Chefs, Can You Please Lighten Your Food?
Burgers. Fried chicken. French fries. Steak. On menus worthy of dozens of passionate reviews by bloggers and Yelpers, these are the dishes that generate the buzz. I love these foods. Love.
Some people will travel to France to eat at a Michelin three-star restaurant—and I'm not saying that I wouldn't—but I've always been just as happy to travel anyplace I'm promised great fried chicken. In Manhattan, I've cracked the crust on the spicy Korean-style wings at Mad for Chicken on 32nd Street, and I've rhapsodized about the delicate version at Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Perry St., where his son, Cedric, is chef; I've also gorged on splendid fried chicken all around Nashville. So it's with tremendous respect for these marvelous dishes that, as editor-in-chief of F&W, I pose this challenge: Chefs, can you please lighten your food?
More Recipes for Light, Healthy Food:
While dishes like fried chicken and their buttery or carb-loaded counterparts are super-popular and well-priced, I actually don't want to eat three days' worth of calories in one sitting. I've gradually lost a taste for too much of that kind of food, and I believe other people eventually will, too. Yes, most restaurants offer a green salad (which, depending on the dressing or mix-ins, still might not make Dr. Oz happy) or a simple vegetable side dish (which often comes with liberal amounts of cheese or pancetta, or both). And yes, there's usually some kind of fish, but eating it generally feels like a compromise when everyone else at the table is poking their hand-cut, twice-fried chips into house-made ketchup and figuring out how to get their mouths around an unusually large lamb slider. Why can't foods that are good for you be as cravable as the deep-fried, bacon-wrapped hot dog at Manhattan's PDT?
One common reply to that question is that fat equals flavor. But what about Thai food? That's got a lot of flavor—bitter, salty, sweet, sour—and, in general, relatively little fat (just look at Su-Mei Yu's recipes). Or Japanese food: It's clean, and its flavors are bright. But, of course, those aren't iconic American cuisines, which brings us to the second-most-common answer: People yearn for the foods of their childhood, and for many Americans, that means the hot dogs and hamburgers their parents grilled on the Weber in the backyard. Still, I don't buy it. My favorite fried chicken is the kind I ate at home growing up, but I'm not thinking about that when I reach for the fourth wing at Mad for Chicken. I want it because it tastes fantastic.
Fried foods or something healthy? Photo © John Kernick.
Can't something taste sublime without a burdensome amount of fat and calories? To find out, I went to some of my favorite chefs, the ones who have a cult following for their super-indulgent dishes, and asked them to create recipes that even a sausage fetishist would lust after. What I discovered at first isn't exactly breaking news, but I'll share it here anyway: Chefs don't have a particularly good sense of fat grams or calorie counts. One chef suggested a recipe for a ravioli stuffed with parsnip and bone marrow (bone marrow is mainly fat). But one lovable quality of chefs is that they're creative and solution-oriented. After some back-and-forth, F&W senior editor Kate Heddings had gathered a collection of six healthy recipes with that wow factor.
"I think chowder is the way to go," said chef Linton Hopkins of Restaurant Eugene and Holeman and Finch Public House in Atlanta. "The very word chowder makes your mouth water." This from a guy who adorned the entry of Holeman and Finch with a custom-made glass curing case full of pig legs. He came up with two ways to get a chowder's creamy consistency without fat: adding cubed potatoes and using buttermilk. In Chicago, the Publican's Paul Kahan chose spelt flour as his secret weapon (spelt is a grain that's high in protein and fiber) after watching Chris Bianco of Phoenix's Pizzeria Bianco—"a yeast-and-flour genius," says Kahan—make spelt bread. Kahan's spelt focaccia topped with squash, kale and just a few shavings of nutty pecorino is so good, I'd eat it like a pizza or as an appetizer/side dish combination.
At Gautreau's in New Orleans, Sue Zemanick cooks indulgent dishes, but in her off-hours, she has a distinctly lighter approach. And in fact, when I spoke to her, she was just coming off a 13-day cleanse, vowing to do it four times a year. That disparity was so extreme that I was particularly impressed she was able to retain the essence of the food at Gautreau's when coming up with a lightened recipe for grilled pork tenderloin with vegetable curry. In place of coconut milk (one cup of which has 552 calories, 479 of them from fat), she chose coconut water (more often thought of as a drink than a cooking ingredient) and combined it with two tablespoons of full-fat sour cream to get that luscious feeling. It's a trick the F&W Test Kitchen is sure to remember and use in the future.
What I discovered from this group of recipes, perhaps not surprisingly, was that these talented chefs could make amazing healthy food. And some of them even had healthy dishes on their menus. For a while, Laurent Tourondel, who serves incredible beef and addictive onion rings and popovers at 11 BLT Steak restaurants around the world, offered a Thai green mango–crab salad. Did customers like it? I asked him. "It didn't move," he replied. "When people go to a steak house, they want steak. I love the crab salad, but they want steak." Chris Cosentino of San Francisco's offal-centric Incanto, though, had a different experience: His sardines are hugely popular. But perhaps that's because bony, whole-fishy, charred sardines fit into the offal-lover ethos.
And this is the crux of the dilemma. When a healthy recipe matches the mood of the restaurant, it works. But right now, at most of the popular foodie establishments in America, light foods don't make sense. What we need is a new paradigm: hip, affordable restaurants with a great vibe that reinvent healthy food and make it as cravable as a cheeseburger. I believe that change will come eventually, but until then, I'm going to be picking out the stealthily healthy dishes at restaurants—and making these phenomenal recipes at home.