Dining: Feeding the Craze
Low-Carb Diets Are Changing How Restaurants Cook
“This is low-carb food, but it’s still good food,” says Daniel Delbrel. Delbrel, executive chef for both the Royal Hawaiian Hotel and the Sheraton Waikiki, gestures to the array of eight dishes spread along a bar at the Sheraton Moana.
The dishes run a gamut. They start with a “Back at the Ranch” breakfast: scrambled eggs plus Canadian bacon, smoked bacon, link sausage and, in case you’re still feeling protein deprived, a 5-ounce hamburger patty. This breakfast is unlikely to become a favorite with cardiologists, but it does have a mere 0.4 grams of carbohydrates (a single bagel would have 100 times as many).
At the other end of the bar is a low-carb cheesecake with a crust of crushed almonds, a small smattering of berries and no-sugar whipped cream.
In between are half a dozen other dishes, all part of Sheraton’s “low-carb lifestyle” program, which was rushed into 200 hotels nationwide at the urging of Barry Sternlicht, CEO of Sheraton parent Starwood. Sternlicht noted that low-carb box lunches ran out before the sushi, salads or sandwiches at Starwood’s recent global conference—and put his nationwide culinary team to work.
Delbrel was one of 16 chefs on the task force that made Sheraton the first hotel chain to roll out a low-carb menu. Hyatt and Westin have since followed with smaller programs. If low-carb is not just a fad, but a long-term trend, then the dishes Delbrel helped create are a sign of things to come in restaurants everywhere.
Unless you’ve been living in a blessed diet-free zone for the past few years, you probably know that carbohydrate-restricted diets (principally the Atkins and the lower-fat South Beach diet) are all the rage, especially for quick weight-loss. A recent study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine confirmed that low-carb dieters lost more weight and more body fat in the first six months than traditional low-fat dieters. The irony, however, is that, after a year, the weight loss equaled out, especially since a third of dieters in both groups gave up entirely
Photo Courtesy Sheraton
Nobody yet knows whether low-carb diets promote long-term weight loss or not. There’s a possibility that low-carb will eventually end up on the towering junk heap of once-fashionable fad diets. But at the moment, there are estimates that as many as 30 million Americans are on low-carb diets—a group as large as the population of Canada.
It’s not really difficult for a restaurant to cater to the low-carb folks, if all people are interested in is avoiding white bread, potatoes, pasta, desserts. At Roy’s Hawaii Kai, executive chef Ronnie Nasuti says, “We’re getting a tremendous number of people ordering dishes and omitting the starch. They’re not the least bit concerned about butter, fat, whatever, as long as there’s no starch. We’re responding by using fewer starches and more vegetables across the board. But we’re not coining any low-carb lingo to put on the menu.”
The same is true at L’Uraku and Alan Wong’s: More and more customers are asking to hold the potatoes or the rice. At L’Uraku, chef Hiroshi Fukui says, “We were thinking about doing a low-carb menu, but then most of our menu has the meat or the fish served by itself, separate from the starch, which makes it easier to avoid the starches.” At Alan Wong’s, executive chef Lance Kosaka says, “The low-carb thing has impacted us a little, but we haven’t come up with menu items specifically for low-carb.”
Other restaurants see the low-carb craze as an opportunity to come up with a whole new menu. “I’m sensitive to the low-carb thing, because I’ve lost 12 pounds myself, by rarely eating rice or pasta. I feel a lot better, ” says D.K. Kodama of Sansei. Sansei is working on nearly 20 low-carb menu items, like a hamachi tartar with grilled shiitake mushrooms, topped with a shoyu-, ginger- and truffle-infused olive oil. “Low-carb is good for restaurants,” says Kodama. “It’s an opportunity to sell more proteins, come up with new dishes.”
Photo Courtesy Sheraton
Very few restaurants, however, are going to come up with anything as comprehensive as Sheraton has managed. The program Delbrel worked on has everything from low-carb cocktails (for instance, the “No-Carb Scotch and Soda”) to a low-carb chocolate mint that the hotel is using for turndown service, and also to promote the program among guests.
However, the heart of the program lies in the half dozen or so entrees. “I think we did a very good job with these,” says Delbrel. “It wasn’t easy.” The hardest part was the precision. “I put a few more asparagus on a plate because I thought it looked better that way. I got a note, don’t do that, it throws off the carb count.”
