The Bestworst Idea in the World

Why every restaurant in America should provide ballpark nutritional info


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Do you want to know the nutritional value of this delicious cornbread?

Sam Wells

I have come up with the bestworst idea in American dining. It’s a revolution, really—hated by pretty much every chef I’ve spoken to. But, really, all the best revolutions are loathed. By “came up with the idea” I mean I stole it from Obama and legions of nutritionists. It was based on this recent conversation with a local chef from a high-end restaurant in San Diego:

ME: “What’s the secret?”

CHEF: “Butter.”

ME: “Even these days? The yoga pants days?”

CHEF: “Yeah, lots of it. And cream.”

This is not a post-New Years New Me Manifesto. Pork belly will still regularly cross my threshold. I’m not going vegetarian, vegan, pescaterian or wearing an animal pelt as a loin cloth and clubbing my meal to death.     

But I’ve started to monitor what I put in my body. I refuse to call it “dieting.” Makes me sound like a fashion model who looks in the mirror and hears whale song.

For the last decade or so, I’ve mostly bought food without bad stuff (hormones, pesticides, artificial colorings, “meat extenders,” processed food chemicals, etc.). But a few months ago I started logging a majority of my meals into an app called MyFitnessPal. Takes about two minutes per dish I make at home. The app then gives me a reasonable approximation of the nutrition I’ve just consumed. It’s not a perfect science. But, y’know, ballpark. Aside from the obvious calories, it tells me about how much iron, calcium, vitamins, fat (saturated and unsaturated), sodium, etc.

Doing so, I realized my lack of afternoon energy wasn’t Lyme disease or boring people. I simply wasn’t getting enough iron. I added some iron-rich foods (molasses to steel-cut oatmeal, lentils for snacks), and I no longer narcolepped in public.   

Nutrition, or lack thereof, is a pretty hefty problem in America. According to the most recent stats from the CDC, a full 69.2% of Americans over the age of 20 are overweight (35.9% of us have reached clinical obesity). Pretty soon we won’t need to bury our dead. Just lay us on soft ground and let gravity do the work.

There are many, many reasons we’ve become gravitationally significant people. Portion sizes designed for polar bears. Processed food. The fact that Coke is delicious and HBO’s original programming is terribly enjoyable. But one big reason we’re fat is that we don’t cook much at home—and the majority of restaurant food is not shy with the butter, fat and salt. The difference between your mediocre homemade sauce and that sublime Cabernet reduction at your favorite bistro? The chef’s skill—and butter.

In 2010, the US government mandated that any restaurant chain with 20 locations or more must supply its customers with the nutritional information of every dish. We found out that The Outback's Bloomin’ Onion is basically a deep-fried suicide note. Some bigger restaurant companies have smartly skirted this issue by keeping their locations to 19 or lower, then spinning off a similar concept with a different name.

The massive Darden Restaurants (Olive Garden, Red Lobster, etc.) took a surprisingly progressive measure and launched Seasons52—a healthy concept where no dish exceeds 475 calories. Granted, calories are a shallow, base measure of nutritional content. But at least it’s a start, and Seasons52 does include full nutritional profiles.

It made me think. Why—in this day and age of websites that very quickly give a rough ballpark of nutritional data for any food or dish—wouldn’t every restaurant want to do that for their patrons?

Doing it for daily specials is not feasible. That’s just too much paperwork. But for any dish that’s on the menu for over two weeks? Doesn’t seem unreasonable to spend 5-10 minutes tabulating its nutritional charms or crimes.

Granted, not all restaurants depend on the magical fat bullet. La Costa Resort & Spa is famous for its healthy gourmet. Whisknladle’s chef Ryan Johnston is diabetic and cooks with a lighter touch. Tender Greens makes good food that’s good for you. Most respectable restaurants cook with hormone-free, quality ingredients.

Plus, do I really want to know the fat content of my restaurant meal?

I do.

I’d like to at least have the opportunity to know exactly what I’m putting in my body. Maybe I had a plate of carnitas for lunch, so I’d like to balance things out. I could always exercise my right to willful ignorance and order the poutine.

Granted, you can tell which dishes are fattening, depending on words like “cream” or “fried.” But do I know how much butter it took to finish off the demi-glace? Does something like “Bistro Shrimp Pasta” sound like it would have 2,730 calories? Not really, right? But it does—earning the Cheesecake Factory entrée the title for unhealthiest dish in America in 2012 (an award they win almost every year). Knowing the nutritional value on that one might save you six or seven days on the treadmill.

The technology and information is there to give ballpark nutritional info for standard dishes at restaurants. This, I believe, is the future of dining—not just for chains with 20-plus locations. It will be a boon to the health of Americans.   

To be clear, I’m not proposing this be a government-mandated thing. Uncle Sam is a piss poor dinner companion. I’m proposing this be a voluntary movement for the betterment of humanity and the diminishment of our midsections.

So I proposed the idea to a number of San Diego’s top chefs and restauratuers. As you’ll see below, pretty much every one of them loves the idea:

ARTURO KASSEL, CEO WHISKNLADLE HOSPITALITY

I propose every restaurant should post ballpark nutritional info. Even fancy places. What do you think?

“Could not disagree more. I happen to be in Mexico otherwise I’d track you down and [enact inappropriate violence] on you.”

