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Reshape restaurant eating habits and customers will come

Chef Jeremy Bearman of New York’s Rouge Tomate fares well with a healthy menu.

CHARLIE MAHONEY FOR THE GLOBE

Chef Jeremy Bearman of New York’s Rouge Tomate fares well with a healthy menu.

CAMBRIDGE — Rouge Tomate, a New York Michelin-starred restaurant, was part of the zeitgeist around healthy and sustainable food when it opened a food cart two years ago. Located on Fifth Avenue near the Central Park Zoo, its business boomed over a menu of $6-to-$8 burgers: beef, bison, chicken and mushrooms, each infused with spices. Its success is more than the sum of the philosophy to use healthy ingredients and local foods, and reduce the carbon footprint. The cart took off because the key ingredient in this food is flavor. Social media is agog at how good the burgers taste.

At a Menus of Change conference in Cambridge last week, a discussion of Rouge Tomate’s food cart seemed to epitomize what the future might hold. MOC released its first annual report, which argues that the food industry needs to reshape eating habits for the well-being of consumers and the planet. MOC says the report, with the group’s guidelines, are a GPS model for the future of food. The conference of 300 industry leaders, chefs, and restaurateurs was sponsored by the Culinary Institute of America and the Department of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health.

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“Many companies consider health, environmental issues, and business success separately,” says Arlin Wasserman, chair of the MOC’s Sustainable Business Leadership Council and founder of Changing Tastes, a food business consultancy. He argues, “the most meaningful innovation takes place when all three are considered as a whole.”

“This report is practical for everyone besides the 40-seat restaurant near a farmers’ market,” adds Greg Drescher, a vice president of the CIA. He says the report’s 24 principles provide healthy, sustainable advice in the face of single-issue food fads such as carbs, calorie counting, or low-fat. “It’s wrong to say that low-fat is the solution to everything. Look at salad dressing: low in fat but high in sugar.”

The report and three-day conference in The Charles Hotel noted how informed some consumers have become about food, but it did not address welfare concerns around food laborers or the increasing socioeconomic gap among consumers. MOC argues that leaders in the $660 billion food industry can influence consumers by offering healthy and sustainable products. “The consumer is assuming you’re making the right choice,” Wasserman tells the gathering. “People would rather we make complex choices than do it themselves.” That does not mean, however, putting little hearts next to menu items to denote healthfulness. Says Tim Ryan, the CIA’s president: “When we put heart symbols or calories on the menu, that has been more of a turnoff than turn-on for people.”

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Speakers also noted these statistics: By 2030, demand for water will outstrip supply by 40 percent; almost 30 percent of all Americans are overweight, with men and women now equally at risk; 60 percent of every dollar spent on food is on restaurant meals or pre-prepared items; and Americans now eat an average of 1.5 servings of meat per day, down from 2 servings in 1980.

Some news in the industry offers a sense of optimism: Since 2009, there has been an 80 percent reduction in trans fat intake; vegetarianism has influenced increasing numbers of consumers who now consider themselves “flextarian,” and the Meatless Monday movement is gaining traction; and customers are willing to pay more for healthy restaurant food.

While the MOC report encourages more vegetable and grain consumption, it does not call for meatless diets. Indeed, many speakers argue for designing menus around produce and vegetables but that include meat. Otherwise, says one speaker, “If you tell a customer the meat comes with produce, they want to see an 8-ounce piece.” Another suggestion, which some Boston restaurants seem to employ, is to reduce hamburger patties from
8 ounces to 6.

Rouge Tomate chef Jeremy Bearman and nutritionist Kristy Lambrou demonstrated these tenets with a Moroccan chicken burger mixed with harissa, panko crumbs, milk, and more than half a dozen spices. Cushioned with the patty on a whole-wheat bun were Greek yogurt flavored with mint, sauteed peppers and onions, and arugula and tomato.

“The consumer is changing dramatically,” says James White, CEO of Jamba Juice, and demanding to know where food comes from and how it’s prepared. The company has more than 800 outlets around the world.

For Maria Feicht, chief brand officer of Au Bon Pain, chefs play a critical role in educating customers. “Trends change. The consistent piece in this journey is flavor. If we can help them understand health we can also play up taste. That’s a win-win.”

Peggy Hernandez can be reached at mphernan1@gmail.com.
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