Meet Ana Caballero, Fork’s Secret Weapon for Sustainability

How does a top restaurant source local, reduce food waste, and keep costs down? Make it someone's job.

Photo of Ana Caballero by Tess Wei | Fork/Facebook

With the arrival of spring, we here at Foobooz have been thinking a lot about the state of the farm-to-table movement — the trend towards working with local farmers to source organic fruits and veggies, pasture-raised meats, and other ingredients that are better for the planet, the local economy, our bodies, and our palates.

We’ve talked to a distributor and retailer about streamlining his operation to source more local — but that’s only part of the conversation. So we reached out to Ana Caballero to get a perspective from inside the kitchen.

Ana is a purchasing manager at Fork, one of the city’s top restaurants that also happens to have an exemplary farm-to-table and sustainability ethos. We sat down over chicharrones and tamales to chat about why it’s so hard for chefs to work with local farmers, Fork’s secret weapon for reducing food waste, and how she helps head chefs keep menus fresh with house-made pickles and peak-season produce.

How did you get into the food world?
I’m from Honduras. My mom’s American and my dad’s Honduran, but they’ve lived down there all their lives, and I lived down there for most of my youth. We owned a little pizza shop that’s still going after 15 years. I worked every area of the kitchen, and we made things from scratch. I got a degree in tourism management, and I did a six-month specialty in gastronomy, which was kind of big at the time, and then I did a master’s degree in food culture and communication with a focus on ecology and sustainability at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy. It was all networking and experience and meeting new people — it was a lot of fun. That’s the basis of my sustainability background.

Later, I did an internship at the Nordic Food Lab and Copenhagen, and I did edible insect research. When I came to Philly, I thought, “If I don’t know what I’m doing after this studying, then I’m just going to cook.” I worked for a little bit with the Drexel Food Lab on food waste issues. I worked at Marigold Kitchen and, then came to Fork and High Street.

What’s your role at Fork now?
I do a little of everything, including working with our farmers and other purveyors. Originally, the role was “sustainability manager,” which is not a traditional position to have in the kitchen or in the restaurant. I was doing that more from the office. But I was a line cook in the kitchen, I worked the pasta station at Fork, and I feel more comfortable as a kitchen person. So a couple months in, I addressed it with my bosses and was like, “I think I need to switch gears a little bit and focus more on the kitchen, I feel like I can do more there.” So it was decided that my position would be more of a sous chef who focused on purchasing.

Purchasing manager is my official title, but I also cook staff meal on a daily basis, I set up brunch, I do a bunch of stuff. I am the point person for any sustainability-related thing — recycling, food waste, working with farmers.

Ellen [Yin, owner of Fork and High Street] has that White Dog background, and she’s continued local sourcing and sustainability at her own restaurants. Can you talk more about her vision and how you help execute it?
This stuff is not new for Ellen. She thought about it decades ago, before it was a big thing. When I walked into Fork, there were already systems in place to deal with farm orders and things like that. Her approach is more like, “We’ve been doing this, it’s not a big deal.” She cares about it, and I think paying someone to oversee that stuff shows what it means to her. At the same time, she cares about food costs, she cares about running a successful business. So it’s not a one-sided thing. A lot of my work with sustainability at Fork is improving programming that was in place when I got there.

What’s an average day like for you?
My focus is purchasing all the dry goods and vegetables. We get product in every day at Fork, we place orders every day for things, and I place all the orders. Those are conventional orders and farm orders. Honestly, I don’t know of a restaurant that does 100 percent farm table in the city — it’s very rare. We all place orders from Baldor, we all place orders from FarmArt a lot. So I place those orders, I place dry goods orders, and then all the farm orders need a lot of coordination.

