Episode 2

illustration by Ji Young Lee

In episode 2, Chef Alison Mountford tells us how meal planning can help us reduce food waste.

  • Hello everyone and welcome to What Gets You Cooking, the podcast giving you a new way to look at food, the way we cook it and share it. This is Virginie your host and today my guest is Alison Mountford from Ends and Stems. She’s going to give us her perspective on food. Alison launched Ends and Stems last year. It is a meal planning program to help families enjoy cooking dinner and reduce waste, because 40% of all our food produced in the US is wasted. But your biggest stress is deciding what to cook tonight. Hello, and welcome Alison. Thank you.
  • Thank you for having me.
  • So the first I heard about you was last fall on a Facebook group when you were just about to launch Ends and Stems. Can you tell us more about how what gets you started and interested in food?
  • I have to go all the way back to my childhood for that one. My grandpa was a great cook, my mom was really into baking. And you know, I was growing up the 80s and 90s. And she was making those giant shaped cakes. She’d make cakes in the shape of a tennis racket or one time she made a football course for my brother on his birthday. She was just experimenting with with these grand creations and she never sold them. It was never a business. In our refrigerator, we actually had a whole section that was just the icing shelf, and it had colors and textures and styles of icing so that if she needed to suddenly make a cake so that was just always the sort of a vibe in my house. My brother and I were always encouraged to play with food and get in there and create. Then it was in high school, the Food Network started getting really big, and I would watch and watch and I was sort of artistic also. The two just kind of went together for me. So, as I had to figure out what to do with my life and how to choose a career, I took the old advice of making your hobby, your career. And I went into food, after going to college and studying anthropology major and that didn’t lead to a career. I heard about being a personal chef and loved the idea and the challenge of being a business owner and putting the pieces together. I made my business in food because that was the that was the creative outlet that I wanted. Those two pieces seem to really fulfill what I was looking to do.Ends and Stems is technically my second or maybe my third business. My first business was a personal chef and catering business and I sold that at the end of 2015.
  • All right, well, you’ve been a chef for what, 15 years now?
  • Yeah. 15 years. It’s crazy.
  • That’s great to be able to give all of that knowledge to every family around here.
  • I feel like as I as I was trying to build this business, and selling my first business, really closing it down in a way because it’s not like somebody operating it now it was sort of sold for parts. I felt like I wasn’t sure if I was giving up or if it meant anything… I worked so hard for 10 years on that business and now it’s just gone. So I had a lot of conflict around it and I felt kind of insecure or thought that it didn’t matter. But what I can see now with some space in between that process and starting this business, is that it was experience and knowledge and hands on, and I’ve cooked meals for thousands and thousands of people and millions of dollars worth of food, I’ve cooked and sold to people, and I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing now without that experience. So it makes sense. I’ve been able to see that it matters, and I can take pride in what I did before and all my decisions, even selling a business was actually a cool experience just to learn about the life cycle business, too.
  • And that must have changed your perspective, maybe on food or cooking a little bit, from when you were studying anthropology to chef to now helping people prepare their meals.
  • Well, my ideal meal and ideal cooking process has actually become simplified over the years. I think at the beginning when you’re young and you know, trying to break into the food industry and you see people doing all these crazy and exploratory things, or putting dishes together that you’ve never heard of, and you have this sense that somehow you have to break the mold or be as innovative as they are. And I’ve actually gone in the other direction where the food that I’m really interested in now, and the food that I’d rather eat now, is much more simple. It’s more the old school, grandma cooking. If you could make an amazing dinner with six ingredients. I’m more interested in that and helping people prepare something simple and beautiful and wholesome. But without a lot of the barrier breaking, competitive, artistic side of things. I think that food has a place but that’s not my world of food.
  • I agree with you. And that’s what I’m trying to do with this podcast as well, to make it more simple. So people can understand that it doesn’t have to be super fancy every night. It doesn’t have to be complicated with a million ingredients and hours of cooking.
  • You can do some things in advance and simplify some techniques. And if you’re in the mood for something barrier breaking and innovative, that’s maybe what restaurants are still for. And you can go out. There’s always going to be these these wild chefs that are doing brand new things and always push the limits, but that’s not me. Maybe having kids and seeing them eat and introducing them to a variety of ingredients and dinners also encourages me to simplify things now. And getting families cooking! And doing this together is just easier when your grocery list for the week only contains 20 or 25 items and you can make five different meals from that. I’m really enjoying my new business is about helping people feel confident and cooking at home and seeing that it can be simple. The flavors can be simple, and the ingredients can be simple, too.
  • Absolutely. So what gets you cooking? What’s your inspiration of the moment?
