Meet The Woman Behind Hidden Innovations At Mario Batali's Restaurants

How Elizabeth Meltz is using technology to turn Batali hotspots like Babbo into some of the restaurant biz's most eco-friendly eateries.

When you eat at Babbo, Del Posto, or any of Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich’s other celebrated restaurants, you can be sure that every aspect of the pasta and wine have been carefully considered. What you might not realize is that your meal’s environmental impact has been just as closely thought through.

That’s thanks to Elizabeth Meltz, director of food safety and sustainability for Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group (B&BHG), who oversees green- and food-safety initiatives across more than two dozen restaurants in the United States. In the past five years, Meltz has guided all of B&BHG’s eateries through green restaurant certification. She’s also introduced a no-bottled-water policy, created full-scale recycling and composting programs, and started participating in Meatless Mondays with extra vegetable specials.

Meltz’s concerns can swing wildly from determining which Green Seal-certified chemical to use for cleaning grease-caked pots and pans to analyzing the feasibility of using new machines that rapidly decompose organic food waste into a liquid form. "Once you start peeling back the layers of the onion," she says, "you have no idea the details and the minutia that you get into."

With an art degree from Vassar under her belt, Meltz seems like an unlikely candidate to oversee B&BHG’s green initiatives. But she has always been interested in cooking, and after deciding an art career would be impractical, she trained as a chef at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City. That led to stints at Aureole New York and La Rosetta in Rome, and eventually she got a job as a line cook under executive chef Mark Ladner at Del Posto in 2006. Before Meltz’s arrival, Del Posto was already composting, but after working closely with Meltz, Ladner realized she had a natural inclination to be frugal with her use of materials. Meltz would habitually use scrap paper rather than a fresh sheet for taking notes, for example. "It was little things like that that you learn working in a kitchen together for months at a time," Meltz says.

With Ladner’s support, she started rolling out initiatives at Del Posto like using recycled paper menus and switching out paper towels for energy-efficient hand dryers in the employee restrooms. It was under Meltz’s supervision that Del Posto became the first B&BHG restaurant to be certified green by the Green Restaurant Association. Before long, Meltz had transitioned out of the kitchen and into a more managerial role where she replicated these projects in other B&BHG restaurants, eventually taking over the whole company’s green operations. She effectively created her position.

These days, one of Meltz’s biggest concerns is finding ways to cut down on food that gets thrown out. "A chef is naturally motivated to reduce food waste," she says. "They don’t want to throw away food. They pay for food." Each year about a third of all the world’s food supply is wasted, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. All that food produced but not eaten guzzles up water equivalent to the annual flow of Russia’s river Volga and adds 3.3 billion metric tons of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere.

Meltz’s latest initiative uses technology to address that issue. Seven New York B&BHG restaurants are now using Mintscraps, an online platform that helps restaurants track food waste. With Mintscraps, Meltz spots trends and inefficiencies across her company’s New York operations. "Six months ago, I had absolutely no information about how much waste we’re generating at all," she says. Since then, she has found that Batali outpost Casa Mono is composting 41% of its waste year-to-date vs. the 21% average of B&BHG’s other New York restaurants. It is also sending a lesser percentage of its waste to landfills vs. other New York restaurants (31% vs. 55%). Figures like this emailed to the general managers and chefs of each restaurant motivate them to be more efficient. "Knowledge is power," Metlz says. "Now I can see what we’re doing."

B&BHG is also experimenting with a system called LeanPath. During a 90-day test at two restaurants, staff were directed to measure food that never made it onto a consumer’s plate on a LeanPath scale before throwing it away. That captured data such as the type of food, its estimated value, and the reason for its disposal. LeanPath’s current version is designed for larger institutions like hospitals or universities that cook big batches of food ahead of time, so Meltz is now working with LeanPath to build a smaller version that fits with B&BHG’s cook-to-order model of service. Meltz plans to test it at Eataly in New York City.

Technology is helping in other ways. At Eataly Chicago, a soon-to-be LEED-certified 63,000-square-foot dining and marketplace, Meltz can pull up data on the building’s use of heating, air-conditioning, lighting, and gas to make sure everything is performing according to plan. "I can look at the data and ask, ‘Why did we consume so much air conditioning this month? Or why is the lighting underperforming?’"

Though information is easier to come by nowadays, evaluating a project’s environmental impact is still a challenge. "I wish I could turn the goodness into more tangible numbers more often," Meltz says. "I can tell you how many water bottles we didn’t ship [because of the no-bottled water policy], but I don’t know how much carbon we took out of the atmosphere. I’m not that kind of mathematician."

Instead, when evaluating new projects, she adheres to two tenets. The first is to make sure her initiatives make sense for the business. The second comes from a piece of wisdom gleaned from her parents when she was a kid. "Why do I have to do this?" Meltz remembers asking when they pushed her to do behave ethically. "You do it because it’s right," her parents would reply. That’s a philosophy anyone can dig into with gusto.

[Photos by Kelly Campbell for Fast Company]

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