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Asking to see a restaurant’s trash is like asking a stranger for a stool sample: You’ll learn a lot if you look carefully, but you’ll also have a hell of a time making your case.
At the Cleveland Park Starbucks, a shift supervisor who requested to remain anonymous was tight-lipped on the subject of waste. “What we’re required to do is to throw out anything that’s expired. I don’t know if you’d call that wastage,” he shrugs. (I would.) “I won’t say anything more than that.” Inspecting their trash-room in the back, he told me, was out of the question.
Across the street at Spices, a manager was similarly Rovian in defending her dumpster from my prying eyes.
“Oh, I couldn’t allow that,” she said.
For the managers of North Sea Restaurant, though, there’s no such thing as TMI. Even after our tepid review of their new sushi offerings, manager Annie Chen was more than happy to give me a tour of their kitchen, their walk-in refrigerator, and especially their dumpsters.
Chen even showed me some of the “not-for-Americans” food that she and her staff cook for each other at 5 p.m. every day: A special tilapia dish served with shaomai, a seafood soup that she says Americans might find too murky for consumption, and various cuts of anonymous fish that, Chen says, have “too many bones” for the occidental palate.
She showed me storage (frozen bean-sprouts, fetal dumplings awaiting their call to life), the two kitchens (both of which smelled, just before dinner, insanely good), and finally the rear entrance, where, between the dumpsters, two bowls sat atop a delivery crate. One held shallots (fresh, robust-looking things), the other small, crackly-dry brown strips.
“Mushrooms,” she told me.
We turned to the dumpsters. “We throw out some food every night,” Chen acknowledged, “because I won’t give my customers old food.” (This is a common response.) Chen lifted the lid of the dumpster, sticking her head inside. I did so as well. We sniffed. No Chinese food in here.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Chen said, remembering. It’s Thursday, the day WM comes to empty the bins. “You can come back tomorrow,” she ventured, letting the lid slam. I told her I’d consider it.
But what were those delicious shallots and ‘shrooms doing in a trash-filled alleyway? “They need to be outside to dry,” Chen said. Turns out she’s saving them for special dumplings; here, dried mushrooms are better than their fresh counterparts, which are “all juice” and no flavor.
The dumplings sound great—too bad Chen’s customers won’t get to taste them. That’s one more dish reserved for staff only. “Some Chinese food, Americans just don’t want it.”
I asked Chen what her favorite non-Chinese dish was.
“Pizza,” she said with a smile, and paused. “But I like Chinese food better.”
Photo above by spike55151