What’s different about ordering from farmers or food hubs as opposed to ordering from the big guys?
With farmers, you need to order on Wednesday for Friday and Friday for Monday and so on. What happened before I was there was that the chefs, if they don’t have time because it’s hard to coordinate and remember everyone’s deadlines, would have a hard time ordering from farmers. That’s why it’s been very useful for me to come in because with I’m able to focus on that. I can support more farms because I have time to organize these orders. In the morning, when all the stuff comes in, I quality check it, send things back if they need to be sent back, call my reps if there are any issues.

So you’re not working specifically on sustainability all the time, but the fact that your role exists makes the sustainability there possible.
It improves it for sure. I don’t think restaurants, in nature, are really sustainable — I think they are extremely wasteful in general. I think in a ideal world, you can be, but it’s not the standard out there. There is no restaurant out there that is set up to be run without plastic wrap and plastic gloves and chemicals — there’s so much stuff that goes into it. I think that we’ve improved our sustainability practices because we’ve invested more time in operational stuff.

Who are some of your favorite local purveyors and farmers to work with?
I like Lancaster Farm Fresh, which sells Amish-grown organic produce. They deliver Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and I can set up a system based on that. Adrian at Heritage Farm, we have a super strong partnership with him. He does our salad greens almost exclusively for the summer, and they’re so clean and pristine. Getting things in the way you need them — not covered with dirt, which means more labor hours for us in the kitchen — obviously helps.

If this was a small BYO and it was only a head chef and another guy cooking and they’re all talented and they can be flexible, that’s one thing. But it’s just not the reality for a place like Fork and High Street, where you have talented head chefs, you have interns, you have line cooks that are super green and inexperienced and you have really experienced ones — there’s all these people using the same product at the same time. You have to keep things organized for people to be able to recognize them and use them.

What are some of the challenges to chefs working more with local farmers?
Sustainability, under the lens of supporting local economy and local agriculture, is really about building relationships. If you can’t successfully build a relationship with whoever you’re working with, it’s not going to work. That’s why my focus has been more on building strong relationships, because that’s the best way to get it done. That’s common sense for anything. If you have a strong relationship with a company that works with you, and especially with farm products, it can only improve things. That’s the formula that works.

It does seem like common sense. Why do you think that’s such a hard thing for chefs to do?
Kitchens tend to be very isolating, because you’re in a very isolated world — chefs live in a kitchen, they never see the sunlight, they work 12-hour shifts. I don’t even blame them completely, because it’s very easy for them to get disconnected from that world. There’s no rapport — they don’t necessarily have management training or any communications skills that’s needed to successfully do these things. Sometimes you find a guy that does, and that’s awesome, but a lot of times that’s not what happens. I definitely think that being sustainable is more about the relationships especially with the farm community.

Food waste is a huge issue at all parts of the food chain. Tell me how you deal with food waste at Fork.
Yell at people when they throw things out [laughs]. No joke.

We pickle and ferment stuff when we have too much of something or it might go bad. We keep probably on stock all and all maybe over 100 pounds of pickles or ferments at any time — pickles in a standard salt brine, or in a kimchi-type paste with ginger, garlic and onion. Take sunchoke trims and marinate them that and they’re amazing.

The main problem as in terms of food waste and compost is that we don’t have a place to store up buckets of it between pickups, because of sanitary and space reasons. Our trash gets picked up every day, but compost isn’t picked up as frequently.

How do you get around that?
We have a biodigester. It’s a machine, about the size of a table, that turns all organic solid waste into water. A bioactive fluid enzyme gets squirted into this chamber, and whatever you throw in — your vegetables or whatever — gets turned into water. It’s a European technology that was developed for cities, for places that don’t have access to a farm or a place to compost on a daily basis. The biodigester is useful for that because you can manage your waste onsite. It is a finicky machine — it’s kind of still in an experimental stage. I don’t know of any other restaurant, at least on the east coast, that has one. Some colleges have them.

So it just breaks everything down and turns it into wastewater?
Yeah. It basically works like a human stomach — so you wouldn’t put bones in, but you can put meat in. My guess is that the people who tested this out in the UK were probably testing it out with a bunch of conventional vegetables. But what if you have all these leftovers of Japanese knotweed, or other random things we work with? We’ll ask the tech guys and they don’t really know.

