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Note to nutritionists: Don't blame it on the chef

A few months ago I spent a considerable period of time with two different nutritionists. At least I think they were.  One might have been a dietitian, but to be candid I really don’t know the difference.

The first one I have known for years. She and I jointly published an article about six years ago, an introduction to nutrition for chefs. She is the daughter of very dear friends and we were having dinner one Saturday after attending a local Cajun festival. The other was a complete stranger whom I met the next afternoon while standing on the deck of the St. Francis Yacht Club watching the third race of the 2013 America’s Cup.  

The discussions were basically the same. The two women blamed chefs for the bad nutritional shape of the country. I was a bit flummoxed when our family friend said this because I had never heard this position before. Of course I had heard about the attacks on the fast food industry, and I have read a number of articles and books by members of the culinary field that it was basically the duty of chefs and restaurant owners to force better nutrition on their patrons. (I have always wondered how those businesses succeed in the long run. I am of the school that you basically—within reason—have to give the customer what he or she wants, or at least will pay for.) However, on the way back from Sebastopol I had the opportunity to ponder this and when the woman at the St. Francis Yacht Club said the same thing, I was prepared for her. She didn’t know what hit her when I mentioned:

1. The problem with nutritionists and dietitians is that the average chef knows more about nutrition then almost every single nutritionist knows about cooking. Chefs want to make food—even healthy food—taste good. Nutritionists want people to eat “healthy” food even if it doesn’t taste good.  They pay some lip service to recipes and taste, but their thrust is “eat it, it’s good for you.” I mentioned that most of my students refuse to eat Brussels sprouts until I prepare them, and then they wolf them down. She replied, “How do you make Brussels sprouts taste good?  I’ve never been able to do that.”

2. Eating healthy is expensive. If you want to have the average family eat healthy then you have to make healthy foods affordable. I mentioned that I had visited the farmers’ market earlier in the day before the race and spent more than $75 on what was basically one bag of vegetables. (They were really great, I must admit.) I pointed out that would have yielded six dinners at Home Town Buffet or close to 15 value meals at a quick-service restaurant.  

3. People don’t want to eat healthy. I pointed out that if there was a large market for healthy food there would be a lot of businesses catering to this market. Spa cuisine, I argued, seems to be pretty much limited to health spas. Meanwhile, even food courts at the most upscale malls seem to feature few heart- and calorie-friendly choices. Ask any restaurant owner or manager how well their healthy alternatives sell. (It would be interesting to see the ratio of apples to French fries sold at a McDonald’s in any given week.)

4. Food is only part of the equation. To lose weight, I reminded her, you have to consume fewer calories then you burn. I pointed out that these America’s Cup sailors were estimated to be burning around 6,000 calories per day and thus they didn’t really have a weight problem. Also, other than the President’s Physical Fitness program, there is no real emphasis on teaching our kids about the importance of exercise.  

5. People can’t cook and that’s why she was blaming chefs. This really threw her off guard. I told her that the nature of eating out had changed drastically in my lifetime. When I was growing up, eating out was a rare event. Almost all of the meals were consumed at home. Going out to a diner or a nice restaurant was a treat. And yes, although I am only 56 I remember the first McDonald’s opening in my town. (I also got an early lesson in the fact that restaurants do better if they are in close proximity to one another. The second fast food restaurant in the town, a Burger King, opened two years later, right across the street.) Nowadays very few people can cook. Of all of my wife’s and my non-chef friends there are only three who can entertain us at their house. (One of them was the couple I mentioned having dinner with in the opening of this article.)  

6. The rules keep changing. When I was a teenager, margarine was the healthy alternative to butter. Today, as I write this article, the Food and Drug Administration is considering a ban on margarine because it is high in trans fat. Remember when MSG was blamed for everything in the world and people were pouring salt on everything like mad? Don’t get me going on all of the “experts” who espoused the merits of the Atkins Diet.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that we can throw fate to the wind and serve anything we want any way we want and not suffer the consequences. Further, I am not denying that there is an obesity crisis in this country. What I am saying is that you can’t blame chefs for the problem. It seems to me that the entire population (chefs, nutritionists, dietitians and the public) all must focus on a long-term solution to the problem.   

A few weeks later, I attended a regional meeting of the American Culinary Federation. One of the sessions covered results of the National Restaurant Association’s survey about ordering preferences. According to the survey, an extremely high percentage want low-calorie, healthy meals. There was snickering around the room and the general consensus was that everyone may say that for a survey—but when the server takes the order it’s a different story.

As one chef put it, “My restaurant is in an affluent area. I have a number of healthy things on my menu. I never do the prep for those items; I just do the prep to order since I only sell a few a month.” When someone asked her why they were on her menu she replied, “People want them on the menu. They just don’t order them.”

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