Edible Monterey Bay

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Sierra Mar Chef John Cox

April 21, 2015 – Sometimes a lettuce leaf or pumpkin seed sticks to the plate, but for the most part, chef John Cox has raised the standard on membership to the clean plate club. The chef at Sierra Mar restaurant at Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur has always been renowned for his creativity and open to innovation.

So, in looking for ways to stop flushing gallons of water and gobs of money down the drain every day as his team washes the remnants of his artistry off the plates—particularly as the drought enters its fourth year—he came up with a new idea, by repurposing something he had already pioneered, to waste not. And in just a matter of days, Cox—who is also a contributor to Edible Monterey Bay— has started a trend that is sweeping kitchens as far away as Canada.

 It all began when Cox’s nightly cleaning crew would come in to hose down the kitchen and clean the ovens. Realizing the water was frying the computer panels in the ovens, he brought in an air compressor, which enabled his staff to blow away baked-on food. Later on, in wondering how he could save water as his dishwashers rinsed off dishes with a spray nozzle, he glanced at the air compressor stored near the sink.

“It occurred to me,” he says, “that it might be great to blow off the plates before putting them into the dish machine. It may seem obvious, but an air compressor is not something we normally have in a commercial kitchen. We ran a 50-ft air line to the kitchen sink, and decided to try it for a day. Any initiative you take needs to be efficient and effective. If it did the job faster without sacrificing work schedules, we were onto something.”

So, Cox gave it a go in his kitchen. Only a couple of times did staff need to add water or scrub. Cox had a sense the air compressor would work well, but he had no idea how well until he talked to an engineer on property.

“The engineer put a meter on the spray nozzle,” says Cox, “which recorded that we were using 1,000 gallons of potable water a day to wash dishes. Our entire restaurant uses around 3,000 gallons a day, so 30% was from a single nozzle in kitchen. With the air compressor, that dropped by 80%, roughly 800 gallons a day. One of my front-of-the-house people said, ‘Think about the impact on a greater scale.’ Among 60,000 full-service restaurants in California, which doesn’t include big hotel banquet halls or cafeterias, if they were able to save even a third of that, maybe 250 gallons a day, that would add up to 15 million gallons of water per day, and up to 5 billion gallons a year. That’s only a drop in the bucket in terms of resolving the drought, but think about what restaurants can do.”

And, because the dishwashing staff is working with air and not water, they can more easily collect and compost the organic material coming off the plates, while keeping grease from going into the sewage system. “There are a lot more benefits from this air system than just water conservation,” says Cox, “and we’re just beginning to identify them.”

The more he has talked about using compressed air for pre-cleaning plates, the more he has heard from others interested in getting on board. He’s even had a few people contact him about putting a compressor in their kitchens for personal use.

“It has been great to get so much interest for restaurant and private use,” Cox says. “I’ve heard some pretty amazing responses from local chefs and as far away as Canada. Locally, I’ve had inquiries from Chef Todd Fisher at Tarpy’s Roadhouse, David Bernahl for 1833, Collin Moody at Monterey Peninsula Country Club, Johnny De Vivo at Poppy Hills Golf Course, Cy Yontz at Rio Grill, Jay Dolata at Carmel Belle, as well as Napa, Novato, Marin, and San Diego. The air compressor is such simple technology, you can pick it up on the shelf at Home Depot. [Where they start at less than $200.] You’d want to get a really quiet compressor, especially if you’re using it at home.”

Because the conventional air compressor was not designed to wash dishes, Cox also is working with an engineer to tailor-make something specific to the dishwashing needs of a professional or private kitchen.

“I’d like to create something ideal for doing dishes,” he says, “but for now, the air compressor is a really great solution for us and is helping us have a broader impact beyond our kitchen.”

Discussions around water conservation and the use of an air compressor in the dish room, as well as alternative water-saving practices, are emerging in Santa Cruz eateries, as well.

Soif Restaurant and Wine Bar, which is embarking on a remodel this spring, has considered installing an air compressor in

Soif Chef Mark Denham
Soif Chef Mark Denham

their new kitchen. “We already use one to cleanse our filtration and refrigeration systems,” says Chef Mark Denham, “so it wouldn’t take too much to use it for washing dishes, as well.”

Says Patrice Boyle, Soif’s owner, “We are looking at as many energy-saving ideas as we can reasonably do here as we remodel Soif, including installing a lot of LED lighting. We have been really excited to learn about this idea of using compressed air on the dish line, so it’s easier for the workers to be efficient and save water. Everyone is enthusiastic about this, and we love that Chef John Cox came up with it.”

At The Paradox Hotel, water conservation practices, including air compression, were discussed extensively at a recent managers’ meeting, says manager Thomas Neeley, as they look to work around the current water shortage.   

“A lot of people have suggested that I may be saving water, but I’m using all this electricity,” Cox says. “Here at Post Ranch Inn, we have wonderful solar energy, so we are able to power it with no power. But conventionally, the air compressor uses less electricity than the small blender in my kitchen. It’s equivalent to about $.80-$.90 cents per day, which is minimal in the scope of a professional kitchen.


About the author

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A fifth-generation Northern Californian, Lisa Crawford Watson has enjoyed a diverse career in business, education and writing. She lives with her family on the Monterey Peninsula, where her grandmother once lived and wrote. An adjunct writing instructor for CSU Monterey Bay and Monterey Peninsula College, Lisa is also a free-lance writer, who specializes in the genres of art & architecture, health & lifestyle, food & wine. She has published various books and thousands of feature articles and columns in local and national newspapers and magazines.