Posts Tagged ‘food’

Five Hours at the Natural Products Expo East

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009

I figured on an hour. Easy in, easy out. Little did I imagine that I would jet into the Natural Products Expo East in Boston and stumble out five hours later with three shopping bags (yes, re-useable and heavily logo-ed) brimming with business cards, brochures, and mini samples of everything from silver ionizing healing cream and nasal cavity washers, to gluten-free pizza and rare tea blends. Plus, an added bonus during my workday hours: much useful and highly personal advice on how to protect myself with probiotics, perform a toxic cleanse, and use crystals to change my aura. It’s the Fancy Food Show for the New Age set. And it is a hoot. Hundreds of booths, wafting aromas of lavender and ozone, many peopled by people who resemble the guys who testify after encounter with UFO’s, but a lot of savvy, suited-up marketing people offering studies and statistics, and spiral bound presentations with their competitive advantage. I know that big companies like Pepsi, Kraft, and Coca-Cola now own many of the leading natural products. It’s just surprising to see what their entrance into the formerly-Mom& Pop, crunchy-granola world of natural products has meant to the explosion of the industry. And I don’t think it is bad at all.

Being a food writer with a gluten allergy, my personal quest was to see what new, potentially edible, gluten-free products were coming to the market. I imagined a teeny corner of a not-so-major expo where I might find one or two crackers and cookie mixes good enough to serve my civilian guests. I was astounded by the sheer depth of the offerings––not just for gluten-free folks, but aisles of products that were cross referenced and segmented for every known food sensitivity—no eggs, booth 1178. No dairy, take a left to booth 1276. Tree nuts and peanuts? The whole aisle over there. The niche is huge and by the number and the sophistication of many of the vendors, I suspect quite profitable. Yes, as someone with an allergy I will happily pay more for a product whose claims I trust. Every product label carried an organic logo, called attention to its ingredients locus of origin, and is readable without a magnifying glass.

Many of the people staffing the booths come with a story attached. For me, a veteran story-sharer, cruising the entire trade show was like eavesdropping on the true confessions of people with food issues. A mother whose two sons were diagnosed with a peanut allergy. A woman diagnosed with celiac in her mid-forties and longing for a cracker she could bring to a cocktail party. A man who suspected he had allergic reactions but couldn’t find a diagnosis. A younger man whose own diet concerns led him to develop a wheat-free granola with “live” grains that helped him lose thirty pounds, and clear up his skin! Food as medicine, developed by consumers and food professionals with a problem to solve.

I bounded from table to table, bonding with the proprietors as I tasted gluten-free mini-pizzas, gluten-free power bars, gluten-free sourdough bread, probiotic lime and green tea swirled frozen yogurt popsicles, marched myself down the aisle for gluten-free pretzels, crackers, cheesecake with gluten-free graham cracker crust, chocolate cookies (both shelf-stable and fresh from a mix), and carrot muffins, and back to the pizza again. There was even a gluten-free line of chocolates, (who even knew that chocolate had gluten?). In between, I washed it all with a huge range of organic teas, power drinks, and three sets of powders (diluted in distilled water) that each and all pledged to make be beautiful and young. (Still checking….)

I was thoroughly ill when I reclaimed my car from the convention center valet. But I was also enormously impressed. First, at the sheer number of food entrepreneurs operating in a niche market for allergy friendly foods; second at the fact that so many of them have a personal connection to the need for the product; and third, with products that are both responsive to allergy concerns and to conscience.

