April Chef of Chef Works: Davin Waite – Navigating the Culinary Landscape: Sustainability as a Compass

At Chef Works, sustainability isn’t just a buzzword; it is our guiding principle woven into every aspect of our operations – from our products, to how we treat our people, and even the talent we work with.
We had the privilege of sitting down with Chef Davin Waite, a culinary powerhouse in San Diego and sustainability pioneer – this month to chat about sustainability from his perspective as a chef, restaurateur, and advocate for positive change.

Join us as we dive into Chef Davin’s insights on sustainability, culinary creativity, and community impact.

What does sustainability mean to you?

To me, sustainable means doing the best you can with what you got at that point in time. Asking questions, trying to do better. It means, considering all parts of the equation in every action you take.

How has sustainability guided your career?

Sustainability has definitely pushed me into the corners of culinary I wouldn’t have normally gone into without it, but it’s also cool.

Chefs have creative minds, the chef’s mind is one that doesn’t turn itself off which means we’re all over the place. For a lot of us it’s not, “Can you create a menu,” it’s, “How do you get a sea of ideas condensed into something that’s cohesive and fits on one piece of paper?” Most of us won’t get all of the ideas we have out of our heads in one lifetime, so giving yourself some sort of parameters kind of helps you filter. For me, sustainability gave me a clear path.

It’s something we all should be thinking about. Even if you don’t agree with climate change, you can agree that it’s getting hot outside. So we might as well do something about it and you might as well have fun while doing something about it.

That’s a fair point. There’s an argument to be made that you don’t have to believe in climate change to believe that the beauty of nature is being affected by humans. What are your thoughts on that?

For me, this all started well before climate change was a thing in the news. You know, I think if you use anything to beat other people up, it’s going to make them go the other way. If an idea is too big, there’s more surface area for them to poke holes in it. You don’t have to even believe or not believe in things like climate change to want to preserve nature.

Humans kind of like got in this way of thinking that we’re somewhat superior to nature when in fact, like no matter how hard you try to deny it, we’re part of nature. We’re part of an ecosystem and we rely on other things in nature for our own survival. So if you can take care of it and do things that keep the ecosystem healthy, why wouldn’t you?

How do you do that with food?

I think food is one of the easiest areas to impact change because it’s the one thing that no matter where you go or who you meet, it’s one thing that every human being has in common. Food is a unifying force. We all got to eat. Because of that, there’s a lot of food necessary and a lot of potential for change in positive behavior, and negative potential on the other side of things. I think personally, food is like one of the biggest things and one of the easiest areas to make an impact.

How do you educate yourself, as a chef, on sustainable practices? 

I think it starts with asking questions.

The two biggest sources for information are our own past and other cultures cause what we eat and what we do is determined by a set of taboos that might not have anything to do with the health of an item or even the flavor or how good an item is.

Banana peels. If we hadn’t seen Tom and Jerry slipping on the banana peel and the thing being thrown on the floor as kids, would we have such an aversion to eating them? Humans are smart. We gather information our whole lives. We start learning the day we’re born, and it’s what information we take in. So, you learn from kind of looking past that and asking questions – question authority and question everything.

We learn at The Plot by putting something in a space that is an intermediate spot between the cutting board and the trash can. Before you commit it to the trash or the compost, you got to look at it twice and you ask questions on how to pull it off. You got to make it taste good. If you’re lucky, people are going to try a banana peel one time but if they have a banana peel and it’s horrible, I mean if you have anything and it’s horrible, people aren’t going to eat it again. So we gotta make sure we’re doing that ingredient justice.

All of it starts with questions and I kind of got this thing I do. I go home at the end of the night, kind of remember all the stuff I don’t have the answers to throughout the day – that’s inside and outside of the kitchen – and if something sticks out I’ll Google it and just try to learn. I’ve stumbled on a lot of cool stuff there. Contrary to popular belief, it is okay to not know things. When we do know all the things, that sucks because then I gotta quit this job that I love and do something else because I already know everything.

