Chefs worldwide are aware that current environmental conditions are going to require major menu changes. Thankfully The Culinary Institute of America, Harvard University Chan School and insightful industry partners have developed, through the Menus of Change Conferences, a detailed list of positive actions each chef can use to increase dining pleasure while helping to heal the planet.
Diners today want to know where their food comes from. Their inquiries are prompted by a concern for product safety as well as a desire to be involved in an expanded food experience. Specific source identification both on the menu and in shared floor stories are now a major culinary trend.
Buy Fresh and Seasonally
Great chefs know the best flavor comes from seasonally fresh ingredients. Fresh grown food items are full flavored, rich in texture and varied in color while also supporting local employment and helping to build sustainable community.
Develop a Plant-Based Menu
Grazing food animals consume large amounts of feed and water on large tracks of land. As the growing global middle class demand for a more western style diet increases, so does the demand for grain fed meats in those cultures. Yet the planet cannot sustain such an overwhelming resource drain nor is a meat centered diet the healthiest one. Instead chefs need to shift to a more plant-based menu.
Reduce Portion Size
In the Age of the Internet and ever advancing technology the majority of Americans are not engaged in day long heavy manual labor as the nation was a century ago. Then working adults needed large food portions to sustain their strenuous daily tasks. Sadly a large majority of Americans still eat those now unnecessarily large portions and the national waistline is ever expanding. Chefs can help address this issue by serving smaller and thereby healthier portions.
Embrace Cultural Diversity
Contemporary chefs can now include a wider range of culinary traditions on their menus. Gone are the days when only a sauce-rich, meat-centered, refined white flour cuisine was considered appropriate for white tablecloth dining. Thankfully, for both enjoyment and health, chefs today can draw on a wealth of dining traditions and culinary techniques.
Adopt Whole Grain Usage
Once it was considered elite to eat white bread made from refined grains. Then only the wealthy could enjoy such a rare treat. But, once again, as the middle class grew, they too wanted the food enjoyed by kings and nobles. Soon it became the norm, the accepted daily fare. What few realized was that precious vitamins were being lost in the rush to embrace refined grains. Insightful and creative chefs now are shifting the focus to whole grain use to the delight of diners (as well as their doctors).
Make Nuts and Legumes Plate Center
Humans need protein for the body to work effectively. The plant-based protein, such as that provided by nuts and beans, can replace traditional meat based protein. Additionally these plants can replace nitrogen in the soil and do not drain the soil of resources as meat-animals do. Nuts and legumes also can produce more protein per acre than grazing animals do. All of these are reasons the modern environmentally focused chef should incorporate them into his or her menu.
Use Healthier Cooking Oils
Plant generated oils, such as canola, soy oil and olive oil, are classified as polyunsaturated “good” fats and can be used on an unlimited basis. “Bad” trans fats, made from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, however, are not healthy and should be banded by every chef from their kitchen. High-flavored fats and oils, such as butter, cream, lard and coconut oil, need to be used very sparingly and only as flavor-accents and not as a major ingredient.
Serve More Shellfish More Often
Americans need to shift away from a meat centered diet to one that includes eating shellfish at least twice a week. The health and flavor benefits are outstanding from shellfish. Shellfish can provide an excellent form of protein without destroying the environment. Oysters actually help to restore water quality as they naturally filter their watery environment and use no land-based resources to do so. Available now from coast to coast, fresh or flash-frozen, shellfish should be on every chef’s menu.
Limit Dairy Use
Traditionally milk production requires large dairy herds. Those large herds, as noted before, require large acreage and endless grass – something that will be increasingly difficult for the planet to support. Diners today should limit their consumption of dairy products to two servings per day. As a result, chefs supporting sustainability should minimize their use of butter and cheese.
Moderate the Use of Poultry and Eggs
Chicken and eggs in moderation are a good choice for serving healthier protein with a lower environmental footprint than red meat. Chefs, however, need to carefully check their order source to insure healthy production methods free from chemical additives and inhumane cage environments.
Americans love sugar way too much. Unethical food producers feed the national sweet tooth by adding sugar to everything from salad dressing to popcorn. The result of all this overconsumption is a frightening spike in Type 2 Diabetes. Chefs need to avoid processed foods containing high levels of sugar and turn instead to use of fresh, far healthier ingredients.
When fresh ingredients are replaced by heavily proceeded foods, a great deal of flavor is lost. Traditionally producers compensated for this lost by adding salt…a lot of salt. Often a single proceeded ingredient could contain twice the recommended daily intake of salt! Chefs are now turning instead to the use of spices and herbs to add flavor.
Drink Healthier Beverages
Sugary drinks from carbonated beverages to supposedly healthy sport drinks often lack any nutritional value yet they greatly add to the national obesity epidemic in America. Chefs can support a better health standard by promoting sugar-free beverages such as water, plain coffee, tea and wine.