Everyone Wants to be a TV Chef

Friday, March 20th, 2009

In the kitchen

Everyone wants to be a TV Chef
An awesome responsibility. I was a judge, clipboard in hand, fork at the ready. Sitting in judgment over the skills, the menus, and media demeanor of eight aspiring cooking school students hoping to win the New England title as the next  “Almost Famous Chef. ” A win is a trip to the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley for the nationals, $10,000, stages in Europe, and professional connections up the wazoo (maybe). Losing is a few photos for the school and some nice additions to their knife kit.
Almost Famous a five-hour competition at Cambridge Culinary School in Cambridge. Each student chef cooks a challenging entrée, prepares it from scratch, under time pressure and the gaze of three sets of judges—instructors from the local professional Culinary Schools—who watched over kitchen technique, sanitation etc; four professional chefs—Jody Adams of Rialto and Jay Murray from Grill 23 and two other chefs, one from Newport, RI, and the other from Vermont.  The professional chefs were given a complex 25 -point judging template, with precise guidelines on how to deconstruct each student chef’s dish and professionalism. My task was simpler: rating the chefs on media presence, and the ability to stay on message with the distraction of ten judges, four videographers, several sponsor reps, and a still photographer milling around. No joke: it was one of the most stressful five hours of my life. Here’s why.
Cooking competitively is not an artifact of TV hype. It’s hard work to do, and hard to watch. The chefs––from their forties to their teens, career switchers and green as grass gangly newcomers–are the top students at Cambridge Culinary, Johnson & Wales in Rhode Island, Bunker Hill Community, and New England Culinary Institute in Vermont. They worked hard to get here today, spent days engineering dishes creative enough to show their spark, yet not so dicey as to be impossible to produce under pressure. I ached for “Jenny”, competitor contestant #1, a Korean woman in the US only since 2003. By lottery, she was the first chef to begin. The subsequent competitors came on stream at half-hour intervals so finished dishes could judged hot out of the oven. “Jenny” made a classic herb-crusted rack of lamb with a celery root puree, and asparagus Polonaise. She worked like a demon. Head down, hair back, lipstick on, hyper-focused. Her technique was flawless. Her timing was not. And her communication skills? A recent immigrant, you could hear her formulating her answers word-by-word. The judges cooed over her Polonaise. Most of us had never seen the technique—separating raw egg yolks, freezing them for an hour, and then rolling them in Panko crumbs and a fast deep-fry so that when fork met egg on dish, it was the perfect yolk of a perfect fried egg, a runny simple sauce.  But—the judges found the lamb raw, the plate cold, the dish under-seasoned. Laborious, beautiful, but not up to snuff. Next, another aspiring chef, a refugee from advertising, studying at Cambridge Culinary and working at Blue Ginger. He was media magic, but his dish was too fussy. And horrors! He used lecite powder, a lecithin derivative popularized by Ferran Adria to make the coconut foam. Chef #2 got high marks for grace under pressure, but his oolong-tea smoked scallops were raw and cold, and the chefs couldn’t taste the saffron in the rice cakes.  Next up, a sweetheart chef from Texas studying at NECI, making a beef tenderloin topped with rendered bone marrow. She overcame a kitchen disaster, and did well—but not well enough to win. By 6:00 PM, all eight chefs were working away, while an official with a digital stopwatch barked time codes. The judges had chatted up most of the chefs, wondering why one was using this kind of polenta and not that, worrying that chef #1 wasn’t going to get her lamb into the oven in time.
At 7 PM, we judges sat down. One by one, the chefs presented their dishes. We went to work. Tasting each morsel. Feeling the anxiety.  A serious task undertaken by a serious team, knowing what it would mean to the young chefs to win. I wanted to throw up—not from the food––on the whole pretty good––from the tension. Hopeful faces under crisp white toques.  Two chefs almost tied, but Erik Powers (20), a young man from Everett studying at Bunker Hill is going the Almost Famous Chef Finals in Napa. His meal—a beautifully executed pan seared cod wrapped in pork jowls, (guanciale), came out hot, pretty, and perfectly seasoned. Luckily, his mom was to hand to witness the triumph. The chefs stayed to party on. The judges, totally spent, made a beeline for their cars.

