Any chef or foodservice operator knows that health has been a predominant driver of food trends over the last couple of decades. Customers generally drive that demand. However, chefs and operators are customers, too, and many are trying to live and eat healthier themselves, whether that be for weight loss, to treat medical conditions or just have a better quality of life.
In a profession where being around and tasting food all day is a part of the job, many chefs and operators are changing their culinary approach to be more health-supportive. Here, we interview four chefs and operators about why and how they changed their culinary approach, as well as what the response from customers has been.
• Barbara Kempken, director of culinary compliance, Chartwells K12, Worcester, Mass.
• Nathan Martinez, kitchen manager, University of Southern California
• Carmen Marzocco, regional executive chef, Eurest, Eastern division
• Aatul Jain, operations manager & executive chef, Saint Claire’s Health System, Denville, N.J.
What we learn is that customers don’t have to be the drivers of change when it comes to serving healthier food. Foodservice operators can and should be the change they want to see. It’s okay if it starts from a personal place. Your customers, associates and colleagues will not only benefit, too, but likely will also welcome the change.
What prompted you to change your culinary style to be more health-supportive?
When I began working in the child nutrition industry, I worked with dietitians who trained our associates and educated our students on nutrition and healthy eating habits. I was inspired by their message and slowly began to make changes in my own eating habits to be healthier and to lose weight. I began educating myself further and my diet evolved from eating more fruits and vegetables to vegetarian and most recently to vegan.
NM: When I became a diabetic six years ago I started my journey to a healthier diet. It took some change and time, but I feel better and have been able to stay off of injections all these years.
CM: I grew up in the generation of the “unknown,” when no one really asked questions about what we were eating and had no idea how much or even what a calorie was! I was overweight and had a minor heart attack very young, and my goal was to change my way of eating but also educate the new generation on how to eat and how not to make the wrong choices I made.
AJ: When people talk about hospitals, they talk about “hospital food” and how they detest it. That has been my biggest motivator, to change the way “hospital food” is looked upon. In addition, after joining the healthcare world, as I connect with more and more dietitians, every conversation with them is an eye-opener. They took me under their wings. We talk more about food than work, and that’s what trickles down to what we do every day.
How did this change affect your foodservice offerings? Was it a major change from what was previously offered?
BK: I have encouraged and created recipes that use more plant proteins. Chartwells has always done a good job of offering vegetarian options, and we are exploring more creative ways to achieve that goal. It’s exciting to be on the cusp of that change in how we menu food and educate our customers.
The offerings of vegetarian, vegan and low-calorie meals at USC have always been of great importance to those we serve with special diets, but with the healthier trend it’s now more important than ever. Over the past few years we have improved the quantity of vegan and vegetarian options and also make sure to include a plant-based protein. Historically, the students were eating a greater portion of pasta with no real source of protein. Now we offer multiple types of plant-based protein options such as beans, quinoa, tofu, tempeh and other non-GMO soy proteins.
CM: The change really didn’t affect the menu as we do have a great deal of healthy offerings. It really changed the mindset of education for my chefs and how we educate our customers about proper portioning and healthy eating lifestyles.
AJ: We haven’t changed the menu drastically. There has been a lot of stealth testing of ingredients and cooking styles. If something worked, we didn’t go back to the old style or ingredient. Our biggest shift has been adapting a lot more scratch cooking and fresh ingredients.
What’s an example of meals/snacks/beverages/stations, etc., in your location that were implemented after your change in culinary style?
BK: I enjoyed developing recipes for black bean brownies and chickpea chocolate chip cookies. They both incorporate legumes and taste fabulous.
NM: Our registered dietitian, Lindsey Pine, has been working diligently on developing the allergen station as well as vegan and vegetarian meals. In fall 2015 we will be implementing a new program called Tommy’s Choice, named after Tommy Trojan, one of the USC mascots. These options will meet certain nutrition parameters, including calories, saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, an “Extra Credit” category in which the food will contain a minimum number of protein or fiber grams and an “Immunity Factor,” meaning the food must be a source of either vitamins A, C, D, E or zinc.
As a company, we offer a wide variety of sustainable platforms, healthy lifestyle options and alternative beverages. We purchase sustainable fish in partnership with the Monterey Bay Aquarium, support local farmers by purchasing IDP (imperfectly delicious produce) that has not met the standards to sell in supermarkets and offer programs that help identify healthy eating and special diet options.
AJ: Once we realized we had to implement more health and wellness aspects into our food offerings, we prioritized areas that needed to be worked on—be it the actual dishes offered, the cooking style (from frying to broiling or baking), the ingredients themselves (more scratch cooking in-house and fresh ingredients than buying frozen or canned items), as well as the people (moving associates between stations and kitchens based on their skills or personal passion). Adding whole grains, baked tofu and fresh herb grilled chicken to the salad bar while reducing the number of canned items has helped boost its fan following. Personal pizzas—probably our biggest seller—are now made with whole-wheat crusts, little (or no) sauce, fresh veggies and herbs and reduced fat mozzarella. To encourage people to eat fruit, we sell them at almost half price when combined with a hot entrée or deli sandwich. We drastically changed our prepackaged snacks program and now offer more Greek yogurt and hummus cups.