 

MATT GORDON, CHEF-OWNER URBAN SOLACE

I propose every restaurant should post ballpark nutritional info. Even fancy places. What do you think?

“Paperwork nightmare. Think about a whole rib-eye. It gets cut into 12-14 steaks from end to end, and the amount of fat between one end and the other is 30-40% different. How do you possibly account for that with any accuracy?”

Yeah, but I’m only talking ballpark. The average for a ribeye, y’know. Is it going to be a full arterial closure or just a few construction cones in my vena cava?

“To accurately enter just our burger plate (fries, burger, bun, sauces etc.), we’d have to enter 57 ingredients into the magic program (there are spice blends that go into sauces and those sauces go into other sauces to make burger sauce.... yadda yadda yadda..).”

Wow. Fifty-seven ingredients in a burger wins some award somewhere. But I recently entered a 12-ingredient lunch and it took less than three minutes. And if the burger’s gonna have the same basic 49 ingredients for a year, you really only have to do it once. Right, buddy?

“Even the mustards and vinegars we buy have a few ingredients. To start labeling every dish, I’d have to enter over 200 recipes and sub-recipes just to create the damn thing. And then I’d have to update it every day because our food changes so rapidly.”

So you’re on board?

“We should focus on getting real food into people’s mouths. As a home consumer, your goal at a grocery store should to buy mostly foods that DO NOT REQUIRE A LIST OF INGREDIENTS on a label. That means veggies, fruit, meat, and natural dairy products, 100% fruit juices. I think we wouldn't need apps for that if we made a shift and restaurants like mine shopped that way.”

Final supportive thoughts for our revolution? 

“Some restaurant meals you just shouldn't see the calorie counts. It’d be insane because some things you just shouldn't know! I think rather than calorie counts, we should focus on good ingredients, not over processed and no too much of the fatty stuff. I think we have turned a corner. We were eating so much overly processed foods, but essentially have the same bodies and digestive system that man has had for a few thousand years. We are not built to take apart such complex molecules, so our bodies end up storing them and changing our metabolism. Eat whole foods, drink red wine, some meat, lots of veggies, some butter and cheese and bread that has nothing but flour, salt, yeast, water and sugar—and you won't need that damn calorie app.

Glad to hear you’re with me.

 

TREY FOSHEE, CHEF-PARTNER GEORGE’S AT THE COVE

I propose every restaurant should post ballpark nutritional info. Even fancy places. What do you think?

“I think it depends. If it's a place I eat at for lunch everyday then yes it would be helpful. If it's my anniversary, then I don't really want to know.”

 

AMANDA BAUMGARTEN, CHEF-PARTNER WAYPOINT PUBLIC

I propose every restaurant should post ballpark nutritional info. Even fancy places. What do you think?

“I think that would take all if the romance out of the dining experience. Why would you want to turn every chef-driven restaurant into a Chipotle?”

 

TRACY BORKUM, OWNER URBAN KITCHEN GROUP

I propose every restaurant should post ballpark nutritional info. Even fancy places. What do you think?

“I understand the public interest, but that's why it's important to eat at restaurants with a sustainable and organic focus. Often times these menus are changing daily due to seasonality, so from a logistical standpoint, it's not really viable to provide this information. If as a diner you're interested in this aspect, you should choose venues and chefs who have developed trusted relationships with local purveyors and farmers.”

 

DEBORAH SCOTT, CHEF-PARTNER COHN RESTAURANT GROUP

I propose every restaurant should post ballpark nutritional info. Even fancy places. What do you think?

“I think it sounds great in theory. These days the customer is savvy about what they are eating, they like to know exactly what is being put in their bodies. Which is a wonderful thing! But when you look at all the menu changes we make (sometimes daily based on seasonality), it doesn't make sense logistically. At a chain restaurant they are all doing the same menu so it works for them, but we are constantly changing and adjusting our menu. It's tougher than it sounds. Although it could be done, the accuracy would be in question and it would have to be refigured constantly.”

 

RICHARD BLAIS, CHEF-OWNER JUNIPER & IVY (opening in February)

I propose every restaurant should post ballpark nutritional info. Even fancy places. What do you think?

“I don't believe independent restaurants should have to list nutritional information. I do think a restaurant’s staff should be well-versed in communicating a dish’s preparation and/or guiding a diner to options that may fit their dietary needs. But listing—well, that makes a restaurant institutional. Order vegetables, put vegetable dishes on menus... That's enough.”

 

RYAN JOHNSTON, CHEF-PARTNER WHISKNLADLE HOSPITALITY

I propose every restaurant should post ballpark nutritional info. Even fancy places. What do you think?

“If you need to know this information from restaurants, you’re not going to the right places. If you don't trust what the restaurant is putting on your plate because it is overly processed and not made from scratch, then it’s probably not good for you. I think it’s more important to know that the food you are eating is unprocessed, natural, non-GMO, free of pesticides and antibiotics than it is to know the exact nutritional content of every dish. I am diabetic and am very conscious of what I am eating. I buy my groceries from Whole Foods and visit my farmers market weekly. I go to restaurants where I know I am eating minimally processed food. Just because you’re counting calories or watching your fat and sugar intake from a label does not make you healthy. A combination of moderate eating and exercise is key. I’m able to monitor my intake of sugar not by reading labels but by making sure I am eating nutrient dense foods from reliable and reputable sources.

What do you think? Chime in below.

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