So important was the accuracy that Delbrel bought four precision scales (at $350 each) for his kitchen.
We’re joined by Richard Lancaster, who is executive sous chef of the Sheraton Moana Surfrider. He’s tall and British, Delbrel is slight and French. They make an interesting team. “I bought three scales,” Lancaster says, “because the recipes call for things like .75 ounce of berries, and our pantry people said, What’s that?’”
The two chefs talk about all the staff training the program required. Each would send someone to order a meal for him, and then check to make sure the kitchen was producing it as directed. “We had to get it right,” says Delbrel. “We thought someone will come, order one of the dishes and send it to a lab. It better have as few carbs as we said it did.”
Well, carb counts in a lab are one thing. Ultimately what matters is what the stuff tastes like.
“Let’s go find out,” says Lancaster. We go into a back kitchen, and the next thing I know Delbrel is slipping asparagus into one saute pan, warming lentil chili in another. Soon he has four or five pans going.
Photo Courtesy Sheraton
At the other end of the line, standing over the grill, Lancaster fires both a 12-ounce sirloin steak and a chicken breast. Once he gets them going, he looks for a premade portobello mushroom-chicken burger, grills it a little, then passes it off to Delbrel. “It’s crucial we sear it first,” he says, slicing up a mushroom and putting it on the grill.
The sliced portobello mushroom functions much like a bun for the processed burger, which isn’t bad. It’s not great, either. “I’m not much of a burger person,” says Delbrel. “Still, it has flavor.” Really, though, what makes the plate come alive is the chunky avocado, tomato, red onion salsa.
Out comes a fillet of lightly smoked Norwegian salmon. It sits in a bowl, surrounded by the lentil chili on one side, by ratatouille on the other. The lentil chili is perfectly spiced, hot enough to get your attention, not so hot it overwhelms the taste buds. The ratatouille is out of the ordinary. Instead of being made as a stew, with tomato sauce, the squashes, eggplants and peppers are first oven roasted, then heated in olive oil. “Good, isn’t it?” says Delbrel. “I really like that lentil chili.”
It keeps getting better. A grilled chicken breast, first marinated in olive oil, basil and garlic, sits sliced atop a vegetable mix of artichoke hearts, kalamata olives, and tomatoes. The artichoke hearts are first braised in the classic French barigoule style, so that they come to the mix already full of flavor. The flavors just pop out of this dish. You’d eat it even if you didn’t think it was good for you, which it probably is. As low-carb meals go, this one is thoughtful about fat content as well.
Of course, one of the joys of the low-carb diet is that you can eat red meat. The New York sirloin comes off the grill nestled between a roasted red pepper puree and a dish that absolutely no one ate before low-carb diets, but looks as though it’s going to become a staple. It’s pureed cauliflower, which looks like and has the approximate mouth feel of mashed potatoes. All the more so in Sheraton’s version, which mixes in white cheddar. The flavors just jump off the plate.
Photo Courtesy Sheraton
Finally, there’s a cheesecake, with a mere 7 grams of carbs. These are net carbs, a kind of nutritional legerdemain that subtracts out fiber and what’s called sugar alcohols, which taste sweet but don’t do dramatic things to your blood sugar levels. Nobody really knows what happens if you eat lots of sugar alcohols; this is uncharted nutritional territory. But the cheesecake at least tastes great, crushed almond crust, no-sugar whipped cream, .75 ounce of berries and all.
I keep going back to the entrees. The Mediterranean chicken on braised artichokes is addictive, and I especially like the red pepper-cauliflower-steak combo. “Good, yes?” says Delbrel. “I am thinking of eliminating our regular steak and just offering this one instead.” He then laughs at the irony: “I guess if someone wants to substitute mashed potatoes, we could let them. Why not? If they want the carbs, they can have them.”
The low-carb entrees are catching on slowly, especially now that they’ve been printed on the hotel’s regular menu, instead of presented as specials. Delbrel plans to roll out a low-carb banquet menu this month. “I like this food,” he says. “It’s not haute cuisine, it’s casual dining, but it’s food with character. It’s a lot better than low-fat food ever was.”