Health Check: Restaurants are Getting Creative with their Better-for-you Menu Options

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Photo by Nick Wong

Eating out used to be synonymous with over-indulgence and an unhealthy lifestyle. However, for the past few years, restaurants have been working to change that perception, propelled mainly by consumers’ growing awareness of what they are putting into their bodies. A trend that started with the millennial generation is now a common concern among all segments of Canada’s population. According to Montreal-based analytics firm, Havas Worldwide Canada, 56 per cent of baby boomers claim what they eat says a lot about who they are while 66 per cent of all age groups argue that consumers should have the power to change food policies.

In its 2016 annual prosumer report, Eaters Digest, The Future of Food, Havas revealed that each year, 11.3 million global deaths are caused by poor eating habits, costing the global economy nearly $2 trillion per year — $4.5 billion of which is attributed to Canada. Modern diets have also contributed significantly to illness, with one in 10 people in the world suffering from foodborne diseases — such as E. coli, listeria, salmonella and other illness-inducing bacteria commonly found in restaurant-chain food — leading to 420,000 deaths annually. But the greatest consequence of unhealthy diets has been the alarming rise in obesity. In 2014, StatsCan classified 20.8 per cent of Canadians over the age of 18 as obese and identified poor eating choices as the leading contributor.

In response, consumer awareness of nutrition-based diets has risen steadily over the past seven years. In 2010, a global survey conducted by Havas showed that less than two-thirds of the worldwide population agreed they were more aware of the nutritional value of the foods they ate than they used to be. Today, that same survey shows that the cohort has risen to 74 per cent. The good news, therefore, is that the world has reached a tipping point; people are no longer willing to ignore their health when making food choices. That said, 2017 is shaping up to be the healthiest year for Canada’s hospitality industry in more ways than one. As of Jan. 1, 2017, Ontarians will see calorie information on many food menus, menu boards and drive-thru displays as part of the Healthy Menu Choices Act — an initiative the Government of Ontario has been working towards since 2014 to help Ontarians make more informed choices when eating out. Under the new act, restaurant chains with more than 20 locations are required to include calorie counts for all menu items, including food and beverages. Some restaurant operators have been more enthusiastic than others with regard to the new legislation, going as far as making the change in menu information in locations across Canada.

In addition to government-backed efforts towards more transparent restaurant menus, many new concepts are taking healthy eating from the periphery of the menu to the very centre of its existence. Where the global culinary focus has, for generations, been on indulgence and decadence, it’s now leaving its hedonistic laurels behind to embrace raw and simple ingredients that promote health.

The Chase Hospitality Group’s (CHG) Planta restaurant opened in Toronto as a shining example of taking healthy eating to the next level. CHG president Steve Salm and Nota Bene owner/chef David Lee first announced their partnership on Planta in July 2016. “We decided to open Planta after noticing an increase in requests from guests for plant-based offerings in our other restaurants,” says Salm, who currently owns and operates six restaurants under the Chase Hospitality Group banner.

After one of Lee’s regular customers at Nota Bene started requesting that the chef make alterations to the menu to meet his stringent dietary needs, Lee began experimenting with a plant-based diet himself. Not long afterwards, he approached Salm — a long-time proponent of the diet — to collaborate on a restaurant that would embrace the plant-based concept throughout its entire menu.

The 100-per-cent plant-based restaurant opened its doors in late September of 2016, with 165 seats and a 32-seat private dining room. Since its launch, the avant-garde restaurant has created quite a buzz in Toronto’s foodservice landscape due to its highly inventive menu offerings. “We’ve had such a positive response from guests who’ve been lifelong vegetarians to guests who’ve never gone a day without meat,” says Lee.

For appetizers, Planta offers guests delicate and artful creations, such as the watermelon poke — a gluten-free option consisting of smashed avocado, watermelon sous-vide in kombu, toasted nori, house-made citrus-soya crumble, finished with rice-paper chips, served floating in a bowl of ice ($13). A popular snack item is the hefty carrot dog — smoked organic carrots and plancha are skillfully utilized in place of a hot dog, served on a house-made bun made with flour sourced from K2 (a local Ontario mill) and turmeric, which gives the bun a satisfying yellow tinge. The creation is topped with sauerkraut, a slice of dill pickle, vegan mayo and mustard, with a side of spiced fries ($18). A typical large plate includes the Planta burger — a meat-free burger fully loaded with queso, mushroom bacon, pickles and tomatillo mayo, served with a side of spiced fries ($18.75). And, of course, no plant-based menu would be complete without a few salads. Planta’s Habibi salad blends the split-pea salad Lee learned to make from his grandmother with cauliflower cous-cous, lentils, parsley, mint, coriander, currants, sumac and za’atar, mixed in a tahini dressing ($17.25).

“The menu at Planta is diverse and innovative,” Lee shares. “We’re currently making changes every six to eight weeks to keep up with the seasonality of our ingredients. Sustainably sourcing ingredients year round takes a lot of work and research. We’ve had to get creative when ingredients are out of season, or unattainable. A lot of small farms that practice sustainable growing methods cannot keep up with our volume, so that can be tricky to navigate. We are so thankful for our relationships with suppliers, such as 100Km Foods and Vickies Veggies — they are true partners in our mission to source local and organic when possible.”

Though Planta takes super-star status in the healthy-menu trend, there are other notable eateries across Canada that deserve mention. Montreal’s Omnivore is another restaurant making noise in the healthy-menu revolution. It features Middle-Eastern cuisine with a focus on healthy dishes, both vegetarian and meat-based. Its proteins include kebabs and taouks made with hormone-free meat and grilled over maple charcoal. The taouk is a traditional marinated chicken kebab that is popular in Turkey, Azarbaijan, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Syra, Iraq and Isreal. Omnivore also offers sandwiches, salads and freshly-squeezed juice. A choice of beef or chicken kebabs comes in three skewers with a side of lentil rice and hummus for $16. Popular meat sandwiches include the Roma kafta — beef, sun-dried tomato pesto, spicy eggplant and red cabbage ($7); and Beirut kafta — beef, hummus, sumac, onions, pickles and tahini cabbage ($7). For vegetarians, there is the khodra kafta — vegetables, tofu, sun-dried tomato pesto, babaghanouj and red cabbage ($6.50).

Whether you’re a diehard vegan or a passionate carnivore, a calorie counter or a fast-food enthusiast, there’s no denying the shift in eating habits across the globe. It’s a shift towards eating healthily and sustainably and it’s changing chefs’ approach to their art and shaping a new foodservice industry. The tipping point is now.

Volume 50, Number 1
Written by Eric Alister