Stealth Health at the CIA (and the Harvard School of Public Health)

Wednesday, March 4th, 2009

Dr. Walter Willett at the CIA Healthy Falvors Conference

Stealth Healthworks
Outside, the Napa Valley vineyards are absorbing the last twenty minutes of winter sun. Inside, at the Culinary Institute of America (the other CIA) in St. Helena, California, Dr. Walter Willett taps on the microphone. A hundred or so corporate chefs and food service executives from little ventures like Applebee’s (serves over xx meals a day), Dunkin’ Donuts, (tkt customers a day), Panera Bread Company (tk meals a day), and McDonald’s (trillions of hamburgers sold!), are holding their collective breath. Willett, chairman of the Nutrition Department at the Harvard School of Public Health, the g-force behind the nationwide banning of transfats, best-selling author, and one of the most cited scientists in history, shares the “Nutritional Wish List” of policy recommendations he has prepared for President Obama.
Willett, a benign presence with a handlebar mustache and twinkly blues, has a habit of saying very scary things in a calm monotone. When he says that, “We are at the end of increasing longevity in the US,” for example, or, “In ten years, in terms of obesity, Massachusetts will look like Mississippi,” everyone nods sleepily. But when he says, “ an unregulated market is doing to human health what is has done to the US economy,” people in the room wake up. “What! Is he talking about more regulation for the restaurant industry?” worries a product development VP from McDonalds sitting next to me. Willett expands, “Regulations for the food industry are like toxins: too much is bad, a little can be good.” Yes, he is thinking about suggesting a regulation mirroring the new law in the U.K., to mandate a salt reduction of by 20% in all packaged and processed foods to the Obama administration, (Look out for reduced sodium soups, crackers, bread and cookies, salad dressings etc)—and suggesting leveling a national tax of as much as 18% on sugared sodas and candy. “We need economic levers to keep the public from making bad food choices.” Willett says. The conference is off and running. The 100-plus “operators”, the people who work for the companies that serve 95% of the meals Americans eat outside of the home, will spend the next three days listening hard. When Willett’s Harvard Medical School colleague David Ludwig MD calls diet sodas, “a gateway drug,” the audience winces.
The CIA and HSPH jointly sponsor this invitation only, Worlds of Health Flavors Conference twice annually. It’s a top ticket for corporate chefs, top nutritionists, physicians, research scientists, and cookbook authors Three days of cutting edge science and a serious discussion of food strategies to get America healthier. Three years ago, when Willett first lectured this group about transfats, (labeling them as “nutritional poison,”) few of the attendees would have expected that by 2009 a label of “New! Trans-fat Free!” would the biggest selling proposition in the food industry. Today, as Willett speaks, the chefs’ ears are cocked, awaiting this year’s crusade. Willett is a figure of reverence. He also makes food service operators anxious. This is a tough year economically. Change is expensive in the food business. As chef Greg Schweizer, former Executive VP of Menu Development at Applebee’s informs, “A menu or ingredient change for us means communicating to 50,000 line positions in over 100 locations, all of them suffering financially.” Estimates are that the switch to trans-fat free recipes cost major food suppliers over a billion dollars. Today, business is bad enough without spending money on nutritional improvements. But chefs are people who like to feed people and feed them well. Even bottom-line pressured chefs care about serving food that makes you healthier.
The code word at the CIA is “Stealth Health,” an under-the-radar effort to: reduce the salt in your food; shut off the sugar; substitute good fats like olive and canola oil, nuts and avocados, for bad fats like butter, corn oil and animal fat; sneak whole grains in to your diet, and turn the trickle of fresh fruits and vegetables that Americans eat into a torrent; ––all without your noticing. The challenge is to make “healthy food that doesn’t taste like ‘health food’,” says Stan Frankenthaler, Executive Chef of Dunkin’ Brands, (the parent company of Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin & Robbins).
The Better for You option
The chefs talk about their takeaways from the conference.  “Almost everyone now has better for you options on their menus. It’s part of our response to Dr. Willett, to the obesity crisis, and to serving what the customer wants,” says Chris Gatto, Vice President of Food and Beverage at Uno Chicago Grille. “What we learn at Napa goes right into new product development. We’re not going mess around with our sacred signature deep-dish pizza, but we feel the pressure to offer more healthy options to the guest, like our brown rice with mango and craisins, and our new soup—beef barley with wheat berries. A couple of years ago, people had never heard of wheat berries. Now, they say, ‘Wow, that sounds good’.”  At Dunkin Brands, Stan Frankenthaler takes the scientific data from this meeting and brings it “straight to our Culinology team—the group at Dunkin’ that brings together nutritional scientists, chefs, and product development people. And then we begin.”  Applebee’s Schweizer says that Applebee’s now buys, “millions of pounds of salad greens, a major change in our menu.”
But change doesn’t come quickly for the big guys. Mark Graham, a product development consultant for Starbucks puts the issue in perspective. “Even when we are ready to introduce a better for you option, we have to find the supply chain that will support it.  We don’t yet have all the vendors that can support new, healthier menu offerings. For example, when we introduced a new product at Starbucks, an apple cherry muffin, we had to find enough product to bake 23 million organic apple cherry muffins. That’s a lot of organic dried cherries to source.” Tom Gumpel, Vice President for Bakery Development at Panera Bread worries about the salt issue. “As a chef, it really has me worried. For the food service, tuning off transfats was like flipping a light switch. But when you take 20% of the salt out of bread, bakery items and soup—we sell 90 million pounds of soup a year! ––without affecting texture and taste, that’s a tough trick. “ Gumpel, who used to be a dean at the CIA has a love hate relationship with the conference. “My biggest takeaway is sadness. It’s all great information, but how long is it going to take to trickle down to the average American?”

