Making Healthy Food Sexy

The chefs of our Light Up the Night event are known for moving lighter foods into the spotlight. Our senior food editor asks why. By Tim Cebula

Fresh Corn Cakes with Smoked Tomatoes

Join us! Light Up the Night, Friday, Sept. 21, 2012, New York City. One delicious dish we'll be serving: fresh corn cakes with smoked tomatoes.

Photo: Johnny Autry

For some top American chefs, cooking healthy is a mission: Brandon Sharp, of the spa-based, Michelin-starred Solbar in Calistoga, California, for example, and Jeremy Bearman of Manhattan's Rouge Tomate. The latter restaurant employs a staff nutritionist (a fact that might have kept customers away in droves a few years ago) and serves exciting food to a crowded house. Most chefs, of course, aren't so explicit about health. But I see an encouraging shift to lighter cooking springing from the current obsession with locally sourced, peak-season ingredients.

I asked the chefs who are cooking at our Light Up the Night event in New York City—for which the theme is, roughly, "make healthy food sexy"—to weigh in, beginning with Frank Stitt, of Highlands Bar and Grill in this magazine's hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. "For decades," Stitt, one of the godfathers of the new Southern cooking, says, "the trend had been all about the meat on the center of the plate. But now it seems we're at a tipping point: Vegetables, grains, and fruits are gaining their rightful share."

One leading example of vegetable-focused restaurants that are not in any way vegetarian is Dan Kluger's terrific, usually mobbed ABC Kitchen in New York, part of the Vongerichten restaurant empire. Kluger says that when you start with exquisite local produce and seafood, it doesn't take much to let it shine. "Some acidity from a squeeze of lemon or some heat from a little serrano pepper allow me to amplify flavors of these simple ingredients and keep things light and healthy."

Veggie-forward dishes demand disciplined, simple cooking, says Solbar's Sharp: "We want guests to leave feeling better than when they came in. Cooking with vegetables and healthy preparations mean they taste food how it was meant to be enjoyed, without flavor being masked by fat."

I recently ate a fantastic meal at a vegan restaurant in Philadelphia called Vedge, run by husband-and-wife team Richard Landau and Kate Jacoby. Landau agrees there is a tidal shift happening in American restaurant cooking. "We now have our celebrity chefs touting meat as boring and vegetables as the next big thing," he says. "And so it should be, when you think about the seasons, the freshness, the beauty of dining through the year with an ever-changing rainbow of produce. Vegetables are having their day."

In downtown Manhattan, Michael Anthony, of the long-feted Gramercy Tavern, stresses the importance of sourcing "thoughtfully raised ingredients." It's true that there's something of a mania among menu writers to list the provenance of every ingredient, but Anthony says this keeps good restaurants honest: "Creating a transparent connection to the people who produce our food allows us to ensure we're serving the healthiest and freshest dishes available."

Customers who've tasted beautifully raised produce demand more. "It's wonderful to see a growing concern among consumers for where their food comes from and what they're putting into their bodies," Rouge Tomate's Bearman says.

The American South is a fascinating case study in these shifting attitudes. It has a rich heritage of vegetable cookery, and chefs like Hugh Acheson of Five and Ten in Athens, Georgia, are finding the local flavor inherent in carefully grown ingredients. "Southern food in its true nature is not a heart attack on a plate: It's a celebration of place," he says.

For chefs who draw from the global pantry, healthier cooking comes naturally. "The fresh ingredients that cultures have eaten for millennia, all unprocessed foods—these are the foods I enjoy working with," says Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill in Chicago. "They're piled high in markets around the world."

Ming Tsai, of Blue Ginger in Wellesley, Massachusetts, agrees. "I don't go into the kitchen intending to cook healthy food. For me, taste is paramount. I focus on fresh ingredients and bold flavors. The proportion of vegetables, starch, and protein I use when stir-frying just happens to be good for you."

New Delhi-born chef Suvir Suran also claims healthy DNA: "My cooking is inspired by foods I ate as a child in a home where health, deliciousness, and mindful living all were integrated into daily life without faddishness."

We don't need an argument for the healthfulness of a good cocktail, but the same trends are at work here. "We follow the same principles of the farm-to-table movement present in our kitchen," says Rouge Tomate mixologist Pascaline Lepeltier. "We search for local flowers, herbs, and distilleries."

The last word goes to mixologist Jim Meehan of PDT in New York City: "Cocktails stimulate all of your senses, inspire thoughtful dialogue, and help you relax." That sounds healthy enough.

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