Did you actively promote/market the changes to notify your customers, or did you quietly implement the changes?
BK: I have done tasting events at schools to encourage students to try the “bean desserts.” At one school, the director and I hosted a “Fear Factor”-style challenge, where the students had to try the items without knowing the secret ingredient (unless the student had a food allergy, of course). It is fun to tell students the “secret” ingredient, because they do not expect beans in a dessert and can take that new perspective home with them and incorporate it into how they think about and engage with food.
We find that students respond more positively when we market attributes like freshness, taste and sustainability. We do use a good dose of stealth health in our food preparations. One of the best ways to kill a dish is to call it healthy, because many customers see that as boring and tasteless. Tommy’s Choice sounds more appealing and fun than a name with the word healthy in it. We’ll be utilizing social media, our website and a newsletter to market the program, as well as feed the information directly to students through our strategic partnerships with other departments.
CM: We promote new items/changes to our offerings through newsletters, which are available in our cafés and via email.
AJ: We started off on a fairly quiet note to minimize the impact from die-hard old schoolers and we got our share of resistance. As eating healthy is now a mainstream habit and has become a way of life at our hospitals, we promote special dishes and healthier options via numerous conduits. People have come to accept it and look forward to it.
What has been the response from customers?
BK: For the most part, the response has been positive. I think everyone appreciates having healthier options and recognizes the need for more sustainable food choices. I also enjoy demonstrating that a dish does not have to contain animal protein in order for it to taste good or be satisfying.
NM: Even if we don’t call something “healthy,” the students notice when we make a healthier change. Recently, we switched out four of our high-sugar “kids” cereals for four healthier and organic options. The response was overwhelmingly positive. We have a group of students that gives us feedback on a regular basis and their feedback always includes the desire for healthier foods. This generation is very aware of nutrition and health and they are asking for better and more options. As long as the food tastes good, the feedback from students is positive.
CM: Customer feedback is generally positive as the promotions are advertised in the cafés and through email blasts. Most of this feedback is received when I am hosting healthy eating demonstrations, where I focus on specific techniques and dishes that can be cooked at home.
AJ: Overall, customer satisfaction with our offerings is higher. Now more than before, employees and patients take pride in sharing with us their stories of healthier lifestyle or weight loss. Let’s not be fooled, though, we have more than our fair share of meat-and-potatoes eaters and our team encourages them to go ahead and indulge but to do it in moderation. Some time back, a vegetarian kale burger special was pulled off the menu due to some negative feedback from hospital employees. Another group approached us the very next day and aggressively petitioned us to bring it back. Now that is exciting!
Has the change made it easier for you to follow your new eating/culinary style?
BK: Yes! I can always find something to eat when I visit our schools. We have a really great chickpea salad recipe that I love to fold into a wrap with some other veggies.
NM: Yes, with better options at all stations it has been easier and more convenient for me to follow a healthier diet. With the wide range of sustainable seafood, grilled chicken and vegetarian options I am able to stay more focused on a high-protein diet. In the fall I will be running CAFÉ 84. This dining hall will carry the healthiest options for students. We’re striving to incorporate more portion control, whole grains, beans, sustainable produce, lean meats and a different spin on desserts. We are also focusing on farm-to-table cooking.
CM: Since I have made the change to a healthier lifestyle and culinary approach, I have tried to connect with my chefs to influence their approach as well as educate my customers so they are fully aware of the choice they make in every bite. I most frequently do this through chef’s tables and healthy cooking demonstrations with customers and clients.
AJ: When I talk about eating for a healthier lifestyle—be it to a patient, colleague or customer—I believe in it myself. The fact that these options are readily available makes it easier to make the right choice. I have caught myself picking up that bowl of fries or the cheesy pizza, only to remind myself to put it back.
Have you noticed your foodservice associates making healthy changes to their diets?
BK: When I explain my eating choices to associates, it makes them consider their own choices and why they eat the way they do. Leading by example is a powerful tool and was also one of my motivations to eat and live healthier.
NM: Many of my peers here already eat healthy, so it makes it easier for me and for others to do so, too.
CM: Our associates are very influenced and motivated by our programs. We encourage them to sample the foods they serve, as we teach them about the preparation so they can educate our customers.
AJ: When we started the transition, it was not always well received. We would get complaints by our staff that the staple "rich" items were not available or don’t taste as good. However, I have noticed that now, whenever we have dishes like broth or naturally puréed soups or a custom salad station or even a preparation that includes a lean marinated piece of chicken, our departmental staff is all over it. Generally, one person tastes it and word-of-mouth spreads.
Anything else you’d like to share about your journey to healthier cooking?
BK: I think the best thing about eating a healthy, whole-food, plant-based diet is that I do not worry about what I am eating because it provides my body everything it needs and nothing it doesn’t.
NM: We are learning more and more about diabetes and how to treat it. It’s not just about the foods we are supposed to stay away from, but other things in the culinary field we face every day such as stress.
CM: It’s important that we continue to focus on the younger generation and the significant impact we can make through the power of education and by leading by example.
AJ: It’s all about moderate indulgences. Don't deprive yourself.