You're Going to Like How Chefs Are Defining 'Healthy' These Days
Forget dieting. Butter and cheese rule here.
BY Jeff Gordiner | Mar 22, 2017 | Food & Drink
I smeared a thick coat of butter on a chewy slab of bread. In front of me was a bowl of hot broth, all glossy with melted bone marrow. I dunked the bread into the broth, curious about how the marrow and the butter would intermingle. Off to the side waited a plate of tartare; it had cheddar mixed in with the beef. A forkful of raw meat and sharp cheese on top of buttered sourdough? Count me in. Fatty and bloody, it was a repast worthy of a warrior on Game of Thrones. And I felt no guilt whatsoever, because this, I was told, also qualified as health food.
My dinner took place at Hearth, a restaurant that has occupied a prime corner in New York City's East Village for almost 14 years. Not long ago, the chef at Hearth, Marco Canora, decided to take the (spiritually Italian) menu in a new direction. That direction happens to include a burger dense with organ meat, an assortment of the bone broths that Canora has been lucratively selling from his Brodo outposts, and an increased emphasis on wild fish, freshly milled grains, and what he sees as the "good fats"—such as olive oil and lard and butter from cows that eat grass.
For anyone who can dimly recall the Lean Cuisine austerity of the 1980s, when fats were strip-mined out of everything from cookies to chicken parm—or for anyone who continues to associate the phrase "health food" with meatless Mondays and grim hippie sandwiches stuffed with tumbleweeds of alfalfa sprouts—it can only come as sweet relief that a chef as esteemed as Canora is marketing bone marrow, butter, and raw beef as stuff that's good for you.
IT CAN ONLY COME AS SWEET RELIEF THAT A CHEF AS ESTEEMED AS CANORA IS MARKETING BONE MARROW, BUTTER, AND RAW BEEF AS STUFF THAT'S GOOD FOR YOU.
When it comes to healthy eating, we're living in a period of dueling forces: certitude and confusion. On the one hand, we've all got friends who are absolutely convinced that the only true path is the _____* diet. (*Insert your favorite here: paleo, gluten-free, vegan, Bulletproof, Blue Zones, vegetarian, fruitarian, reducetarian, Mediterranean.) Should you happen to be a vegan or a vegetarian and a lover of restaurants, this is a golden age for you, with places like Apteka, in Pittsburgh; Erven, in Los Angeles; Vedge, in Philadelphia; the new abcV, in New York; and Sen Organic, in Richmond, Virginia, introducing a new frontier in meat- and dairy-free deliciousness.
Yet the presence of so many competing belief systems suggests that what the screenwriter William Goldman said about Hollywood can be said just as persuasively about nutrition: "Nobody knows anything." Today maybe it's cold-pressed juices and avocado toast; tomorrow it could be maple-syrup shakes and pastrami omelets. Just about every single thing that is edible (bread, butter, coffee, wine, meat, cheese, tofu) can be deemed "good for you" or "bad for you" depending on who's doing the judging.
So I'm glad that chefs like Canora are moving beyond the strict confines of orthodoxy and focusing instead on how their dishes are prepared and where their ingredients come from. But somewhere deep in my own marrow I realize that I don't even care. Everything I know about healthy eating I learned from Jim Morrison of the Doors, who helpfully reminded us that "no one here gets out alive." Admittedly, Morrison keeled over in a Paris bathtub at 27, but the guy had a point. Avoid whatever you want, champ. It's not going to keep you from winding up in the great SoulCycle in the sky. When that moment comes and you look back on your life, you're not going to regret those ecstatic nights of guzzling red wine and tearing apart roast chicken with friends. You're going to regret that tempeh patty you choked down at your desk on Tuesday.
AVOID WHATEVER YOU WANT, CHAMP. IT'S NOT GOING TO KEEP YOU FROM WINDING UP IN THE GREAT SOULCYCLE IN THE SKY.
One of the most illuminating conversations I ever had about the pleasures of eating was with Gabrielle Hamilton, the chef/owner of Prune, also in the East Village. She was dead serious, in spite of her inimitable laugh, when she told me that she viewed her menu as "health food." Such a proclamation would probably come as news to the likes of Dr. Oz. At the time, Prune used butter the way hip-hop producers use beats: It underpinned everything. But Hamilton's definition of health comes down to an acceptance of emotional wholeness as opposed to some tiresome, tedious pursuit of wellness. "People feel well here," she went on, "in the sense that there's no guilt, there's no denial, there's no self-deprivation." I'm with her. Few things strike me as healthier—in the sense of standing up for the simple good fortune of being alive—than ordering two dozen raw oysters for the table. People are always telling me that oysters are packed with nutrients. That's cool. What I'm interested in slurping down is joy. There are diets associated with helping you live past the age of 100. Those diets do not tend to involve regular servings of cheese. Do what you want, man. I have no interest in living for a century if I can't have cheese.
The chef Jeremy Fox got famous years back by cooking at what was, for a while, the most acclaimed vegetarian restaurant in America—Ubuntu, in Napa, California—but these days, at L.A.'s Rustic Canyon, his menu features a pork chop with sauerkraut, as well as a dish of duck pastrami with foie gras, truffles, and brown butter. "I'm a proponent of animal fats," Fox told me recently. "Our chicken is cooked in chicken fat, our beef in beef fat, our pork in pork fat." He knows all the farmers and ranchers and fishermen who supply what Rustic Canyon serves. And he believes he's making better food there than at Ubuntu, where, as he put it, "I had lost sight of who I was cooking for."
Jeremy Fox will tell you that the best cooking isn't about fussing over what you leave out. I'd add that the same goes for eating: The healthiest approach of all is to shut up and enjoy it.
This article originally appears in Esquire US April '17 issue.