THE MODERN MENU: HEALTH AND WELLNESS CENTRE STAGE
A Chef's Perspective
When I first started to cook professionally, over 30 years ago, healthy options on the menu were an afterthought, last in the pecking order of the food I was excited and eager about. What the customer wanted was also often secondary, I wanted to show off. It was all about my ego. Time, awareness, education and a few hard knocks have changed my perception of cooking and menus beyond recognition. Thankfully!
The convergence of health and wellness with sustainability, authenticity and mindfulness has brought remarkable changes and challenges to the restaurant industry. Once the domain of the uber-healthy and diet-specific consumer, health and wellness and all it encompasses has become mainstream. The increasing global problems of diet-related non-communicable diseases are in a juxtaposition to the increased level of knowledge in general. For an increasing amount of people, there is a correlation between their food choices and lifestyle. Veganism has seen a tremendous upsurge. Environmental concerns, of sustainability, provenance and animal welfare are cannonballing the ethos of decreased meat intake, plant-forward eating and flexitarian to name a few. To be able to compete with the retail (physical and online) and functional foods market restaurants must meet these challenges and their menus should not just mirror today’s demands but, be a leading force. Chefs need to add to their already substantial set off skills. Further education and pushing myself out of my comfort zone was and still is my way of facing the challenges and adding to my skills. This, in turn, enables me to pass on these skills to my students and clients.
There is a palpable excitement coursing through the Irish food environment at present. Leading the way are passionate food producers, offering indigenous world-class products, highly qualified and talented chefs and networks made up of likeminded individuals interested in our food environment. Restaurants and foodservice professionals are taking note and are well placed to adapt to changes and challenges. Mindful of a responsibility to back health policies, satisfy customer demands and understand contemporary lifestyles and new ways of dining, the fundamentals of menu development are changing.
Health and wellness menus:
Menus designed with health and wellness at their core can be disputative. The noisy sector that is nutrition is multifaceted with strong opinions from all sides. To endeavour to be all things to all people will result in confusion, loss of identity and a muddied concept. A restaurants concept should be clearly defined and a continuum throughout the dining experience. Finding a balance between consumer expectations, financial viability, staff skills, flavour and health orientated menus is challenging. Strategic planning and focused conceptualisation is the starting point. Ask yourself these questions and move forward from there: What is your concept? What are your strengths? Who are your people? Who will you engage and collaborate with? How will you evaluate the healthfulness of the menu?
Stepping outside my comfort zone has enabled me to open my mind to new ways to develop and teach menu planning. Many of today’s menus speak of place and ethos and incorporate many disciplines. Culinary arts, Gastrophysics, neurogastronomy, flavour science, marketing, sensory analysis, graphic design and business, to name but a few. Today’s chefs and restauranteurs wear many hats.
This notwithstanding designing menus have fundamental principles. They must be flavour lead, bound by quality and embrace (but not slavishly) trends. Championing and showcasing local ingredients may appear to be a current trend however, I would argue that it was always so. Thankfully it is now receiving increased interest. Trends do not mean foregoing tradition and heritage. Nostalgia is a concept currently enjoying its time in the limelight. Remembered food experiences adopted to reflect the current environment of health wellness and all it encompasses. Nostalgia is a great place to start. It, of course, can be personal and can often be viewed through rose-tinted glasses, but it also represents global differentiation better than most other concepts. It can offer comfort, customer recognition and creative opportunity for chefs.
Using the framework of health and wellness enables one to delve into the techniques and flavour combinations associated with global cuisines. Particularly cuisines noted for their healthy eating lifestyles. The yin and yang of Asian cuisine, Nordic influences of pickling and the heartier earthy flavours of the Mediterranean. All based on minimalism, allowing the ingredients to take centre stage. Healthy eating per se is not about elimination, but more a conscious effort to minimise known unhealthy factors.
I would love to know how you develop your menus and your thoughts on new ways forward to developing healthful, innovative options.
Theresa is a native of Co. Wexford. She is a professional chef, culinary skills tutor and food safety professional.
Theresa is currently employed as an assistant coordinator on the Culinary Entrepreneurship Programme in Marine House, through KWETB.
Theresa recently completed the MSc Applied Culinary Nutrition Programme at TUD Tallaght Campus. Passionate about food and the global food environment.
Theresa is currently engaged in delivering a range of workshops, cookery demonstrations and food talks, this plays well to her passion for life-long learning and empowerment through learned skills. She also loves wine!