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Three top chefs prove that lighter food can be tasty

August 15, 2011
  • Chefs Kajsa Alger, left, and Susan Feniger of Street restaurant cook mabo tofu two ways.
Chefs Kajsa Alger, left, and Susan Feniger of Street restaurant cook mabo… (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)

Asking leading chefs to cook low-fat versions of their renowned food is asking them to take a big leap of faith. But that's what we did while working on the story "Chef, Can You Help?" in Monday's Health section.

Here's the lowdown: A 2010 study in the journal Obesity asked 432 chefs if they could reduce the calories in their food by 10% to 25% without customers noticing, and 93% thought they could. That study served as the catalyst for a real-life test with high-end chefs -- could they pull it off?

Phone calls were made to some of the best chefs in town to see if they'd be willing to cook one dish on their menu two ways: one the way they normally cook it, and the other reducing the fat, calories and sodium as much as they thought they could without customers noticing. We added fat and sodium to the mix since diners are often concerned about those elements in addition to calories, and they tell more of the story of what's in the food.

The food would be tasted by actual diners who knew nothing of the two dishes put before them. The food was then analyzed by an independent lab.

We got a fair share of rejections from some restaurants via publicists -- no one slammed down the phone in anger or laughed uproariously, but some chefs were out of town and others simply said they weren't able to contribute. The first "yes" was Susan Feniger of Susan Feniger's Street restaurant, known for its exotic global cuisine. Then Daniel Mattern of Ammo in L.A. jumped on board, followed by Josiah Citrin of Mélisse in Santa Monica. All were game and curious to see if patrons could tell the difference between a higher-fat and a lower-fat dish.

Not any dish would do -- it would have to be one that looked virtually the same "before" as "after," so a thin stock couldn't be substituted for a cream-laden one, and boiled potatoes couldn't be traded for fried. Feniger chose a dish called mabo tofu, which used ground pork in the original recipe. For the low-fat version she used ground chicken, which, when cooked, looks very similar to pork.

Mattern chose a summer vegetable gratin, made the usual way with crème fraîche and fontina cheese and a lighter way with lower-fat yogurt and ricotta. Visually it was almost impossible to tell the two apart when the dishes were side by side.

Citrin decided to cook a salmon dish that was part of a tasting menu. The higher-calorie version had a butter sauce, the lower-calorie one came with a sauce finished with a touch of soy lecithin, which lent a creaminess without a lot of calories.

We chose top chefs for just this reason -- they know how to impart a rich mouth feel without sending the caloric content into the stratosphere. When they do use butter and oil in their cooking, they do it sparingly.

The results? You'll have to read the story to find out. That's a cruel tease, we know, but you might be surprised.

Also, check out this story on a health fast-food restaurant chain slated to open later this summer, and read about how restaurant menu labeling is beginning to change the dining-out landscape. Curious about what's behind a restaurant's letter grade? The skinny is all right here.

After all this talk of food, we're hungry. Anyone want to grab a bite?

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