We interviewed Maya Sertic, project manager at Kul IN and designer of our newest educational facility, Kul IN Klub, or KIK for short. Maya graduated from UC Santa Cruz with degrees in Ecology and Environmental Studies, and she completed her master’s degree in Marine Biology in Zagreb, Croatia. She’s a passionate environmentalist interested in finding ways to make industries a little greener in their work.
Kul IN: Can you explain the purpose of KIK?
- KIK, or Kul IN Klub, is actually a multifunctional space for culinary creatives and students alike. It is an educational facility where students can practice their cooking skills in a real-world restaurant environment. At the same time, KIK is an internal restaurant for students as well as employees of Kul IN’s sister companies and firms in the start-up incubator PISAK, which share the building with us. KIK can also be turned into a professional gastro showroom, but we’ll cover that topic another time. What’s really important about KIK is that this is a space where we focus on zero-waste cooking and plastic-free gastronomy, and it’s the first of its kind in Croatia.
Kul IN: What are your goals for project KIK, and what are some of the steps you took to tackle restaurant waste?
- The restaurant industry is riddled with single-use plastic, which generally ends up at the landfill. In KIK, we do our best to reduce the amount of single-use plastic both in the kitchen and in the dining area. Along with our students, we explore alternatives to single-use plastic products that are commonly found in restaurants (e.g. plastic wrap, food packaging). We also don’t offer single-use plastic products in our dining area (e.g. straws, to-go boxes, plastic cups). We’ve also put a lot of energy into building relationships with local food producers, and we’ve asked them to package their products in such a way that the packaging can be used multiple times. Not only are we teaching and shaping the way farmers look at plastic packaging, but we’re reducing their costs by returning their carrying crates to them for re-use. Up to 85% of food served in KIK comes from local producers.
The goal is for Kul IN’s students to gain awareness of the restaurant industry’s environmental impact, and to pick up good habits that they can share with future employers, restaurants, and guests back home. Culinary professionals that haven’t studied zero-waste techniques may find it interesting that producing less waste also cuts costs, so there are benefits other than saving the environment.
Kul IN: What were some of the challenges you came across while starting this project?
- At this time, it’s still difficult to find alternatives to many plastic products that can be used in a professional kitchen. For example, I wanted to avoid using plastic trays in our buffet line, but I couldn’t find a good alternative option. In this case, I chose trays made from plastic that will be easier to recycle one day – polyethylene and polypropylene are better options than melamine and other kinds of plastic because they are more easily recycled. It makes me feels better that trays at least have a relatively long lifespan in the restaurant, so they’ll be in use for several years before they need to be replaced.
Changing people’s habits is also a challenge. It takes a lot of time for people to learn how they are expected to behave in a zero-waste restaurant, both from the cook’s end and the guest’s end. But that’s why we are here as instructors – if everybody knew everything, there wouldn’t be much work for us.
Kul IN: How did the zero-waste movement start at Kul IN?
- Kul IN is in the best possible place to be fostering sustainable habits, and I mean this literally. The school is located in the building that once housed Sisak’s Metallurgical Institute, and we are gradually remodeling and repurposing old facilities based on modern needs. It would be much easier to design and build an ideal zero-waste educational center from scratch, perhaps even cheaper and less time-consuming. But what we’ve done is we’ve recycled the building itself, which saves construction materials, natural resources, and energy. It also reuses land that has already been built on instead of potentially destroying a thriving ecosystem whilst letting an older building remain vacant.
Kul IN: In which ways has KIK brought change to Kul IN and its students?
- Currently, I’m watching the realization of something that started out as a dream. KIK is becoming an information hub for zero-waste habits and plastic-free gastronomy, and news is spreading across Croatia and internationally. Kul IN’s students come from all over the world, and upon returning home, they bring with them not only culinary skills but also environmental awareness and innovative ideas. The questions these students ask during class show me that they’re thinking about ways in which they themselves can influence modern trends.
Wonderful things can happen when a chef treats food with respect and tries to make the most of the ingredients s/he is presented with. There is a lot of food waste in the restaurant industry. In KIK, we look for ways to use all the food scraps, and when a food item is used maximally, the leftovers go to compost and are used to fertilize the Kul IN gardens, which partially supply the restaurant. Food leftovers that cannot be used in noncommercial composting are donated to local chicken and pig farms.
For us, it’s important that students learn which practices are truly environmentally friendly, and which ones just seem like it. The environmental movement is becoming a global trend, and many companies are taking advantage by using “eco-friendly” as a marketing tactic. We try to teach students the difference, and to understand the efforts behind an environmentally friendly restaurant. We want our students to have a real influence on the sustainable development of the food industry. At Kul IN, they learn a lot about various trends in gastronomy, and this kind of knowledge will give them an advantage in their future careers because many customers are starting to look for businesses with smaller environmental footprints.
Kul IN: What would you like to tell us for the end of this interview?
- This is all very exciting for me. We’re putting together an innovative and ambitious project, and I am so happy to have the support of not only my colleagues at Kul IN, but also from the start-ups in PISAK and our sister companies Applied Ceramics and Sunceco. It feels so good when people come over to ask me questions about how they can reduce the environmental impact of their own businesses. When you start researching all the problems related to our current waste management systems, you suddenly feel like everything you’ve been doing your entire life has been wrong. Generations born after the 1960s don’t have knowledge of a world without plastic. It’s hard to imagine that this material we’ve been using our entire lives, should actually be avoided in many situations.
For this reason, I think it’s important to start small and to take baby steps towards reducing your environmental footprint, to prevent yourself from getting overwhelmed and giving up. Find specific things that you can do to slowly change your habits. For example, start by avoiding plastic bags at the supermarket and bring your own bags instead. Or, start carrying your own reusable water bottle. If you’re looking at the price tag on these alternatives and thinking “this is too expensive for me,” then it’s time to have a look around your own home. Old pillowcases work great as shopping bags, and glass jars can be used to hold both hot and cold drinks. And you probably don’t need to spend a penny on those.