At her home, Susan Feniger, center, serves mabo tofu, prepared two ways,… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)
Restaurant diners are accountable for what they put in their mouths. Fried chicken too fattening? Order a salad and ask for the dressing on the side. Giant potato with mushroom gravy fit to see you through a marathon? Skip it and get the steamed artichoke with vinaigrette.
But what if chefs helped us out — and lowered the fat and calories in their favorite dishes by as much as 25% while preserving the deliciousness?
Photos: Dining out the smart way
That's the experiment we did with chefs at three high-end restaurants in L.A. Each made a dish on their menu two ways: the usual way and then with calories, fat and sodium content trimmed to an extent they thought customers wouldn't notice. Diners did a side-by-side blind tasting.
Then we shipped the food off to a lab to be tested for fat, calorie and sodium content.
The idea for the experiment came from a 2010 study in the journal Obesity in which researchers asked 432 chefs from around the U.S. if they could reduce the calories in their menu items by 10% to 25% without customers noticing. A whopping 93% of the chefs thought it would be possible; most said they'd do it by changing out ingredients rather than shrinking portions. (In America, we like our portions big.)
Since Americans eat out an average of four to five times a week, the calorie savings could be sizable, says study lead author Julie Obbagy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who conducted the research while a graduate student at Penn State in University Park.
Cream, butter, oil, sugar, salt: Chefs know what items get our taste buds going, and some load up on the stuff to make lower-quality ingredients taste better. But many are also adept at subbing in lower-calorie items without compromising flavor, using lower-fat proteins, skinnier sauces, herbs to give zest and vegetable purees as a stand-in for the rich mouth-feel of fat.
But was 25% truly achievable with ease — without provoking diner complaints?
Three noted chefs agreed to be part of our challenge: Susan Feniger of Susan Feniger's Street restaurant in Los Angeles, Josiah Citrin of Mélisse in Santa Monica and Daniel Mattern of Ammo in Los Angeles. They're all known for using high-quality fresh produce, often from local farmers markets, as well as top-notch ingredients overall. When they use butter, oil and cream, they do so sparingly instead of drowning food in fatty sauces.
Read on to see how they did (some numbers have been rounded).
Feniger and Kajsa Alger (executive chef and Feniger's partner in the restaurant) cooked a dish called mabo tofu at Feniger's home. Two neighbors were invited over for the taste test.
Feniger used ground marinated pork and baked tofu for the regular recipe. She used ground chicken for the lower-calorie version — without marinade, to reduce the sodium — and a less-dense tofu with less fat and fewer calories.
"This is a really fantastic tofu, and we use it all the time," Alger says. "I've never looked at the calories, because tofu is healthy." The calorie difference is appreciable, though — 130 calories per 3 ounces versus 70 calories.
Both dishes included chopped yu choy greens (a vegetable with green stalks and supple leaves often used in Asian cooking), a little olive oil and mabo sauce (three kinds of soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, fermented soy beans, bean paste and chile flakes).
As Feniger sizzles the chicken in a large saute pan and adds the lighter tofu, she notices that without much fat the dish is steaming more than browning. "It's sure going to be a fresher dish, right?" she says. Adding the mabo sauce renders both recipes almost identical in appearance, and that is part of her plan to disguise the differences. Also, ground pork and ground chicken are hard to tell apart when cooked.
Neighbors Jack and Laila Nilles, retirees and avid foodies, sit at Feniger's backyard table in the middle of a warm, sunny afternoon and take several bites of each dish. "They're both good," Laila says. "This one is spicier," she adds, pointing to the chicken, "but wonderful."
"I'd be hard put to say which one I liked better," Jack says. "I'd get them both."
After the reveal, the diners are surprised; neither had an inkling that one dish was made with pork and the other with chicken. "I never would have guessed it," Laila says.
The lab results: The pork version of the 12-ounce dish had 559 calories, 10 grams of saturated fat and 2,078 milligrams of sodium. The chicken version had 322 calories, 3 grams of saturated fat and 1,831 milligrams of sodium.
That's a 42% drop in calories and a slight drop in sodium (though still more than the government's recommended daily maximum for most of 1,500 milligrams).