David Baker is reforming his wicked eating habits. The 33-year-old mayor of Irvine is 6 feet, 9 inches tall and weighs 306 pounds. "If you are what you eat," he said, "I would be a Hostess Twinkie."
As Baker attempts to lose weight he will find the road to health paved with good intentions now that more restaurants--and even at least one luxury liner and a UCLA Extension class--are recognizing the trend toward a leaner life style. Bowing to consumer demands and nudging from the American Heart Assn., they are offering menus and instruction in low-fat, low-cholesterol dishes, a food style that has been labeled spa cuisine after the health spas that have long featured such fare. (The Four Seasons restaurant in New York has copyrighted the term "spa cuisine" and is trying to claim it exclusively, but others continue to use it.)
Haute and Healthy
It is a healthy haute cuisine that leaves bean sprouts and tofu behind in favor of gourmet versions of poultry, fish, beef and fresh vegetables and fruits.
Light sauces and herbs are used to add flavor. Yogurt and non-fat milk are often substituted for cream, and reduced vegetable or chicken stocks take the place of highly saturated oils. Chefs are even experimenting with low-fat and low-cholesterol desserts that satisfy a craving for rich sweets. Unlike the diminutive portions of nouvelle cuisine that can leave one longing for a Big Mac, spa meals are ample as well as attractive.
But there is an element of nouvelle cuisine in spa food, which is a hybrid derived from French chef Michel Guerard's inventive cuisine minceur (slimming cuisine), the fresh ingredients of California cuisine and the kinds of low-calorie foods served at the West's exclusive health spas.
It used to be that eating out meant the Big Splurge: creamed soups, big steaks, vegetables drowned in sauce, baked potatoes smothered in butter and sour cream and a nice big piece of cheesecake to finish off the meal.
A growing interest in health and fitness and an increase in eating out is partly responsible for the shift to lighter meals. (The average person will eat out 3.7 times a week this year, as compared to 3.2 times last year, according to a survey done by Consumer Reports on Eating Share Trends.) Chefs and restaurateurs are finding that many spa meals are consumed by business people and those on restricted diets.
Some restaurants are going one step further and offering nothing but spa food, from dinner rolls to dessert. Restaurants like 400 North Canon in Beverly Hills, Geoffrey's in Malibu and Carbos in Newport Beach, for instance, forbid copious amounts of salt, cream, oil and butter.
Why would a restaurant offer nothing but spa cuisine? Mark Warwick and wife Kim Hoffman, the "creative designers" of 400 North Canon, grew tired of the rich foods they faced when hectic work schedules forced them to eat out often--and late. (In addition to developing the restaurant, Warwick and Hoffman own a custom-furniture business and are pursuing acting careers.) When a client asked them to come up with a concept for his new restaurant, the two settled on gourmet spa cuisine.
"We wanted to have sauces, and make the food visually and sensually appealing," Hoffman said. "The key to the whole thing is you don't come away from here feeling you've sacrificed anything."
Said one frequent patron, Beverly Hills entertainment lawyer Melanie Cook, 33: "I like to feel alert all the time, and I don't like to go to lunch and have a big meal and drinks on a weekday. The days of heavy lunches and a lot of alcohol just don't happen with people in my business."
No Butter or Salt
Warwick, Hoffman and head chef Nicholas Klontz decided on menu items together, using little oil, no butter, no salt and just "a touch" of half and half in one recipe. Cheese is added to a few dishes. The result: dishes like a Cajun chicken sandwich with sweet and sour cucumbers, quesadilla with chicken and pineapple salsa and dinner entrees like rack of lamb with tomato and orange sauce and Mexican peppers with black beans. Desserts include homemade ice cream with no added sugar and light fruit mousse cakes. Soon the restaurant will offer calorie, carbohydrate, fat and cholesterol counts on all dishes for those who request them.
Across town at Geoffrey's, executive chef Robert Grenner, 26, has been working on the restaurant's new all-spa menu, here called "Malibu fare." Low-calorie meals were offered as specials until two months ago when the change was made. Prices are high: about $20 for entrees.
Given time to develop new dishes, Grenner said he found few restrictions but discovered the challenge of creating good food without relying on cream, oil and butter.