Sunday, January 21, 2007


January 21

You might remember Adam Sherrett, the Shecky's nightlife editor, from my last blog entry.
Well I ran into him the following night, too. That was the last night I was in New York before coming to Napa Valley for the Worlds of Healthy Flavors conference at the CIA.
In my kind, gentle world, the CIA stands for The Culinary Institute of America (and the NRA is the National Restaurant Association). The CIA has two campuses, one in the Hudson Valley, and one here. Worlds of Healthy Flavors is an extension of its Worlds of Flavors franchise, which is why it's not a very good name (how can you say that a flavor is or isn't healthy?).
The conference is an attempt to instruct the foodservice world about how to make its food better for customers, and to do it in a way that will induce customers to eat it.
You see, it is a well-established fact that most restaurant-goers will shy away from anything that's supposed to be good for them. Really. I'm not being flip. As much as Americans say in surveys that they would like to eat more healthfully, put a little heart-healthy symbol next to a menu item, or suggest in the wording of the item that it might be good for you, and the sales actually will drop, almost invariably.
So The CIA has started to use the term "stealth health." Through stealth health, you just make the food better for people without telling them. So you might switch from a white bun to a whole-wheat bun, but instead of marketing it as a whole-wheat bun, you call it a honey-ale whole-wheat bun (assuming you have flavored it with honey and ale, of course).
But why bring in "worlds" when it comes to stealth health? Because anything that's good for you on a menu has to go toe-to-toe with the burger and fries that invariably also are going to be on the menu. It has to be more appealing than that familiar burger. Are you going to do that with a boneless skinless chicken breast and cottage cheese? Of course not.
Ah, but what about a spicy Thai salad, or a vibrant ceviche? What about starting with something, anything, that doesn't have the stigma in mainstream Americans' eyes of being good for you?
A bunch of chefs came to talk about the food from countries in which they were expert. Nancy Harmon Jenkins came to talk about southern Italy. Diane Kochilas flew in to talk about the food of Greece. Suvir Saran was there to extol the glory of the Indian Subcontinent. Mai Pham spoke about Vietnamese and Thai food, and Rick Bayless spoke and did a demonstration and spoke again about Mexican food.
They all talked, in one way or another, about how the produce in those regions was adored by the people and eaten in great quantities and with great joy.
But what, you ask, does that have to do with your last night in New York and running into Adam Sherrett?
Adam and I both were at the opening of Nurse Bettie, a new Bettie-Page-themed bar on the Lower East Side. It was hot and steamy inside, almost to the point of torture. That was perhaps appropriate for a bar named for a pin-up girl who often posed as a dominatrix, but I would have turned around and left had I not run into a couple of people I liked and decided, on Adam's recommendation, to try the signature cocktail made with gin and pomegranate juice.
The bartenders were a little overwhelmed and I was not inclined to work too hard to get their attention, but I was aided by two women camped at the bar. One was an Australian who worked for her country's labor unions or some such thing, and the other, the Australian's husband's cousin, was a writer, mostly about fashion.
The writer wrangled a drink from the bartenders while I quizzed the Australian about her impression of the United States.
She observed, as I often do, that our produce isn't very good.
I agreed and explained that for decades we bred produce to ship well rather than to taste good and that, despite the best efforts of a growing number of small niche farmers, our fruits and vegetables continued, for the most part, to look pretty and taste like nothing.
We agreed that this was unfortunate.
That conversation was fresh in my mind when I heard Rick Bayless talk about the produce of Mexico and how we should emulate the dishes made from them.
Well, sure we should, except we don't have their produce.
I groused quietly about this for most of the conference, which happened to be a very good conference with lots of interesting science about trans-fats and carbohydrates (including a defense, or at least non-vilification, of high-fructose corn syrup) and other nutritional things, interspersed with cool cooking demonstrations and tastings.
Most of the foodservice chefs attending were from schools -- colleges where the students actually are in to eating more healthfully, and elementary schools where the food can be more easily foisted on the kids (although it's far, far more complex than that).
There were some notable exceptions, such as chefs from Red Lobster and Denny's and Au Bon Pain, and the biggest exception of all, Dan Coudreaut from McDonald's.
Dan's an extremely nice guy, but he nonetheless was not forthcoming when I quizzed him about McDonald's next produce offering. Darn it!
The conference ended yesterday, and today it was followed by another one-day program about produce. I was delighted by our last discussion of the day, which was a panel of foodservice operators talking about their experiences in selling more produce-oriented food. I was delighted because a minor rebellion occurred during the question-and-answer period. The chefs said using more produce would be great, if only it tasted like something, if it weren't picked so early that it would never ripen, if their staff had the training to handle what ripe produce they did get, and so on and so on.
The produce at the conference itself was terrific, of course, but we are in Napa Valley, at the CIA.

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