The Menus of Change initiative aims to do nothing less than change the way the world eats. A collaboration of the Culinary Institute of America and Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School, the program sets out broad principles and ambitious goals that require fundamental changes in foodservice, agriculture, health policy, food processing and even what happens at the family dinner table.
But the means of achieving those lofty ends are often small advances and tweaks to the collective mindset, as the CIA’s annual conference on the initiative reminded attendees this week.
Here are six indications from the event of where foodservice is headed in the quest to promote more healthful dining.
1. It’s official: Lentils are the new kale
Sorry, quinoa and chia seed lovers. The superfood of the moment, judging from the enthusiastic endorsements it drew throughout Menus of Change, has to be the humble lentil. And that’s not because a lentil growing cooperative was a sponsor. Chefs lauded the legume’s versatility and ease of replacement for everything from wheat flower and corn meal to ground beef.
One presenter noted the lentil’s potential to ease water shortages, since it yields more protein per unit of water than any other popular form; and another spoke lustfully about the flavor it can add to a flourless chocolate cake.
2. But is seaweed the next lentil?
One of the more far-afield cooking demos during Menus of Change was the walkthrough of a seaweed dish by Andrea Reusing, chef-owner of Lantern in Chapel Hill, N.C. The James Beard Award winner started off by reviewing several varieties of seaweed that she uses, stressing how the varieties vary from something with the crunch of chips, to the silkier textures beachgoers and sushi eaters might know.
Reusing noted that seaweed is arguably the most sustainable food on the planet, and shared the factoid that converting merely 1% of the seabed into agricultural production could eliminate the need for all of the land-based variety.
3. Meat is the new parsley
Again and again, speakers urged restaurateurs and foodservice directors in the audience to change the way they think about meat. Start using it as a garnish to jazz up center-of-the-plate vegetable preparations, instead of vice versa, they stressed.
Using bits of meat instead of a three- or four-ounce serving also frees up a chef to use what might otherwise be regarded as tossable scraps. Others noted that the mention of meat on the menu might be a way of convincing hardcore carnivores to try something that’s a bit more plant-centric.
Ed Brown, the well-known chef for contract feeder Restaurant Associates, says he uses thinly sliced lamb’s tongue as the garnish. Often, he noted, the tongue is thrown out.
4. Burnt is probably better
The trend of burning or scorching food to maximize the flavor was very much in evidence during the Menus of Change conference. Brown noted during a demo that he literally squeezed additional flavor out of oranges by burning them before extracting the juice.
He also recounted how New York City chef John Fraser had stumbled upon a variation of the roasted potato while experimenting with a rotisserie at his Narcissa restaurant. Finding himself with some extra beets, Fraser put them on a spit and let the machine turn, Brown recounted. Fraser returned later to find the beets burnt to a black crisp on their exterior, but still moist inside.
Now he serves the burnt beets split in half, with a dollop of caviar.
5. Pesto instead of trash
Brown shared his secret for getting a greater yield from his broccoli purchases while also diverting good stuff from the trash. Typically, the broccoli is provided as a complete head—a cap of florets nestled in large, leathery dark-green leaves. Instead of discarding the leaves, Brown minces them with pumpkin seeds and adds a little olive oil to make a pesto.
Brown notes that the prep is safe for nut-allergy sufferers, since no nuts are used, as well as for vegan diners.
Hearing Brown’s account, fellow presenter Adam Busby, general manager of the CIA’s Greystone Campus, noted that carrot tops also make a good pesto.
6. Humane animal farming delivers real food safety benefits
Several speakers noted that more humane ways of raising animals for food can yield benefits that proponents may overlook when assessing the return on the investment.
Something as simple as giving the animals more space, a fundamental demand of welfare advocates, lessens the chances of an infection spreading from one animal to the next. That, in turn, reduces the need for antibiotics, which lowers the danger of engendering a strain of pathogens that is drug-resistant.