  • It’s funny, I have two different answers to that question, because, as a professional chef, I think this old adage is really true: the cobbler’s kids have no shoes. I cook all day, every day. I sit here and I write recipes. I’m currently in the process of writing 42 different recipes that I will then have to go and test. We were just talking about how I did a big photoshoot for these 42 different recipes. I’m so immersed in it all day long that at the end of the day when my family needs to eat, I’m tired and that is not what inspires me to cook. There are two sides of me for sure. There is the side that’s so interested in putting together recipes from ingredients I’ve seen at the farmers market, like now, with spring, I see asparagus and peas are looking beautiful and I just had pea shoots the other day and they’re so crunchy and delicious and fresh. We’re going to see strawberries and blueberries soon. So as a chef, I want to get my hands on those and create beautiful recipes and find different ways to eat these ingredients. But I think as a business owner, and as a mom and somebody who is just tired and hungry and needs to tick a box at the end of the day, I’m just looking for something really simple. So it’s a depending on the day and the time of day. Either ingredients that get me inspired or just really the simple process of doing all the steps from washing the strawberries to slicing them carefully and putting them on a plate. That process is inspirational and fun. But then on the other hand there is the reality and doing what you can, like last night I made scrambled egg tacos. It’s one of my fastest go to meals that everyone in my house will eat. It’s like scrambled eggs, avocado and some salsa on tortillas. It’s so simple. But just doing that process for my kids and for my family feels important. My daughter cracks the eggs and my son is just about big enough to hold a taco together. It’s really cute to watch him figure that out. So yeah, two sides.
  • That is a very honest answer. It’s also very important for me to involve the kids in the kitchen. And sometimes it’s a challenge because you need to be ready too; to be patient and let them make mistakes so that they can learn.
  • And we only bring them into the kitchen when they’re in the headspace to do it. If it’s been a long day, and they’re just melting down when they get home, it’s not the time to ask them to wash the mushrooms.
  • Exactly.
  • They have to be in the mood for it. I never make it a chore or anything but my daughter who’s almost four is really starting to get into it. She gets really excited when she can help me with things.
  • This is this is really great to be able to see them. And I strongly believe that there is an impact when they are able to get into those kind of habits at very young age.
  • I think so too. I like to take her to the market and have her choose the produce that we’re going to take home or look at the range of vegetables and pick up one that she’s familiar with. Then I’ll have her pick out something she’s never seen before that she thinks she might want to taste and, most of the time, she doesn’t end up liking it on the first try, and that’s fine. But she still was there for the process of choosing it. And, just talking about what, what we could do, what all the options are, I just feel like that’s been a good activity for all of us.
  • As you said, it’s really pretty common that they don’t end up liking something new on the first trial, but you need to keep trying, and most of the time, they do end up liking it.
  • Yes, she’ll at least take a bite. I think because of that process, she’s at least willing to try, if not eat it all. The way she’ll look at it and try it out and see what she thinks. I remember reading a great article when I was in college about how Italians talk about food. I don’t know why it was about Italians, but one of the things they were saying was very dispassionate about whether or not you like or don’t like something. Everybody in your family from grandma to the parents down to the little kids are allowed to have opinions about which foods they do and don’t like. I don’t really like raisins very much. And nobody would ever tell me that I have to eat raisins because I’m a grown up and I get to decide. So when you give your kids that power as well, to have an opinion, that matters. They don’t like spinach. Okay, well, great, but that doesn’t mean you don’t like anything green. You just don’t like spinach, choose something else. I feel like offering a variety of food means we’re able to talk in those terms.
  • Absolutely. And you’ve already told us a little bit about it, but how do you share your food usually. Is it mostly with your family? friends and family? Are there other ways you share? how often?
  • Well I sell food to people. I cook meals and deliver them to the families. So it is literally my job to share food with people and it’s such an amazing thing. One of my clients that I have been cooking for for a lot of years, she sends me pictures of her son like eating a pasta dish that I made or trying snap peas. I’ve only met her son in person maybe three or four times, but I have all these photos of him on my phone that she shared with me about him trying new dishes or taking leftovers in his lunch and her telling me how much he loved them. So I have this really unique connection with people I don’t know really personally. That’s awesome! It’s one of the things I love about my job. So I do share food with with the world that way, certainly by writing my recipes, which is, you know, part of my new business. I’m sharing the tools to create dishes with people all over the world. I have subscribers in Spain and Costa Rica and across the country. It’s so amazing that I’m able to, in my little prep kitchen, write a recipe and then share my methods and food philosophy across the world. But then in a more literal sense, I share food with my family, we always sit down together for dinner, the four of us. Also with my friends. When I really started getting into cooking, we would do different parties and events and always seem to be around a meal. And one of my close friends always jokes about the time I was in culinary school and I was trying to make pasta for the first time and I bought a pasta machine and we started in the afternoon. And we did not have pasta to eat until midnight, because it was so much harder than we thought and it took forever and I think by the end of it, we each got like four bytes of pasta. Even though it wasn’t the best meal we ever had, we still joke about that, and that was probably, I don’t know, it was probably 13-14 years ago. One of my other favorite ways of sharing is in my book club. We’ve been meeting for years. And we do actually read the book. And we do actually talk about the book, but it’s also centered around food. It’s usually a brunch and whoever is hosting will make food and, and we’ll all bring something to share. And it’s just an awesome combination of two things that I love is is feeding friends and, you know, reading books, and it’s probably one of my favorite food centered events that I do consistently.
  • I couldn’t agree more. Now, what would you like to share with us about Ends and Stems? Can you maybe explain to our listeners who don’t know what it is? How it works?
