Change: It's not all on chefs' plates
June 12th, 2013
05:00 PM ET
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Editor's Note: Greg Drescher is the Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at The Culinary Institute of America. Drescher is also an inductee of the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America. He is a speaker at the Menus of Change summit in Cambridge, Massachusetts, from June 10-12. The conference is hosted by The Culinary Institute of America and the Harvard School of Public Health's Department of Nutrition.

If there’s one group of people who are best positioned to reshape America’s appetites, it’s chefs.

At The Culinary Institute of America, we educate the next generation of the nation’s culinary leaders about the techniques of their craft and the principles of flavor.

Increasingly though, our students must understand that, to be successful, they must also think about the health and wellness of their patrons - and that buzzword sustainability.

The food industry is changing across many dimensions, and chefs and culinary professionals must keep pace.

greg drescher

Consider these statistics from our annual report: In 1980, only 15% of a family’s food budget went to food from outside the home. Restaurants were primarily for special occasions, and restaurant industry sales were just below $120 billion.

Today, 47% of American food dollars are being spent on restaurants and other foodservice operations; the industry’s sales have soared to $660 billion.

With obesity, diabetes and other chronic diseases still gripping the national spotlight, consumers are seeking healthier, “everyday” cooking, not just special-occasion indulgence when they're eating out.

Diners are more concerned than ever about where their food comes from and how it is produced. They want to know: Is my food safe? Does it represent my values and ethics? Do my menu choices contribute to a greener world? What kind of food do I want to feed my children?

In order to build demand for healthier and more sustainable food choices, chefs must be educators, advocates and guides through the complexities of our food system. They must be informed about key issues so they, in turn, can inform and guide customers on what to buy and eat.

Of course, there are pitfalls along the road to change. Customers often don’t follow through with what they say they want with respect to “better-for-you" foods. Many chefs have found that it's better to market flavor than healthy or sustainable attributes.

Big, bright flavors from the Mediterranean to Southeast Asia to Latin America have much to offer hungry Americans who don’t want to trade taste for health or sustainability. These are foods and cooking traditions that often tip a menu balance more towards healthier, plant-based foods and away from meat.

As we become a nation of more adventurous eaters, chefs have a unique opportunity to leverage our new, collective culinary wanderlust on behalf of public health so that no one gets up from the table unsatisfied.

In the past, it was independent restaurants that pioneered a greater emphasis on fresh ingredients, seasonality and sustainability. Now multi-unit operators are joining this wave of change.

From Chipotle’s focus on ethically raised pork to the produce-centric menus of the Seasons 52 chain, these volume operators are changing the art of the “possible.” Even legacy brands like McDonald’s, Subway, Dunkin’ Donuts and Au Bon Pain are upping their game and plotting fresh, new menu directions.

Consumers also need to play a larger role in creating a next-generation restaurant industry. Eighty-four percent of Americans believe that it is increasingly important for chain restaurants to offer menu items that are fresh, local, organic and natural, yet only 20% consider nutrition when ordering a restaurant meal.

We are at a turning point in our culinary history - let's turn together.

In 2050, when the world’s population is expected to swell to 9 billion, this year’s bright, young culinary graduates will be firmly established in leadership positions in our industry.  Between now and then, these chefs will be working and building their careers against a backdrop of seismic changes: declining global resources, rising commodity prices and supply chain disruption due to climate change, among others.

By pairing the passion, creativity and entrepreneurial spirit of young, aspiring chefs with the increasingly informed customers, we have the opportunity to stride toward a brighter, more appetizing horizon for everyone at the table.

soundoff (33 Responses)
  1. Private personal training

    It's about time chefs realize they must also think about the health and wellness of their patrons. Stop feed such garbage to us!

    January 28, 2014 at 12:12 pm |
  2. Chara

    It�s nearly impossible to find knowledgeable people in this particular subject, but you sound like you know what you�re talking about! Thanks

    November 25, 2013 at 2:40 pm |
  3. SunnyD

    I agree that passion, creativity and entrepreneurial spirit of young, aspiring chefs with the increasingly informed customers, will result in a brighter, more appetizing future. My only fear is that this creativity may lead to soylent green.

    June 16, 2013 at 11:49 am |
  4. VietnamVet

    Stick to cooking. You can use the climate change BS to fertilize your vegies.

    June 15, 2013 at 5:12 pm |
  5. us_1776

    More Slabs of Animal for the Barbie.


    June 14, 2013 at 4:18 pm |
  6. Pat

    there's no such thing as ethically raised pork (and they are pigs not pork). Want to be healthy? Eat lower on the food chain. As a physician, I can tell you that I never see vegans with strokes or heart disease. Better for you, better for animals.

    June 14, 2013 at 10:43 am |
    • Betty

      Thank you.

