Diary of a Diabetic Chef: Is healthier, smaller, cheaper asking too much?

Diners with dietary special needs are feeling spent, having to retool entrees every time.

ken.JPGView full sizeKen Gordon, owner of Kenny and Zuke’s Deli, was diagnosed with diabetes early this year. He will keep a diary of his efforts to help improve his condition with diet and exercise.

A couple of columns ago, I discussed what I call the dance, a negotiation that occurs almost nightly in restaurants in which diners with health concerns or dietary restrictions attempt to find something they can eat.

As translated by the server and often reluctantly carried out by the kitchen, this usually results in some transmutation of a dish on the restaurant’s menu, usually stripping whatever elements made the dish tasty and worthy of inclusion on the menu in the first place.

The pork tenderloin with morel butter and frizzled leeks on a bed of garlic and crème fra‹che linguini … hold the butter, hold the creme, hold the frizzle and substitute some steamed broccoli for the linguini? Why is it so hard to just order something healthy from the menu that’s, well, actually on the menu?

Chefs and restaurant owners are not trying to deny you, or make your experience uncomfortable. On the contrary, they’re sincerely trying to give you what they think you really want: yummy, rich food that is creative and beautiful and just too delicious to resist. And resist you don’t, though a lot of diners need to resist once in a while, at least with the portion sizes and calorie and carb counts contained in most restaurant dishes.

There’s another element to this, as well, and that’s basic restaurant economics. It goes like this: It’s expensive operating a restaurant — there’s rent, utilities, payroll, ingredients and supplies, license fees, breakage and theft, insurance, advertising, waste and a thousand and one other incidentals. The restaurant needs to cover all of these costs with the number of seats they — potentially — fill, multiplied by the average amount that — potentially — the customers occupying those seats will spend. Plus — in theory — have a little left over for something foreign to many restaurant owners: profit. That per-seat amount is called “check average.”

Perceived value

When diners eat at the restaurant of their choosing, they tend to make a judgment. That judgment is what’s known as perceived value. Perceived value is what’s going through a customer’s mind when they’re three bites into the aforementioned pork tenderloin they’re paying $28.50 for. This $28.50 is what the restaurant needs to charge for the dish to make its “check average.”

But the pork tenderloin consumer isn’t thinking about it that way (because they haven’t read my column yet). All they’re thinking is: “This is really tasty, but a bit pricey for what I’m getting.”

Now, take the same diner, the same restaurant and the same restaurant economy, but substitute a dish that’s healthier and of smaller portion-size and stripped down of all the calorie-producing bells and whistles. The restaurant still needs to charge about the same because all their costs are about the same, plus the busboy just dropped a tray of costly Riedel glassware.

Restaurants need to put some healthier options on the menu, and diners need to order these items while appreciating that the restaurant is a business and needs to charge what it charges, even if it seems the portions are smaller and the ingredients more modest.

Dining out is a partnership. It’s the customer letting the chef and restaurateur know what they like or want — and what they need — while appreciating that the restaurant is a business like any other, and that if the customer wants that restaurant to be around the next time they visit, the restaurant needs to charge an adequate amount for its product. And the chef and restaurant need to listen, and respond to changing tastes and the needs of an aging and possibly health-challenged clientele that sometimes wants foie gras, but sometimes needs some leaner fare and smaller portions.

Customer concerns key

There are some amazing chefs and restaurants in our community. It seems like there are good restaurants opening every week. And the dishes on their menus reflect a wealth and breadth of talent and creativity. But they often don’t reflect many of the current and widespread concerns for the health of the diners at these restaurants. There should be room on the menu for all the delicious, rich food that draws the foodies to these destinations. But I now believe there should also be some dishes that are just plain good for you, while still delicious and beautifully prepared and reflecting the talent of these amazing chefs.

And not just on the menus of our high-end restaurants, but at ethnic places and taquerias and food carts and franchises as well. How about Asian restaurants adding one more rice cooker and offering a brown rice option? Or Mexican restaurants offering an option for beans without the lard? You get the picture. I believe that in responding to customer concerns in this way, the restaurants will see their sales go up as a result.

And as I believe in putting my money where my mouth is. I’m rolling out a new, small, separate menu at Kenny & Zukes that will feature healthier versions of some of our popular fare, including a smaller, leaner pastrami sandwich on a whole grain rye my bakers have just developed. And a lean burger slider on a whole wheat bun with guacamole and salsa, salad on the side. Just adding some opportunities for moderation.

I’ll be contacting friends and others on the local scene and asking them to join me in this as well. Let’s see the addition of a dish or two that a diabetic — or someone with some of the challenges of metabolic syndrome — can enjoy and feel comfortable eating without doing the dance. Start with a couple of things, or a brown rice option. And I’ll let you readers know when they do.

I think it’s time we started another kind of food revolution in Portland, this time with first-class, delicious food that my naturopath would approve of.

Next: The first blood test — a reality check.

Any questions about Ken’s regimen or, well, anything? Email him at kgnyport@aol.com; you can also find him at facebook.com/chefkengordon or on Twitter; search for chef Ken Gordon