Nosh Pit

Nosh Pit: A farm-to-fork-saver approach to the drought

At Mulvaney’s B&L, diners use a single fork and a “fork saver” (a small slab of marble) to help lessen dishwashing demands and to conserve water use.
At Mulvaney’s B&L, diners use a single fork and a “fork saver” (a small slab of marble) to help lessen dishwashing demands and to conserve water use.

The place settings at Mulvaney’s B&L have become simpler as the great parching of California continues.

Water glasses no longer instantly greet customers. As of mid-March, restaurants in California may only serve water to diners on request. Restaurants that continue to bring water without being asked are subject to a $500 fine.

And instead of an array of forks – one for salad, another for the entree, and a small dessert fork placed above the plate – there’s just a single fork.

The standard service protocol would be to replace a fork after each course, ensuring that a diner had shiny new silverware for digging into the next phase of a meal. Instead, the diner will find what’s known as a “fork saver.” It’s a small slab of marble where the fork rests between courses.

The fork saver helps cut back on running the dishwasher, the part of restaurants that requires the most water use. According to the National Restaurant Association, full-service restaurants can consume up to 5,000 gallons of water a day. Commercial dishwashers often claim more than two-thirds of that overall usage, according to the Alliance of Water Efficiency.

Patrick Mulvaney, the chef/owner of Mulvaney’s B&L, hasn’t tabulated how much water is being saved with this farm-to-fork-saver approach. The fork savers also need a trip through the dishwasher after being used, but take up less space than the same amount of forks.

On a slammed Saturday night, Mulvaney estimates that the fork savers help cut back on two to three washes – a drop in the bucket, if you will. But more importantly, he says, the fork savers carry symbolism: California’s drought isn’t going away any time soon, and we all need to think of unique ways to conserve water.

“It’s a conversation starter, and it does contribute in its own small way,” Mulvaney said. “We’d heard about these fork savers and got these nice marble things that we can set at the table. It’s our way of saying that we have to cut down on water and here’s what we’re doing in California.”

While some might view the fork saver as a token gesture, chefs around California are looking into higher-impact ways to conserve water. One of the methods generating the most buzz is to use an air compressor instead of a traditional dish sprayer to clean dirty plates before they go into the dishwasher. The method was championed by chef John Cox of Big Sur’s Sierra Mar at the Post Ranch Inn, in a video of the air compressor cleaning that went viral in the restaurant world.

In the April 21 Facebook post that accompanies the video, Cox says his restaurant uses approximately 3,500 gallons of water a day. He estimates that one of their traditional water sprayers accounts for almost a third of that water use, and using an air compressor reduces the sprayer use by 80 percent. His math: If the 60,000 full-service restaurants in California switched to air compressors for pre-cleaning plates, saving 250 gallons of water a day would equal 5 billion gallons of water saved annually – a potential game changer for restaurant water conservation in California and beyond.

Back in Sacramento, the air compressor cleaning method has yet to become a fixture in restaurant kitchens. But water conservation has become a key concern for a variety of local restaurant owners. The city of Sacramento has partnered with restaurants such as Hot Italian, Magpie Cafe, Tres Hermanas and others in a placard program that reminds customers that water will only be served on request.

Other approaches are requiring additional elbow grease. At midtown’s Hook & Ladder, a bucket and brush has replaced the usual pressure hose for cleaning the patio.

“It’s not terribly convenient,” said Kimio Bazett, the co-owner of Hook & Ladder. “But the water levels (in Northern California) are low. It’s scary out there.”

The conservation methods don’t stop with the fork savers back at Mulvaney’s. Whatever water’s left over in the jugs used for serving guests goes into watering plants and filling their fountain. Hosing down the pavement out front isn’t much of a priority, as the Golden State heads into the hot summer months. At least for now, water conservation is the new normal.

“Every little bit counts,” Mulvaney said.

Call The Bee’s Chris Macias, (916) 321-1253. Follow him on Twitter @chris_macias.