It's impressive enough for a chef to get a Michelin star. But Jeremy Bearman managed to earn his without the help of a key ingredient: cream.
His Manhattan restaurant, Rouge Tomate, also uses very little butter. Bearman is steering clear of these staples of fine dining because he is following a new set of culinary guidelines--voluntary standards not unlike architecture's LEED certification, which denotes a building's energy efficiency. The new system is called SPE, short for sanitas per escam (Latin for "health through food") and stresses not only using local, seasonal ingredients but also combining them in ways that maximize their nutritional value. The emphasis on nutrition isn't just lip service; a dietitian works closely with Bearman to ensure that all his dishes are healthy as well as haute cuisine, telling him to swap out the duck fat here, add some more whole grains there.
Until recently, however, Rouge Tomate's patrons were none the wiser. The restaurant's owner, SPE creator Emmanuel Verstraeten, says he intentionally kept the good-for-you message off the menu. "We didn't want to scare people away," he says. Some diners still equate healthy with bland.
But convinced by the interest expressed by other chefs in his SPE principles, Verstraeten is ready to go public. This spring, the Belgian-born restaurateur launched a certification program that invites U.S. chefs to submit recipes--or entire menus--for revision to meet the criteria he developed with the help of several nutrition experts. The program's 90-page charter details such things as eking more iron from plant-based foods by combining them with vitamin C--rich produce--hence those strawberries in that expertly tossed spinach salad. In dishes with naturally salty ingredients like olives or soy sauce, adding foods rich in potassium such as raisins and plums or even protein like halibut and salmon can counteract salt's effect in raising blood pressure. Tomatoes, meanwhile, are better in a sauce rather than served raw because healthy oils help release the cancer-fighting compound lycopene, which is fat soluble.
Verstraeten's goal is for the SPE logo to become a selling point at restaurants--and a moneymaker for his consulting firm. For about $300 or less per dish, it will help restaurants rework their recipes so they can get the SPE seal of approval.
A handful of chefs have already signed up, including Guillaume Hazal-Massieux, at La Bcasse in Maple City, Mich., who submitted three dishes for certification. He's eager to see how his clients react, though he realizes that a logo alone won't persuade people to eat healthier. "This is a first good step to making restaurant food better," he says. As long as it continues to taste good too.
Rouge Tomate, New York City