To find a chef giving a demonstration at the Culinary Institute of America is hardly unusual. And there he was, the guy in the white jacket in front of the audience, his tray of carefully prepped ingredients beside, his actions caught by camera as he whipped up his dish on the enviable Viking range.
But what was worth noting at this demo was that the chef was Dan Coudreaut, a CIA graduate whose current job title is director of culinary innovation at McDonald’s Corp. And what he was cooking was Spicy Lentil Hash with Farro and Mediterranean White Bean Hash with Poached Eggs.
Coudreaut was one of an impressive roster from the culinary world who met recently at the CIA at Greystone in St. Helena. They weren’t the chefs from the rarefied realm of fine dining, but the ones who, instead, dish out meals to millions of people every day.
Representatives from P.F. Chang, Burger King, Pasta Pomodoro, Panera Bread, The Olive Garden, Pizza Hut, and Starbucks were all there, along with directors of food service for schools, hotels and supermarkets. It was an invitational gathering for a three-day “leadership retreat” co-sponsored by the CIA and the Harvard School of Public Health Department of Nutrition, titled “Worlds of Healthy Flavors.”
The goal was to figure out ways to help Americans to eat better.
This is the seventh year the CIA and Harvard have hosted this retreat.
The CIA reports estimate that more than 50 percent of the dollars spent on food in the U.S. goes to meals prepared outside of the home.
“For millions of Americans, food service is no longer what it was years ago — that special, celebratory dining experience or the very occasional ‘grab and go’ fast-food lunch. In the past the nutrition impact of food service meals was less important because most food was consumed in the home.”
It’s all the more reason, they contend, to look closely at what diners are being offered, and how it can be improved to the benefit of everyone.
This year’s conference came at “a pivotal time for American food service,” the CIA report noted.
Interest in global foods and flavors from Asia, Latin America and the Mediterranean continues to grow as diners become more adventurous. Chefs have a broad range of foods with which to work. Research on what constitutes a healthy diet continues to make news. More and more, questions are being asked about the source and content of foods. As consumers and the government demand, for instance, removal of dangerous trans fats from prepared items, the industry responds.
Reports indicate that a healthy diet, not smoking, and exercising regularly can prevent 80 percent of heart disease, 90 percent of type 2 diabetes, 70 percent of strokes and some cancers, as well as substantially reduce the incidence of hosts of chronic diseases and health ailments. At the same time, the news also continues to be filled with reports on obesity, and skyrocketing rates of obesity-linked diseases.
“Many Americans clearly find it a challenge to actually make healthful meal choices,” the CIA introduction pointed out.
Yet, as Dr. Walter Willett, from Harvard School of Public Health, stressed, the statistics don’t reflect all Americans.
“Parts (of America) are getting tremendously healthier,” he noted. “The country is going in two directions … it’s completely tied to income. With more money being concentrated in fewer people, more of the middle class is being squeezed into making choices they aren’t happy with.”
Middle-class and working poor Americans, strapped for time and money, continue to turn to prepared foods — whether it’s take-out from McDonald’s or the deli bar at Safeway.
Most at risk are the children who, Willett noted, may be looking at a shorter life expectancy than their parents.
So, why are Americans not flocking to healthier diets?
For two and a half days, the participants presented topics and exchanged ideas — ideals versus reality.
The challenge was best summed up by Jorge Leon Collazo, another CIA-trained chef, who worked for many years in New York before joining the faculty of the New England Culinary Institute. His growing interest in the issues like health and wellness and childhood obesity led him to a new job — executive chef for New York Public Schools.
There he oversees 860,000 meals served daily at 1,500 locations in the city. His challenge: Come up with the best possible foods for these children, at prices he can afford — and to serve up foods that kids will actually eat. It’s a dilemma that’s repeated in American homes, as well as restaurants.
The goals of a healthy diet as outlined at the conference are sweeping:
• a shift to a produce-based menu, with fruits and vegetables
• adding new options for proteins, beans, legumes, fish and nuts to menus
• adding healthy carbs — whole grains — to menus
• reducing sugar and salt levels in foods
• replacing the emphasis on “non-fat” foods — which made up for flavor lost with fat by adding sugars — with “healthy fats” including plant-based oils and nuts.
How is it to be achieved? And can it be?
One participant described a restaurant that decided to offer vegetables instead of bread to diners to munch on while they waited for their food — and no one ate them.
“Few in the food service industry have the appetite to repeat the failed healthy menu initiatives from the ’80s and ’90s,” the report concluded. That was when a heart printed next to a menu item, to indicate it was “heart healthy,” turned out to be a mark of doom assuring no one would order it.
But the CIA has a way of enticing guests to eat their words. In between presentations on how to replace sodas with salad bars, the retreat would break for meals prepared by CIA chefs.
Veritable feasts, the dishes were created by chefs like Joyce Goldstein and Suvir Sarah. To see the guests happily feasting on dishes like Farro Salad with Vegetables and Mint Vinaigrette, Curried Peppers in Peanut Sauce, Swiss Chard with Beets, Queso Oaxaca and Raisins was the most encouraging sign — make these foods tasty and people will try them.
The key, Collazo told the gathering, is education. Like others at the conference, he urged the return of home economics classes for kids and their parents. “I’d like to see an army of young culinarians going into communities to help them with their challenges,” he said.
No one wants to give up the traditions that make up the American culinary picture, Coudreaut told the gathering, whether it’s ribs, cheesesteak sandwiches, birthday cake, or burgers and fries. Brought into balance, however, with new culinary discoveries — that greens can really be prepared in a way that doesn’t taste like you’re sharing the goat’s dinner — might be the answer.
Despite the still-gloomy statistics, advocates of public health, all Americans, were upbeat at the retreat conclusion. The championship of First Lady Michelle Obama in tackling the problems facing American children is viewed as one of the most powerful harbingers of hope — it was during the retreat that Walmart announced that, encouraged by Obama, it was taking steps to make healthier options available to its customers.
Where Walmart goes, observed one conference attendee, others will follow.
Whether we’re likely to see Farro and Lentil Hash on the McDonald’s menu in the near future remains to be seen.