Eat Right Now
Local restaurateurs take note of Americans' growing interest in healthy eating.
Thursday, May 1, 2003
Photo by Randy Tunnell: Open Wide, Dear: Marie Perucca-Ramirez feeds a forkful to husband Julio.
When it comes to the way we eat, we, my fellow Americans, are a dichotomous breed. The same population that supports the manufacture of enough Krispy Kreme doughnuts every week to glaze a trail all the way from the Monterey Maritime Museum to the Empire State Building, nevertheless spends some $30 billion a year on diets and weight loss products.
Consider also that in 1999, for the first time in history, the US median age hit 45. So, while there''s no clear evidence that bacon double cheeseburgers are destined to become the leg-warmer of drive-thru quiz-ine, it''s gonna take KC and the rest of the Sunshine Band a lot longer to shake that puppy off their collective booty.
Statistics tell us that on any given day, one-quarter of all American adults will eat at a restaurant. Generation X or Y diners are inclined to make their eating choices based on peer or fashion influences (like Speed-O''s and low-rise jeans) or, conversely, eating like they''re pretty sure they''re going to live forever. It''s somewhere around the big 4-0h-mygod that consideration of the old ticker starts to creep in, and we make our eating choices less on the basis of vanity and more with an eye to longevity.
Why then, delving further into the mass masticating psyche, do food-service industry analysts swear up and down that smacking a "healthy" label on a menu item is a sure guarantee of slow, or even no sales? Wouldn''t this point to a discrepancy, or perhaps a mild cultural psychosis?
I decided to ask some local long-time observers of these fickle-if-not-fatuous attitudes of the dining public: To what extent do health-conscious folks running around with the discretionary, dining-dedicated dollars drive the menu selections in our restaurants?
At first I was surprised at some of the answers I got. Tony Tollner, a county kingpin of California cuisine, heads up Downtown Dining, one of the most successful restaurant groups around, with Rio Grill, Tarpy''s and Montrio.
"So, you must have noticed your clientele making more health-conscious choices, right?" I ask him. "Steaks still sell like crazy," Tollner responds. "So it really all depends on how you define ''healthy''. To some people, calves'' liver is healthy, and we have that on one of our menus, too. For somebody else, it''s going to be a vegetarian item, like Rio''s black bean and brown rice veggie burger. Either way you spell it, the liver is going to be sauteed just right, with crisp bacon, and not buried in some gloppy cream sauce. And the veggie burger is homemade and doesn''t taste like the cardboard box the frozen ones come in. The demand is still there for rich, heart-stopping dishes. But, what everyone on both sides of the fence is really looking for is flavor."
Bingo! After all, it wasn''t that long ago that "health food" more often than not referred to esoteric and medicinally flavored fringe fare. The concept of healthy eating conjured up visions of chomping on rabbit food. Now, with growing interest in food and a pantry-full of ethnic influences, the phrase "eating well" is poised to take on new meaning.
From a cook''s standpoint there will always be a place in the kitchen for butter and cream. But the abundant influences of other cooking techniques like dry rubs, oak wood smoke and aromatic marinades that maximize flavor just fine on their own or with little added fat is gaining a foothold. It''s all about offering what Tollner calls "clean foods"--fresh, good-quality meat, fish and produce.
Happily, "fresh" increasingly means "local." For Montrio''s executive chef Tony Baker, that means stepping out the restaurant''s front door every Tuesday to see what just-picked organic offerings local growers are selling up and down Alvarado Street at the farmer''s market. It also means paying attention to what is seasonally and sustainably available in the way of local seafood. (For a current list of environmentally preferable seafood choices, visit www.mbayaq.org/cr/seafoodwatch.asp.)
Fresh meat also can mean local. Todd Fisher, chef/owner of Hullaballoo in Salinas, predicts a healthy and getting-healthier future for the burger. "Ours are a half-pound, and a lot leaner than dry burgers but without the high percentage of fat that it used to take to get a juicy burger," he explains. "And we''re finding a good following for leaner, more strongly flavored grass-fed PL Bar beef, out of Gonzales. People definitely still want red meat--customers have even made the suggestion of putting a special Atkins diet selection on our menu--but they''re starting to consider alternatives like ostrich, which we occasionally feature as a special."
Local restaurants try to honor their customer''s special dietary requests. "Because we have a lot of customers following the Weight Watchers plan, I totaled the number of ''points'' in our portion sizes so that they could use it in maintaining their diet," says Marie Perucca-Ramirez, who with husband Julio Ramirez owns the Fishwife restaurants in Seaside and Pacific Grove, as well as Monterey and Seaside''s Turtle Bay. Weight Watchers'' headquarters then called her to say the restaurant wasn''t licensed to do this, so Marie came up with a different idea to help her customers without violating trademark law. "Instead of adding up the points, we made it so our ''Waist-Watchers'' guests could calculate their ''score'' and still stick to their diets," she says.
When the Ramirezes opened their first Turtle Bay taqueria in Seaside, they were able to capitalize on the kind of seafood and salad fame that made both Fishwifes successful, this time by borrowing micro-cuisine influences from Yucateca and Oaxaca that indulge in tantalizing seasoning and spice combinations. Achiote paste becomes a piquant rub that lends color and tastiness to grilled tilapia. Cilantro does a little tango in the cole slaw. There''s wild rice that adds protein to the rice accompaniment and the black beans have just a splash of un-hydrogenated vegetable oil.
"By studying these micro-cuisines we learned a lot about using different combinations of flavor and textures and relying less on fat and sugar," says Marie. She became so engrossed in the study of South American cuisine that The Turtle Bay Cookbook resulted, along with the opening of a second taqueria in Monterey followed by a loyal local contingent of vegans who appreciate that Turtle Bay uses only vegetable stocks and oils.
While there is no doubting that we are an all-over-the-map, wanna-have-it-all diverse dining public, it is clear that these are chefs and restaurateurs rising to meet that challenge, and perhaps in the process, helping to make us smarter. A recent survey by Oldways Preservation Trust, a food issues think-tank in Boston, found that almost 64 percent of respondents believe that Americans will make the shift out of the yoke of obesity toward healthier eating by learning to make better choices. Happily, we have plenty of those choices here.