  • Ends and Stems is meal planning to reduce household food waste. I came to this because the food waste movement was really gaining steam, something that always made sense to me logically, just as somebody trying to manage a food business. If you purchase food and then throw it away, you are not going to survive as a business. I always knew it on that level. But as I started researching and reading more about the anti food waste movement, I realized that more food is wasted in our homes than in any other single area. Grocery stores get a lot of the blame. People are imagining so much food is wasted in grocery stores. And that is a problem, but almost twice as much as food is wasted once we buy it and bring it home. And that just seems like a ridiculous problem, especially when you consider that there are millions of people and kids that don’t have enough food to eat. Also the money that we’re wasting and food in our landfills is one of the largest drivers of greenhouse gases affecting climate change. So putting all those pieces together and having cooked for people in their own homes for so many years, I realized that I might just be the perfect person to help people change these habits. I interviewed almost 1000 different families to find out if they cared, if they had heard of this and how I could help them. And it turned out that 83% of them said their biggest culinary struggle at home, was actually deciding what to cook. So it wasn’t the act of cooking. It wasn’t feeling uncomfortable in the kitchen, it wasn’t doing the dishes or going grocery shopping. It was just this piece of planning that they didn’t feel like they had time to do. And they certainly didn’t feel like they had the knowledge of reducing food waste or maximizing what they buy at the grocery store. I thought: I know about all these things, and I can put together meal plans that maximize what to buy. So you’re spending less time writing a grocery list, you’re spending less time shopping because you’re buying fewer things, you’re saving money if you follow along. On my meal plans there are three different recipes per week. I’ve written those recipes so that you use up all of the perishables you buy from week to week. So you might have some leftover rice or something that could sit on the shelf for a little while. But if I asked you to buy a bunch of basil for you, curry dish on Monday, I’ll make sure that you’re making a basil pesto on Wednesday so that you’re using everything up. And the idea is that it’s just that planning piece for people. So it’s an inexpensive monthly subscription. It’s $12 a month, or you can buy a year’s worth and it goes down to only $9 a month. So you’ll definitely save more money than you spend to have access to my meal plans and recipes. And the idea is that it’s a really, really low price point, but the value of having a professional chef plan your menus for you and think about them in this professional way where we use everything up and don’t have any waste. Kind of killing two birds with one stone: you save time and your weeknight dinners are less stress.
  • That’s very helpful. And I’m really amazed that 83% of the people think that it’s all about planning, saying that’s their biggest trouble. I mean, that’s pretty amazing. That’s consensus.
  • I definitely expected people to say they just didn’t like cooking or they didn’t like going to the grocery store. The people I interviewed were families and that’s my main target market. People who know they’re going to be cooking at home at least three or four times per week. So you know this piece is is done, the recipes are chosen for you. I have different recipes depending on what your dietary needs are. If you’re a pescaterian or if you like eating steak, I have recipes for both. It’s aimed at targeting different dietary preferences. Never a specific diet, but it’s helpful. So you can fit in with wherever, what, however your family likes to eat.
  • And it’s good to know about substitution because I feel a lot of people, especially in the Bay Area, are wondering, what’s affecting their bodies, like gluten. So if you just want to give it a go and try a different diet for a couple of weeks, then you can can do that as well.
  • Dairy is a big one, even just cow dairy, so I separate things out. Substitutions are also really just another way of feeling confident as you cook, as you learn what you can and can’t substitute and, basically using what you have on hand, rather than being halfway through a recipe and then realize you’re missing an ingredient, most often you don’t have to run to the store to pick that item up, you can use something that you have, which you know. Then is great because you don’t have to leave to go to the store, you’re not buying anything new, and you’re going to be using something you have, so it won’t go to waste. It’s all tied up together. And just thinking about these things in a different way. There are a lot of food waste experts out there. And most of them when they get to the planning portion, or the consumer food waste portion, they simply tell people to meal plan and grocery shop from a list. But as far as I’ve seen, there’s almost no one else that’s giving you the tools to meal plan without asking you to learn the new skill. I wanted to fill that gap. And if you want a meal plan and grocery list, I will do the work for you, all you have to do is is follow along and participate. I’m also building a community around it. If you’re concerned about food waste, but your next door neighbor isn’t it can feel very isolating, you don’t want to be the the extreme person on the block who’s not throwing anything away. By having this community of people across the country across the world, who are all paying attention and saying we’re going to reduce our food waste, we see the positive benefits and the ripple effect that this has. You can feel that you’re not alone. And you get tips from community members. We do that with a Facebook group and have various ways of connecting and sharing stories of trying to reduce food waste.
  • So how can our listeners find you?
  • The website is endsandstems.com. I’m on Instagram @endsandstems. And my facebook group is open to anybody and that’s also EndsandStems. I look at it every day. And we’re answering questions and supporting people as they go. So it’s all pretty much at ends and stems everywhere!
  • Well that’s better and easier for people to find.
  • That’s right.
  • Well, thank you very much, Alison. I’m so happy you were able to give so many tips throughout the interview to all of the families who are listening to us.
  • Thank you so much. It was fun talking to you.
  • Thank you, Allison. Have a great day.
  • You too. Bye