Talk Healthy to Me, Sweetie

Bill Yosses - July/August 2006

After days of consciousness-raising at the fourth annual Worlds of Flavor Baking & Pastry Arts Invitational Retreat, chefs set out to make food-for-you-too desserts.

Whether it's a blistering salvo from carbophobes or a sustained volley from the fat police, pastry chefs have acrobatically dodged the nutritional bullet for years. But rather than tango around another onslaught on the cake carousel, The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and cosponsor Food Arts decided to go mano a mano with the dogged tsk-masters and their medical charts at the annual pastry retreat this March at the school's Greystone campus in St. Helena, California. Entitled "Flavor Design & The Experimental Pastry Kitchen: In Pursuit of Pleasure, Health, and Well-Being", the conference confronted questions as sticky as toffee: should restaurants and multiunit operators even bother with replacing or reducing the Mount Rushmore quartet of butter, flour, sugar, and cream in their desserts, and if yes, how? Or, as Laurent Branlard, executive pastry chef at Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin Hotel in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, put it before and after conference snippets: "Healthy dessert? Is there such a thing? You know me—as a good French guy, I cannot avoid butter in my pastry". Then: "The first thing to do now is to challenge all the old recipes"! Branlard's comments capture the general consensus of the conference's participants that, like it or not, this is a concern that's going to grow bigger.

"The die is cast", Dr. Connie Gutterson warned in sobering opening remarks to the 46 invited attendees (CIA staff and students also participated in the retreat). Fresh from a CIA Greystone conference held in conjunction with the Harvard School of Public Health, Dr. Gutterson, a registered dietitian, a nutrition instructor at CIA Greystone, and author of the best-selling The Sonoma Diet, didn't mince calories or words as she zeroed in on trans fats in the form of partially hydrogenated oil as the chief health villain in many store-bought foods, notably sweets. While she advised reducing all fats in foods, trans fats, she cautioned, are known to increase the deleterious effects of saturated fats, decrease HDL (the good cholesterol), increase triglcyerides, create insulin resistance, and even possibly advance Alzheimer's disease and diabetes. She didn't let saturated fats such as butter, lard, and tropical oils off the hook either. However, Gutterson did mention that there's a ray of hope for cocoa butter, another saturated fat, because it contains stearic acid, which lowers cholesterol.

She had kinder words for monounsaturated fats found in such foods as nuts and their oils, extra-virgin olive oil, and avocados, which, when eaten in moderation, provide some protection from heart disease, don't lower HDL, and can be beneficial for those with type 2 diabetes. Polyunsaturated fats such as flaxseed oil, walnut oil, and canola oil are also essential for good health. Most important, she said, a diet should include a mixture of saturated, mono-, and polyunsaturated fats, a message to pastry chefs to go into their lab kitchens and find a ratio of fats for a dish that doesn't compromise flavor or texture.

And that was only Tall Order Number One.

Next was trying to get past some of the shibboleths that rule the pastry kitchen: customers don't order healthy desserts; chefs provide pleasure, not health; a healthy dessert menu looks like a hospital checklist; whole wheat, grains, and other good-for-you foods don't taste good; fats support flavor; customers come to restaurants to celebrate so they don't care about health anyway. All true—to an extent. But also all true because few have attempted to find a better way. Over the course of the four day retreat, through presentations from speakers such as Michel Nischan (Miche Mache LLC, Fairfield, CT), Sherry Yard (Spago, Beverly Hills, CA), and Michel Stroot (formerly of The Golden Door, Escondido, CA); demonstrators such as Michel Richard (Citronelle, Washington, D.C.), Michael Laiskonis (Le Bernardin, New York City), and En-Ming Hsu (pastry chef consultant, Las Vegas); and expert lecturers like Gutterson, Kyle Shadix, a New York City–based chef and registered dietician, and Greg Drescher, Greystone's senior director of strategic initiatives and emcee of the conference, attendees learned that they could stop dancing by health issues with these rote excuses as a partner.

Take the first, for instance, that diners won't order healthy desserts because, prevailing wisdom says they don't want to hear that they must eat something because it's good for them. They want pleasure, not punishment. But too often, healthy dishes have been flagged with hearts or dingbats on the menu or described by waitstaff in the seductive language of a medical treatise. "Stealth health", Gutterson repeatedly emphasized. In other words, don't turn off diners with a dissertation. Just give them the food and stand back. Guilty pleasures will outsell prescriptive bromides every time. As Drescher noted to the assembled chefs: "If you talk about this retreat, we will deny it ever happened".

As for whole wheat and other grains, yes, when they're used exclusively and without applying that elemental chef's yardstick—balance—they do taste bad. Example: whole wheat pie crust should be banned. However, a new flour used at the retreat from ConAgra called Ultragrain, in which the bran and germ are separated, pulverized, and mixed back into the finished flour, is white in color, has very little of the bitter flavor of whole wheat, and, when used as 40 to 50 percent of the dry ingredient, makes a pastry indistinguishable from one made exclusively with white flour, except that it contains more nutrients and fiber.

But the carbohydrates, you say? That scare has gone the way of the late Dr. Atkins and his carbless diet, which, like all unbalanced diets, is considered unhealthy. Nutritionists, Gutterson noted, recommend the right carbs, meaning whole grains rich in minerals, protein, and fiber that also are filling. Satiety, or the condition of being satiated, is becoming the hot topic in nutritional research. Nutritionally dense foods satisfy the body's functional requirements, the thinking goes, thus stemming the urge to overeat or ingest empty calories. Quinoa, amaranth, spelt, kamut, barley, and buckwheat, even when used as 10 to 20 percent of a recipe, add texture and aromas that can enhance a dessert.

Eggs will be eggs, it was agreed most heartily by all, but should their binding and texture-giving properties need to be simulated to change a dessert's nutrition profile, Hsu and Anil Rohira, the executive pastry chef at Albert Uster Imports (Gaithersburg, MD) offered the alternative of commercial gums such as locust bean, xantham, and guar as well as carrageenan. Since the weights of these powders need to be very precise in a recipe, Stephen Durfee, a pastry instructor at the CIA Greystone, recommends using a scale sensitive to 0.1 gram. Some pastry chefs had already started to explore this new world. "At first I was really apprehensive about using these ingredients, I didn't want to go against my beliefs on using nothing but natural ingredients," said Alexander Espiritu, pastry chef at The Ritz Carlton San Francisco. "But after researching online and asking around, I felt comfortable using them, knowing that these are all seaweed-based products."

Still, for all the hopeful healthful talk, many of the pastry chefs remained skeptical though sympathetic. Tom Gumpel, director of bakery development for Panera Bread, the bread/pastry chain based in Needham, Massachusetts (see Recipes & Techniques), and Joseph McKenna, the executive chef for the bakery division of Wegmans Food Markets, noted that good intentions tend to wend slowly through the corporate maze, preventing them from changing items from sin to thin on a dime. Kristine Mohr, international R&D manager for Carlson Restaurants Worldwide, seconded that thought with the added problem of accounting for local customs, preferences, and resources in her company's outlets around the world. Said Laiskonis: "There's a dangerous line between a real dessert and a dessert changed for health or other reasons". In other words, get your hands off my Paris-Brest!

"Let's do this again next year and see if we've been able to change anything we're doing or are we just talking", suggested Yard. Yes, it's a long trail to travel (and a big bag of trail mix to get through) before the dessert menu can be recalculated to make one and all healthy, wealthy, and wise, but those who duly gathered at the CIA Greystone said they're willing to give it the old college try.

And, P.S.: chocolate is good for you. Dr. Gutterson said so.