Chef Secrets: Balancing Flavor and Nutrition
Focusing on flavor is one of the best health strategies in the kitchen. One of the things we teach our students is that food is really all about flavor, and if you sacrifice flavor just to make something healthy, no one is going to want to eat it. We also emphasize that you need to find ways to make nutrient-dense foods taste good.
When you understand the concept of nutrient density—that some foods have a lot of nutrition per 100 calories (broccoli comes to mind) while others, like a pat of butter, have a lot of calories and not much nutrition—then you start to develop critical thinking skills that empower chefs to create quality food, and in doing so, provide healthier menu options.
As we have conversations about nutrient density and healthy menus, we’re also hoping to change the way people think about food and the misperception that healthy means less flavorful. That doesn’t have to be the case.
For instance, the public tends to demonize certain ingredients, such as fats and carbohydrates. Fats are actually not evil, but some are absolutely healthier than others. So I tell chefs if they use fat, find a way to leverage the flavor the fat brings to the dish.
There’s a fun story I like to share. We hosted a chef from Greece here on campus, and when we asked him about the number of vegetable dishes that Greeks have in their repertoire, he said, “We are poor people and we eat what we can afford, so we eat a lot of vegetables.”
I also mentioned it was surprising to learn that Greeks consume about 52 times more olive oil than we do in the U.S., and his response was: “How do you think we choke down so many vegetables?”
That’s a good example of leveraging flavorful fat to make wholesome food tasty, and that’s the kind of thinking we want to promote—but I also have some strongly held beliefs that contradict conventional wisdom, like with the push to reduce sodium. Many people suggest taking salt out of a dish and replacing it with herbs and spices. My experience has taught me that if you want to bump up flavor in a dish, it demands more salt—because salt goes hand-in-hand with the intensity of flavor. So just taking salt out seems to me a little misguided. Perhaps the more effective strategy for reducing sodium is to reduce portion size.
In fact, I believe we’re at the cusp of a revolution in the industry. It used to be, when you went out to eat in a restaurant, value was all about a huge portion size. Today, the value proposition looks quite different—we are more concerned with food quality than portion size.
Of course, defining food quality can be confusing in itself. There are many aspects—how your food was grown, where it comes from, how it was handled—and there’s much discussion about whether ingredients are better when they are local, organic, seasonal, etc. We tell students that if they have to choose, quality and seasonal trumps local, because fresh produce has more value than processed produce.
As for the nutritional value, some studies say frozen items are almost as good as fresh, but the question for chefs is whether we can mask the fact that the ingredient was previously frozen—and that’s a big concern for me.
Similarly, canning and preserving are becoming more popular, but even if you can the food yourself it loses some nutritional value. The more processed the food is, the more nutrition you lose from it, so I advise chefs not to be lulled into the world of convenience foods. Our challenge as chefs is to become better cooks, use better ingredients, and cook with more sensitivity and awareness.