      June 14, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
    • Jan

      Whether you consider butchering animals for our nutrition and gustatory pleasure to be unethical or not, the way those animals are RAISED can indeed be ethical or not. While my risk for stroke & heart disease is very low & probably related at least in part to the fact I eat very little animal-based food, I've developed symptoms that are probably from vitamin B12 deficiency, which you seldom see in folks who consume more animal products. Our species evolved eating and thriving on a wide variety of foods, both plant & animal based, in a wide variety of proportions of one to the other.

      June 14, 2013 at 5:03 pm |
    • LouMiller

      Sorry, but our physiology suggests we are omnivores, and our digestive system cannot process many plants. Grass is an example. Grass is our most abundant plant, but humans cannot derive any nutrition from it. Instead we cultivate cows, which have the multi-chambered stomach able to store and ferment the grass and turn it into meat. Then we can eat that meat and be fed. If you want to use the "back to nature" argument; Animals eat animals; why can't we?

      June 14, 2013 at 7:58 pm |
    • Dr. Who?

      Vegans as a whole prefer homeopathic remedies to a doctors visit. After all, they make a point of avoiding quacks.

      November 25, 2013 at 3:58 pm |
  7. loolololololololol

    you really think america is going to change how they eat? srsly? they blew up when you tried to take away their diabetes, heart disease, obesity causing soft drinks... good luck getting them to eat their vegetables.

    June 13, 2013 at 6:33 pm |
    • If a person laughs alone, is he making a noise?

      Why not?
      The US as a nation is eating much differently than we did even 20 years ago.
      50 years ago people weren't eating @ Mc'Ds and other fast food places. Fruits and vegetables were truly seasonal. And avocados, Kiwi fruit and other were strange and foriegn – how do you eat that? The consumption of sugar per capita was easily 1/10th of what it is today. And who in the US was eating tacos or sushi? Ethnic food back in that day was either Italian – pasta & pizza, or exotic Chinese. Dinner for 2 comes w/ egg roll.
      Also in the day, Hot spicey chilis and peppers – you gotta be crazy: Just put half of that seasoning pack in the chili, ma and add more beans.

      November 25, 2013 at 4:10 pm |
  8. Nophah Kingweigh

    Word salad. No substance, just a bunch of fluffy lettuce without any dressing.

    June 13, 2013 at 5:59 pm |
    • If a person laughs alone, is he making a noise?

      Mushroom comment. Nothing but hot air.

      November 25, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
  9. Yeves

    The last time I tried to place change on a chefs plate, he got really angry and threw it back at me. Ingrate.

    June 13, 2013 at 3:09 pm |
  10. Food Diva

    What we ideally need to do is take a more active approach in knowing where our food comes from and who has a hand in it, and making choices that start a shift. I recommend you google Monsanto and have a thorough read. The company behind Agent Orange oversees a large portion of our food supply and the measures/legislature in place to keep us and our food safe (FDA, EPA, USDA, etc.). We also need to shift our mindset about food. "Made fresh" or "from scratch" doesn't need to mean "will take forever to make", and is well worth any effort. We can be more in control about where our fresh fruit and vegetables come from (farmer's market, organic markets, etc.), and, if you really want to know where it came from and how it was treated, grow your own. Even if you don't have your own space, google "yard share" or "urban gardens", and you'll find people with space who would love to let you grow stuff. Finally, I challenge you to cut meat and corn syrup/high fructose corn syrup out of your diet for 2-4 weeks and see how you feel. We send a message with our food choices and it lets cooks and restaurants know that this is what we want: less processed food with added chemicals and more fresh, sustainable, streamlined choices.

    June 13, 2013 at 3:06 pm |
    • Walken1

      I think you have some valid points, but I disagree with your comment about removing meat from your diet. "Meat" comes in a variety of forms – beef, chicken, pork, turkey, etc. A fair assessment might be to say that Americans eat meats with higher fat content (e.g., beef) more often than they should. But unless you're trying to push a philosophy of vegetarianism or veganism, then one can create a balanced diet of meat, fish and vegetables that reduces one's fat/cholesterol intake. That would help address the issue of obesity and diabetes, not elimination of meat.

      June 13, 2013 at 10:09 pm |
      • GardenJeon

        Its not just the food it self. its also how it is produced. Meat with all the hormones and antibiotics in it cant be good for you? Then all the veggies that come from South America where they have not controls about what is sprayed on it can be just as bad for you!

        June 14, 2013 at 8:25 am |
  11. JT

    I still don't see why fast food restaurants can't carry sides like green beens or carrots. A bannan costs under .25 and yet I've never seen one as a side at a fastfood place. It's not exactly super healthy – 100+ calories and pretty much a desssert, but they could make a killing selling them. It's the same way with apples (which last longer on the shelf), which I'm starting to see used more as ingredients and offered as a side.