Everyone Wants to Be a TV Chef

Tuesday, February 17th, 2009

Everyone wants to be a TV Chef
An awesome responsibility. I was a judge, clipboard in hand, fork at the ready. Sitting in judgment over the skills, the menus, and media demeanor of eight aspiring cooking school students hoping to win the New England t

The Sweet Potato Cleanse –Day Four

Wednesday, January 7th, 2009

It’s been two days since my last sweet potato. But I have been eating a lot of carrots. almost as many as when I got carotemia as an aspiring college-aged Macrobiotic.

Okay. I skipped a day. I was pretty embarassed that I/we had fallen of the all all-orange and yellow beta-carotene diet. It’s a private issue that I prefer green to yellow. maybe it’s that my eyes are green.

Anyway, we decided on Monday to be one with a veggie diet –the convergence of all the truly reasonable, healthy diets that I’ve read about. Heavy on veggies of all sorts, in lots of colors, low on animal fats (including, sob, cheese), a few random whole grains for crunch –rice crackers and brown rice, and a few fruity bits. We like to toss a handful of blueberries, fresh or frozen on top of the granola and non-fat yogurt parfait.

We could do this diet forever, and I suppose that’s the point. We need variety to coaxe us out of bed int he morning. If my whole day stretched before as a choice of carrots, shredded, baked, stir-fried, or slow roasted, I might be found hanging from the closet rod, with my neck tied with an Hermes scarf. I jsut cannot succeed with a diet consiting of four food choices, half of them yellow-orange.

We also decided to add a little alcohol into the dinenr ritual of veggie soup, veggied entree, fruit for dessert. a single glass (non-refillable!) of red or white wine. It does wonders for the spirit. And it means that Michael who was always slightly blotto after dinner and his half and my half of a bottle of wine, is awake and chipper until long after John Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

I’ve unearthed my vegetarian cookbooks and all my soup recipes. So far the winner is an “un-stuffed” cabbage soup a la Jane Brody. Excellent! Lots of cabbage (natch), a hint of honey, a scattering of raisins, and some tomato sauce and lemon. Sweet sour, filling, and marvelously worth eating.

We can do this. We may not be purists, but we can lose weight together. Tomorrow I’ll start making sweet potatoes again.

The Sweet Potato Cleanse

Friday, January 2nd, 2009

I am a grump. Today I agreed to begin a two-week cleanse diet with my husband Michael. As far as I am concerned this is a terrible thing. The idea of eating only sweet potato, carrot, celery, and cabbage–– (no salt, no sugar, no fruit but six drops of Grapefruit Seed Extract and as much tea as we want!!!) –– for even one day day is  a misery. The idea of eating only four foods for two weeks is purgatory. I’m a foodie, and a food writer. Even if I unearth every single sweet potato and carrot recipe in the universe (multi-ethnic carrot salad medley anyone?) it’s no fun. It’s probably not even healthy. But in the end, I am either game, or kind of stuck. I don’t know if I believe in the idea of a “cleanse”. I haven’t spent too many sleepless nights obsessing about the mobility of the cells (cilia?) in my epithelium or being too worried about the cleanliness of my digestive tract. But, according to Igor,  maybe I should be.

