Twenty years ago there was little common ground between chefs and registered dietitians (RDs). Chefs were all about taste, RDs focused on nutrition, and never the twain shall meet.
Whether due to guidelines and regulations or simply consumers’ expectations to have it all—high-quality ingredients, nutrient-dense foods and great taste—that’s no longer the case. In most foodservice operations today, the chef and RD collaborate on a regular basis.
“With the current trends out there, having strong collaboration between chefs and RDs is the only way to make it work,” says Melissa Hendricks, RD, LDN, registered dietitian, culinary support services at Penn State University. “The key is we don’t work in a bubble; everything is connected. Any decision made regarding food affects nutrition, and any decision made about nutrition affects food.”
According to Hendricks and Bill Laychur, corporate executive chef, Culinary Services, Penn State University, it’s about respecting each other’s areas of expertise.
“It’s unnecessary to have the chef-dietitian conflict,” Laychur says. “I feel it was long overdue for Penn State to establish a registered dietitians office, and with Melissa and her assistant, I look forward to working with them to meet the needs of all our students, not just those with special dietary needs.”
The chef-RD collaboration is integral to meeting the needs of clients and customers. In today’s world of dietary regulations and consumer demand, both areas of expertise are needed and amplified when integrated. Collaboration is necessary every step of the way, from ingredient selection to recipe development, meal planning, marketing and education.
Ingredient Selection, Recipe Development and Menu Planning
Whether honoring federal guidelines for K-12 school meals, ensuring a hospital patient gets the therapeutic diet he needs or meeting self-imposed nutrition standards for employees, these days almost every foodservice operation is adhering to some sort of nutrition protocol. But taste still trumps all when it comes to customer food choices, whether it’s a first-grade student, hospital patient or corporate executive. So both culinary and nutrition skills are essential.
“The child nutrition environment has undergone rapid change over the past three years as a result of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act,” says Margie Saidel, MPH, RD, Chartwells vice president, nutrition, culinary, sustainability. “Our close collaboration between RDs and chefs enables us to develop innovative recipes and menus that taste great and appeal to kids while complying with the regulatory requirements.”
Jeff Orr, CEC, Chartwells K12 national director of culinary, takes the collaboration one step further, stating that the management company’s team of chefs and RDs work together to identify and develop menu strategies that shift the emphasis to more whole foods and sustainably sourced products.
Chartwells K12 chefs and dietitians worked together to develop a small plates concept for its à la carte offerings that meet USDA Smart Snacks rules for foods sold outside the reimbursable meal.
“Our objective was to create à la carte choices that were no longer considered ‘junk food’ but wholesome nourishing snacks and mini-meals,” Saidel says. “We held a chef and dietitian summit at a school where chefs developed recipes from scratch that were flavorful, on trend and well presented. The dietitian worked on site to nutritionally analyze the draft recipe and gave suggestions about how it might be tweaked to meet nutritional guidelines.”
Smart, innovative and better-for-you menu items came out of this effort. Salad shaker cups were modified to meet calorie and fat requirements, while the protein and vegetable components were increased. Flavored popcorn was revised to reduce total fat content by lowering the amount of cooking oil used while keeping the portion size the same to make it more satisfying for students. The sugar content of cupcakes was reduced, and then used as a base for other baked goods.
Schools aren’t the only ones turning to RD/chef partnerships to create new menu items.
Connie Diekman, RD, director of university nutrition, Washington University in St. Louis, and Patrick McElroy, campus executive chef with Bon Appétit at the university, believe their strong partnership ensures a stronger understanding of their guests’ needs.
“Sharing the knowledge of the RD and chef allows both of us to find common ground that allows for development of a diverse menu that can meet the needs of a student body that expects more from their food than simply being served another meal,” Diekman says. “As the RD, I have developed nutrition parameters for better-for-you options. These guidelines are shared with the chefs so they know what parameters I am looking for as they develop recipes.”
At The Medical Center of Plano, in Texas, Nicole Bullock, RD, LD, patient services manager, and Miguel Blasini, CEC, executive chef, collaborate on special menu items that please the palate while also being therapeutic. Two outcomes of that collaboration are Chicken Roulade with Pinot Lavender Sauce and smoothies for new moms containing fresh ginger and fennel to promote lactation.
To stay competitive, it’s no longer enough to serve good food. Clients and customers expect education programming in their dining rooms.
Julie Stewart, MS, RDN, senior foodservice manager, and Al Zimmerman, chef, manager Skylight Café, at the SAS Institute, in Cary, N.C., collaborate on wellness celebrations, in which they educate company employees about a specific health topic and support participation through special menus in the café. They have created programs for a 10-Day Sugar Challenge, Diabetes Alert Day and Eat Local Week.
Blasini at The Medical Center of Plano says it is their goal not just to provide patients with a therapeutic meal but also to educate them about culinary nutrition. “We explain how we use herbs, citrus and extra-virgin olive oil in place of salt or butter,” he says.
It takes a village to make a foodservice program work, and that’s why chef McElroy at Washington University emphasizes the importance of education not just for guests but foodservice employees, too. “The education of our associates and managers builds strong buy-in to our programs and strengthens operational ownership,” he says.
Several forms of training are used to engage with associates.
“Each shift we have a pre-shift meeting that focuses on quick topics ranging from kitchen safety to food safety to allergies and what’s going on around campus,” McElroy says. They also conduct special cooking classes so associates can hone their culinary skills—from learning how to use the whole animal to Chinese New Year traditions and healthy cooking techniques. Diekman joins the meetings to focus on topics of culinary nutrition, and third-party experts, including farmers and vendors, are invited to share their knowledge about their products and the importance of local partnerships.
Most foodservice guests have other options for where to eat. That’s why operators are becoming savvy marketers to promote the quality and health benefits of their food, as well as share the nutrition information and expertise of the professionals behind their meals.
Washington University sells grab-and-go items labeled “Connie’s Choice,” which meet parameters for calories, saturated fat, total fat and sodium based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. If the item is an entrée, it must also meet specified protein parameters.
“By labeling them ‘Connie’s Choice,’ customers don’t have to read the website or the label to know that they are better-for-you choices,” Diekman says. “We provide our menus and nutrition information on our website and via a mobile app. This information not only shows ingredients and full nutrition facts panels, but we also mark items for the presence of potential allergens.”
At Penn State, the chef and registered dietitian offices have collaborated with other departments to develop an in-house grab-and-go program. Chef Laychur is spearheading the effort, including developing the labeling to market the program. The collaboration involves ensuring the labels on grab-and-go items meet regulations and that all nutrition facts and allergen information is accurate and up to date.
The Evolving Collaboration
While the RD and chef still come to the kitchen table with their unique areas of expertise, it’s nice to see the lines of communication starting to blur.
Bullock’s explanation of her collaboration with chef Blasini shows that chefs and RDs are in fact meeting in the middle: “Over time, we have learned each other’s ‘food philosophy’ and are definitely more integrated. We continue to teach one another and be open to learning and respecting the other’s craft.”