I learn by just being in the kitchen all the time and surrounding myself with people that are better than me. All those collaborations I’ve done over the years are because I want to cook with people who are better than me. I want to learn their tricks, make new friends and have people I can call at four in the morning when a crazy idea comes and be like, “Hey dude, am I out of line here?” Chefs are cool like that because we kind of encourage each other. That’s kind of what the team here at The Plot is like, we’re lucky to have awesome people. I can’t tell you how many ideas I’ve started that Travis or Lydia come along and finish or Lauren will get something and then I’ll do it the next step and then Lauren will come back and bring it home. We’ve got all of these chefs and it’s like a network of information, a network of ideas. You put all the guys and girls here together and they’re like a culinary supercomputer with a focus on trying not to waste anything and trying to use everything for its highest intended purpose.

Then you know, you also got the marketing side of it. None of this matters if people aren’t going to try it. Nothing in our society will really work if it can’t be monetized by somebody or if you want it to work on a large scale, somebody has got to make money out of it. Otherwise the idea never gets off the ground. The whole idea is to make things that people will copy and there’s nothing cooler than somebody copying you and then doing it better than you originally did it.

Lastly, I learn by tying it into some sense of childhood nostalgia. You know, taking things that maybe they eat in another culture, but it’s not prepared in a way we would typically eat it here. That’s where you can put your own spin on it and your own tweaks. So just studying that, dialing it in, and asking yourself, ‘What can I get away with? Can we pull this off?”

What advice would you give a chef starting off on their sustainability journey?

I think the best advice for any new behavior, especially somebody who’s starting off on their culinary journey, is don’t be scared to get it wrong. So many good human behaviors are sabotaged by the fact that a very small but very vocal group wants to kind of be elitist about it and criticize the people who are actually trying and doing good by trying, but might not be at the same point in their journey.

No young cook wants to be wrong. I mean I know, I’ve been a cook of all ages throughout my life and we hate being wrong but it’s okay to be wrong.Try not to be wrong on the same thing twice, but if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not pushing hard enough. I truly believe that, if we were going to wait around for the whole world to be all or nothing, shit’s never going to happen. Putting a foot in the sand or the water is way more than standing on the beach and criticizing the people who are trying to do something cool. So go out there and screw some shit up because you’re going to learn way more.

I mean, I’ve screwed stuff up royally before but don’t think for a second we weren’t studying every little piece of that screw up and figuring out how to do it better next time. You’ve always got to start somewhere. I just hate the fact that society criticizes the people who are trying, but don’t do it quite good enough.The only way you’re going to get good is by practicing. And it’s rewarding because anybody can go buy something super expensive and put it on the plate without screwing it up. Can you take something that takes a little more work and a little more love and make it good? I mean, that’s technique, that’s cooking.

We’re here at The Plot, which has a stunning garden where the parking lot used to be. Tell me about it. How did the garden come about?

It started with fresh herbs, then we got carried away. Jess – Jessica Waite, The Plot CEO & Co-Founder – is big on regenerative farming. So when we moved over to The Plot, it was really important to us to grow as much food as we can on-site and take it a step further.

During COVID we closed the parking lot to make space for outdoor dining and as life when back to some sense of normal, we decided it was too much space. I think managing the ambiance and the energy in a restaurant is really important because you can spend millions of dollars building this beautiful monument to what dining should be but it’s just a building without the people dining there, you know? It’s not always about adding more tables and making more money. It’s about getting the experience right. So instead of tables, we decided to put a bunch of planter beds back there and grow even more food.

The garden is also good for the team, like you can’t always fly to Paris or Japan when you want inspiration but anybody can walk on the other side of the alley and go hang out in the garden. It keeps you in touch with nature, knowing when the seasons are changing, knowing what’s doing good. If something’s doing good, that’s what you should be putting on the plate because that’s what mother nature wants us to eat.

Join the Conversation with Chef Davin

Discover more insights from Chef Davin as we launch an exclusive series featuring his reflections on culinary excellence, lessons learned, and the journey towards a more sustainable future. Join Table 1807 to gain early access to this exciting new series and become part of the conversation driving positive change in the culinary world.

At Chef Works, sustainability isn’t just a goal; it’s a journey we embark on every day, guided by our passion for culinary innovation and our commitment to our planet and its communities. Join us as we continue to pioneer sustainable practices and inspire chefs around the world to create a brighter, more sustainable future for all.

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