IGOR: It’s all Igor’s fault. Igor Burdenko is an amazing coach and motivator who has been helping Michael make a semi-miraculous recovery from a fractured lumbar disk that he injured this summer. Twice a week, bleary eyed and way too early, we meet Igor at the pool where he works with Michael for an hour on mobility exercises, endurance, strength and coordination. Oh — here’s the other thing. Mike has MS. And regaining mobility and agility for him is crucial. The last thing he needed was three months of near immobility after a stupid boating accident last August. Bummer beyond bummer.

My friends at the Canyon Ranch recommended Igor as a potential godsend to Michael. For over 50 years Igor has been training elite athletes — famous prima ballerinas, speed skaters, gymnasts, and divers who performed at the top of their pursuits winning Olympic Medals and audience adoration. Their photos and love notes line Igor’s office walls. He helped Mikhail Baryshnikov, skaters Nancy Kerrigan (after she was whacked by Tanya Harding’s goons), Paul Wylie. the list goes on. This past summer, Igor helped the Canadian diver who won the Silver Medal recover after he’d torn something crucial playing pickup hackey sack just weeks before the Games. Igor ended up with the Canadian government inviting him to Ottawa where they presented him with his own Silver Medal as a thank you. Igor is the big gun in sports medicine, rehab and water therapy. He encourages, pushes, calls you “sweetheart” when your energy is lagging, smiles like a sunrise over the Pacific when you are able to do more than he’d expected. You don’t want to disappoint Igor.His time and love is precious.

Igor is also very old school. Very Russian. A product of the Soviet sport’s machine, he assume that your sport or rehab is the only thing in your life –or your parents, or your spouse, or whomever is on your team. I am the key team member for Michael.Igor truly wrote the book on sports Medicine in Moscow. There’s a copy of it on his desk. He’s 74 now, and came to the States in the early 80’s where he has become an icon for athletes and patients with chronic diseases or injuries. He can diagnose a problem in a blink. Just watching Mike walk four steps down the corridor for his first meeting, and he knew exactly what was wrong with Mike. Spooky smart. For Igor, the human body –muscles and wiring–is totally transparent. Christmas Eve On the morning of Christmas Eve, we met with Igor after Michael’s hour in the pool, and he gave us his famous, no fooling around diet that is sure to help us lose weight (we both could stand a slim) and cleanse our toxins. It’s so simple that I barely needed to write it down: carrots, sweet potato, celery, and cabbage. No caffeine. No alcohol, no salt. No fruit. Not even a few stray raisins in the carrots salad. The good news, is that Igor says we can cook them any way we want. Steam, baked, sauteed..We can go wild and crazy!!!

Friday: Day One The Day after New Years

I am not at all sure that there’s any point to it, but I am committed nonetheless. Two motivators –the big one is Igor. I don’t want to disappoint Igor, don’t want to do anything at all to suggest that Mike or me is less than totally on board. Our eating sweet potatoes and carrots three times a day is kind of like drinking Igor’s Kool-Aid. The other reason is my damned curiosity. Can I do it? Do cleanses work? will I actually feel better, lose weight, have bouncier hair and a brighter smile? So, today, I laid in the supplies — bags of carrots, sacks of sweet potatoes, a couple of heads of cabbage, and some boxes of carrot soup. We’ll see. Tonight here’s what we had for dinner: carrot and ginger soup, baked sweet potato, a stirfry of carrots and red and green cabbage. We had two fights before the meal was over. one, Mike asked me for a sharp knife to cut hsi sweet potato, (c’mon it’s a bleeping baked potato!); and the second when he reached for the salt mill. It is filling though. I couldn’t possibly have room for dessert.