Upscale Chefs Emphasize Local and Organic Foods

Despite the ruckus over America's growing waistline and declining health, many restaurants are not rushing to add a Health Food section to their menus. Rather, chefs have taken a subtler approach to providing customers with food that can be eaten every day without damaging the cardiovascular system. Today's chefs must accommodate both the once-a-year guest who wants to indulge and the regular customer

Despite the ruckus over America's growing waistline and declining health, many restaurants are not rushing to add a “Health Food” section to their menus. Rather, chefs have taken a subtler approach to providing customers with food that can be eaten every day without damaging the cardiovascular system.

Today's chefs must accommodate both the once-a-year guest who wants to indulge and the regular customer who requires healthy food choices. By improving the quality of ingredients and reducing portion sizes, restaurants have been able to maintain or even improve the dining experience for their guests while adjusting to their customers' clamor for healthier foods.

Peter Tinson, chef at the Gallery Bistro in Springfield, Mo., operates in a community that's split over its culinary needs. A large medical community provides nutrition education to the public, so there is a growing core of health-conscious restaurant-goers. But despite this public campaign, Tinson still sells a lot of 16-ounce rib eyes.

He relies on offering a variety of menu options to traverse this culinary divide. “For special occasions, people can treat themselves,” he said. “But there are also some items available for the health-conscious consumer, and we can modify others on request.” This service-oriented approach to meeting customer needs does have its rewards. In 2007, Gallery Bistro was voted “Best Healthy Dining” in 417 Magazine.

The need to serve repeat customers is the same in Chicago, where Chef Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill and Topolobampo offers food that his customers can eat several times a week without negatively impacting their health. Though he has been around long enough to remember the dominance of the special-occasion consumer, he has adapted to the modern requirement of addressing regular customers.

Bayless considers variety the key to meeting the needs of all his customers. By offering some rich and some lean dishes, he can still serve those who wish to indulge on a special occasion while providing his regulars foods they can eat daily. Bayless notes that many of his regulars are slim, healthy people. They are portion-conscious rather than health-conscious. He said of his regular clientele, “They know when they are full, and they don't eat massive quantities or order rich foods every day.” His focus on high-quality foods appeals to customers for whom oversized portions hold little allure.

Nora Pouillon, owner of Restaurant Nora and Asia Nora in Washington, shares the portion-conscious perspective. She strives to ensure that the protein is not the center of the plate. She never serves more than five ounces of protein per portion and prefers to balance the plate with two or three fresh vegetables and one starch. She also offers multiple vegetarian options on her menu.

Pouillon's Restaurant Nora was the first certified-organic restaurant in the nation. She also believes that the quality and origin of her ingredients support the health of her customers. In a presentation at the Department of Health and Human Services this year, she stated, “Organic food takes care of the soil. If the soil is not full of nutrients, microbes and other good stuff, then the food will not be full of life.” She focuses on sourcing quality, organic products to produce a healthier menu.

Matthew Jansen, owner of Mateo and Radda in Boulder, Colo., goes local, natural and organic in his purchases as well. It's a trend, he said, that is gaining momentum in Boulder. Jansen notes, “The public is well educated and well traveled. They are health-conscious in their food choices, and they want sustainable ingredients.”

Jansen works with a range of grain products and local meats to appeal to the changing tastes and allergy restrictions of his customers. Using rice flour and quinoa allows him to serve the needs of wheat-intolerant guests. His use of local beef, lamb, rabbit and pork acknowledges consumers who prefer the bounty of local farms.

Today's health-conscious consumer does not require the heavy-handed approach of heart-healthy or low-fat menu icons. Educated customers know the difference in nutritional value between carrot coulis and horseradish cream sauce. Many restaurants address health simply by sourcing high-quality ingredients, offering moderate portion sizes and providing a variety of choices.

Locally sourced or organic food provides perceived value, cachet and a sense of place for the guest. These ingredients, when marketed to customers, help guests to perceive value in the quality of their food rather than in the quantity of the food.

Tinson believes that guests with specific nutritional needs are loyal to the restaurants that can meet those needs. “Chefs can promote healthy items on a menu through staff training and the server's ability to answer questions at the table,” he said.

Providing a large number of healthy menu options, especially if those options are not labeled as “healthy” to distract guests, allows restaurants to convert their health-conscious customers from once-a-year special-occasion diners to regulars. That's a lot of repeat business over a long and healthy lifetime.

Daniel Traster is former Dean of Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management, Stratford University. This article appeared in the September 2007 issue of Restaurant Hospitality, a Penton publication.