And just like your stomach, you have to feed it little by little — you can’t overload it. If it overloads, you have to literally stick your hand it in and take out this gook. So it is a little annoying but it makes me feel better to put it in there than to put it in the trash. I would prefer to work directly with a composting company that could pick up every day, but it’s not an option right now.

You also said you’re in charge of staff meal. How does that factor into your sustainability work?
Staff meal is my second big strategy to reduce food waste. It’s not that I’m feeding people waste, but sometimes things don’t get rotated properly in the walk-ins. If you can catch that in advance and rotate things, you can really save yourself a lot of waste.

I’m very involved in staff meal, because whenever you have so many people with different agendas, they might grab the easiest thing to cook, but something else is rotting in the corner, so we need to move that today. So I do all that kind of rotating what needs to get out and be used in staff meal, or I help other chefs implement a new dish that will keep an ingredient from going to waste — a lot of logistical stuff.

Right now, we have cauliflower steak on the menu, which results in a lot of trim while you’re making the steak — so we’ll roast that cauliflower. The menu does inform what we eat for staff meal a lot. The thing that infuriates me the most is seeing that go to the trash or go to waste like these cauliflower scraps or all these vegetable trims.

How do you work with chefs Patterson and Kulp to develop dishes or help them do their work with sustainability in mind?
I keep in stock what they need and try to get it from the best sources as possible. I kind of serve as the expert opinion about what’s in season simply because I’m looking at availability lists, knowing what’s around, knowing what’s the best price, knowing all that kind of stuff when it can come in.

When there’s a menu change, I’ll sit down with the chef Patterson and we look at what’s going to be around, who’s going to have what. It’s very much a conversation. Once I know what they want, it’s my job to keep it in stock for them. If there’s an issue with an ingredient, I’ll ask if we can switch something different. I play a big part in making sure that it makes sense to keep certain items on the menu.

Fork has a great reputation for a lot of different reasons. How much do the customers care about sustainability? How does that fit into the Fork experience?
I don’t know if people identify Fork as farm to table — I just know that we fall into the category of contemporary American kitchens. In that category, everyone’s menu says “local farmers, fresh produce, seasonal.” For me at this point, it’s a marketing pitch.

It’s not that restaurants don’t source local — it’s how good they are at doing it. We do not buy 100 percent local by any means, but the amount of effort we put in to sustain these farm relationships and run a more sustainable operation is something that we do on principal. It would be great if customers knew it a little more, but I think that’s kind of what they expect at this point. It’s not like we’re losing sleep about how to get the message across to our customers. We’re do it this way because we like to.

What are some tips to know if it’s bullshit when a restaurant says their ingredients are locally sourced?
As an insider it’s easy to know that — I can go on the Instagram of any restaurant and identify a bunch of those vegetables because the East Coast major cities are very streamlined in where they get things from. There’s also that expectation of spring, and everyone goes crazy about asparagus and peas when spring comes. But honestly, chefs start getting them in from the West Coast because people want them, and they’re under pressure to have that in for the customer that expects it even when we’re still in freezing weather locally.

I think going to farmers’ markets is a really great way of knowing what’s actually in season in the region. Compare that to what’s on the menu when you go out, and see if you see any of that stuff. Restaurants that really care really train their service staff very well to inform customers about their sourcing, so talking to the servers and seeing how much importance they put on their servers knowing about their sourcing will show how much the company values that.

I think people want to be doing the right thing — but that requires them to understand the food system, which can be an obstacle. What else do you want eaters to know about how food gets on their plates?
I want the customer to know the details involved in distribution. Distribution is the main business of food. Most of the time, that is the main barrier to how much you can work directly with farms. It’s important that people understand how much work we need to put in to making those relationships and logistics work. People who dine out as much as Americans do should absolutely know about this.

This interview has been condensed and edited.