be doing."
After hiring Restaurant Recyclers, Mother's was quickly able to decrease the size of its outdoor trash can and reduce the number of times a week it needed to be hauled. Alexander said he uses the money he saves from trash-hauling fees to help pay for Restaurant Recyclers.
As for the environmentalist chef behind Restaurant Recyclers, Alexander said he briefly worried that all of the restaurants Mitchell was taking on would wear him down. But time has shown him otherwise.
"He has people working for him that are into what they do and have a personal stake in it, and it shows," Alexander said. "Restaurant Recyclers is not a faceless business picking up barrels of stuff. It's a guy who knows about how restaurants work, how to work with staff and problems that might arise; he just gets it."
Mitchell's stake in recycling extends to the Central Texas Zero Waste Alliance, devoted to achieving sustainable zero waste in Central Texas by 2040. And the whole thing has gone to his head: He recently decided to grow his hair out to donate to Locks of Love, a charity that makes wigs for cancer patients. He said it's just another form of recycling.
The dirty work
On a late winter mid-morning at the recycling center Ecology Action, Vanderau and Mitchell are sorting through glass, tossing bottles into big metal bins. That last sip of beer, wine or liquor left in the bottles creates a putrid smell of stale alcohol not unlike a fraternity house the day after a party. During the heat of the summer, the smell can be overwhelming, Mitchell said.
Crash after crash, the bottles are launched into their bins and shatter. Traffic speeds by as the sorting continues for more than an hour. The morning is just getting started. The truck pulls back onto the street, now with empty bins, on its way to the day's next round of restaurants.