    June 13, 2013 at 12:51 pm |
    • EaglesQuestions

      "High-cal" does not necessarily mean "not healthy," so long as those aren't EMPTY calories (it should give you some good nutrients for all those cals).
      100 calories is considered relatively low. A meal should be, ideally, around 500-700 cals, (depending on your requirements) and a banana fits rather nicely next to 220 cals worth of lean protein (about one piece of chicken), and you've still got room for one more side and a drink.

      June 13, 2013 at 1:07 pm |
    • mike

      They carry what the market demands at a price point that is profitable. If they can't sell greens as a side at a consumer-attractive price while still paying for all the necessary logistics and turning a profit, they won't. Pretty simple. Potatoes are cheaper than, say, spinach, both in terms of cost-of-product and in terms of ease of transport and longevity.

      June 13, 2013 at 3:00 pm |
    • Crystal

      People do not go to fast food restaurants to eat veggies. People should eat fast food less. The fast food companies shouldn't have to change their offerings because people cannot take responsibility of their own bodies.

      June 14, 2013 at 10:49 pm |
    • Nannalow

      My kids LOVE apples. But can't stand the pre-packages apples that fast food restaurants supply – they coat them with something to keep them from turning brown and the kids can't stand it. Since they get lots of fruit/veggies at home, I just let them have the fries. But – they would eat the apples if they tasted better.

      June 17, 2013 at 6:19 pm |
  12. blerg

    Earth will run out of fresh water before it runs out of oil. Why? To water all the corn, wheat, soybeans and livestock that are used in a variety of foods, but many of the foods are things high in fat, cholesterol, sugar and carbohydrates while providing little or no nutritional value. Cheap burgers and fried chicken, soda, ice cream, chips, candy, etc. And of course overindulgence of those foods leads to problems like obesity, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and other health problems. Ironically, the government HEAVILY subsidizes corn, soybeans and wheat (therefore indirectly subsidizing companies like Hormel, Tyson, Pepsi, Coca Cola, McDonalds and hundreds of others) while providing little subsidies for grass fed livestock and more nutritional foods. Why is this you may ask? MONEY MONEY MONEY MONEY MONEY. The food and ag corporations are obscenely rich, so they use a little bit of that money to pay for campaigns of politicians who will continue to subsidize the costs of their operations. And then the feds mandate individual health insurance. LOL!!!!!!! Even if the sheeple wake up one day, they will be too fat to do anything about it.

    June 13, 2013 at 12:34 pm |
    • EaglesQuestions

      Water is a renewable resource.
      Unless it all escapes into space, there's nothing we can do to make it completely run out.

      June 13, 2013 at 12:51 pm |
      • SixDegrees

        Well, we can pollute it.

        June 13, 2013 at 3:42 pm |
        • EaglesQuestions

          True, but we also purify it pretty easily; we'll never run out that way, as blerg ranted.

          It's kind of like... if you've been really lazy with the grocery shopping, and suddenly realize there's nothing but stale tortillas and moldy cheese left in the fridge; you'll finally suck it up and go shopping.

          If we ever get to the point where we can't sustain ourselves on the little bit of clean water we have left, desperation will break the lazy spell, we'll get off our duffs, and (at the very least) we'll set up a few more purifying plants. (Any private home can rig up a little stove-top water distiller. It's actually kind of cool.)

          June 14, 2013 at 12:34 pm |
      • blerg

        We are using water from the aquifers at an unsustainable rate. One day they will stop filling up and the ground will turn to sand and dust.

        June 14, 2013 at 3:39 pm |
        • EaglesQuestions

          Even if it did (it won't),
          what law says we can only get it from the ground?

          June 14, 2013 at 5:13 pm |
        • blerg

          clearly we don't just get water from the ground, but we are using up aquifer water at an unsustainable rate. Companies like Nestle and Coca Cola even move into towns, suck up all the ground water for bottled water and other beverages, and then pack up and leave.

          June 15, 2013 at 10:46 am |
        • blub

          Intel in Albuquerque, NM uses over a million gallons of water a day to make processors. All this water is coming from the aquifer. Intel also has to dilute its waste water with fresh in order to meet the federal guidelines for maximum permissible heavy metals and carcinogens than can be dumped into streams and rivers.

          There is so much estrogen in NY city's water from birth control pills that some men are growing breasts. This also probably why metrosexuals are concentrated there as well. Oooouh, where did you get your man purse?

          November 25, 2013 at 4:20 pm |
    • Joe Mama

      Are we supposed to come away from that post with some specific action items in mind? Or do you just have a daily quota to hit with your keyboard?

      June 13, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
      • blerg

        well you could start voting for people who don't cater to corporate ag, but that would mean voting in third parties. are you up to the challenge?

        June 14, 2013 at 3:37 pm |
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