Chef-QA-November-AnthonyPHOTOChef Stewart, a graduate of Cornell University’s Restaurant and Hotel Management School, has cooked at various other resorts and hotels in his native Jamaica as well as in the West Indies and Cayman Islands. He has won accolades worldwide, including five gold medals in top culinary competitions.

FE&S: Everyone wants to know the answer to the ongoing question — how do you make healthy, wholesome food taste delicious?

AS: Our basic goal is to increase fruits, vegetables and whole grains and decrease animal protein, or at least choose free-range, grass-fed animal protein. Then we analyze the sodium, sugar, fat and carbohydrates in all our recipes and try to stay away from refined products. Once we master that, it’s a matter of combining foods with different flavors and understanding how they work together and also break down in the body. My job is a lot of food science and nutrition. But once you can identify the different flavors in foods it becomes so easy. For instance, if you chew on a piece of red bell pepper it’s crunchy; then there is a little sharpness and acidity and, as you chew more, it becomes sweeter. So right away you know bell pepper has acid and sugar in it. If you sauté the pepper it will break down the acid and present the sweetness. Or you can maintain that acid in the dish by just chopping it raw.

FE&S: How do you educate your customers and other chefs about cooking this way?

AS: For the first couple days some customers say the food tastes bland, because they are detoxing from overloads of salt and sugar. But after day three, they are usually bursting with energy and moving like they’ve never moved before and tasting food like they’ve never tasted before. We’re retraining people’s palates. When I talk to other chefs, I encourage them to at least give their customers an option of this type of healthier food. And then communicate what you’re doing to your guests so they will be more open to trying food without as much salt and with more fresh herbs
and spices.

FE&S: What are some examples of dishes where you have substituted healthy ingredients?

AS: We use a lot of natural fruits and sweet vegetables as sweeteners. For a chocolate mousse, I add roasted sweet potatoes to unsweetened cocoa powder and blend that with some fresh blueberries for a “moussier” consistency. It doesn’t need any more sweetener after that. Instead of a lot of oil, we roast, grill and steam vegetables and when sautéing, we cook food over a low-to-medium flame while constantly stirring and add a little stock if needed. For meat, we still serve bison and chicken burgers but we mix an equal portion of vegetables to meats — for a pound of bison we combine a pound of finely chopped onion, celery and carrot so you’re actually eating two ounces of meat instead of four and still feel satisfied.

FE&S: How do you maintain a healthy menu even with a higher volume operation?

AS: We serve 6 meals per day between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. and feed an average of 110 people. Everyone is on a two-week cycle here, so that’s 84 different menu items. This forces you to plan ahead and not wait until the last minute. Even if you can’t plan a whole day in advance, at least plan the next meal or two in advance. You just have to streamline and make sure your organizational skills are at play.

FE&S: Does a lot of scratch cooking have an impact on your kitchen equipment and layout?

AS: The number one thing is we have to clean every day, but the good thing is we don’t have a lot of spoilage here. Secondly, it involves a lot more personal attention. I am very involved in the kitchen operations here, and even in the purchasing. If I were to buy a pack of green beans or pre-cut vegetables somebody else might have taken it upon themselves to add things to it and we want to know exactly what’s going on with our food.

FE&S: That said, how do you deal with customers with allergies or other special dietary requests?

AS: Most of the requests we get are for gluten-free and Kosher meals. We have a separate kitchen for Kosher cooking and can also use that separate space to prepare dishes for those with allergies and who are gluten-free. We train our staff that whenever there is an allergy request, treat it as a life or death situation because we don’t want to run the risk.

Cooking from scratch allows you to know exactly what is in your food, but we also have to be careful of some of the food we receive from our commissary. If someone says they are gluten-free, then the product has to say it was not manufactured in a facility that manufactures wheat. We do not play around with allergies. If our staff is in doubt, they are trained to ask — myself or the nutritionist or a manager to make sure we get it right.

FE&S: How have you incorporated traditional Jamaican dishes and flavors into your cooking?

AS: I grew up in rural Jamaica and we could not always afford to buy salt, so we had to learn how to use other spices and herbs to make food flavorful. And we don’t have access to flour in Jamaica. Traditional Jamaican cooking is healthier cooking. At Pritikin, we do our world famous jerk chicken. I developed a sauce with scotch bonnet peppers, fresh thyme, ground allspice berries, ginger, scallion, onion, garlic, balsamic vinegar and a little apple juice concentrate for some sweetness. The key to that is to blend everything well and let it sit at room temperature for at least 24 hours. Then we use the sauce as a marinade to jerk tofu, vegetables, meat and fish. We also make curries with orange peel for a delicate citrus flavor instead of extra salt.

FE&S: How do you continue to come up with new ideas for dishes?

AS: Some people say, “I sleep on things.” Well, I chew on things. Last year I came up with the idea for a chocolate brownie when I was making a chocolate mousse and threw in some garbanzo beans and it tasted good. I added egg white and cinnamon and vanilla extract and baked it and it came out perfectly. My thing is to constantly experiment with different foods and always look at substituting one ingredient for another — as long as you like them.

FE&S: How do you stay on top of new information in health and wellness?

AS: Everyone here at Pritikin, regardless of the department, gets the same regular, daily updates. Everyone is in the loop. This is because if a guest reaches out to someone in another department, they need to at least have a basic knowledge about the food we serve here and our nutrition program. We stay on top of this because most people who come to us have a health issue and they expect us to take care of them. So our communication is very intense and very clear. And that continues both inside and outside of the kitchen.