When discussing eating right in the modern world, there's a tendency to fall back on hackneyed examples of poor food choices. You might hear about Big Macs, Frappuccinos, onion rings, or candy bars as examples of the kinds of foods that are making us fat and sick. But when I actually meet and talk with people, I find they eat very little of that kind of stuff. Here in the 21st century those classic junk food choices have become unappealing for most thoughtful people. Junk food is moving steadily towards the way we view cigarettes; a vice from the past that has little place in modern society.So, we're eating higher quality food, which is a great thing. But people are still struggling with excess body fat, and they're wondering where exactly it's coming from since they don't eat "junk food" anymore. There's clearly more to the puzzle than to stop eating at McDonalds. - See more at: https://kenzai.me/big-ideas/2015/6/14/questions-for-the-chef#sthash.m3UuG8xw.dpuf
With these thoughts in mind I recently sat down with Nolan Ledarney, a gourmet chef and owner of Umami Concepts, a collaborative kitchen in Hong Kong where guests can not only enjoy amazing food but take part in preparing it. Nolan's approach to food is right in line with the Kenzai philosophy; entertain and educate people by letting them have a stake in the process. Don't hide all the secrets behind a velvet rope, let people come in and learn how things work by getting their hands dirty.
For the past few years Nolan has worked with us to produce a series of videos on how to eat well while on a training diet, and Nolan himself completed Kenzai Body in 2014. He's in the unique position of knowing how to train and eat clean, with the knowledge of a career chef with experience in Michelin starred restaurants around the globe. We recently sat down and I asked him some questions about staying fit in a world where gourmet food is readily available.
Tell us a bit about your background.
I’m Canadian by birth, from a chef’s background. I’ve been working as a chef for about 17 years now, and I’ve been in Asia for 13 of those years. The cuisine that I’m gravitating towards now is not based at all in that side of the world anymore. I just want food that’s a bit lighter, a bit more on point with the modern diner and what their concerns are.
Most people know that fast food is bad news, but they underestimate how calorically dense gourmet food can also be. What are the heaviest hitting gourmet foods?
People tend to think if it says ‘organic,’ or if it’s imported or high quality, that it’s healthy for you, but that is definitely not true. I think in professional kitchens the worst things you could probably order are items that are things that are pan roasted or with heavy sauces. It’s not just calories, the salt content of some of these dishes goes above and beyond what people think are actually in them. Any sauce in most restaurants is either high in sodium or high in fat, whether it be from oil or butter.
There’s some truth to the whole ethic of having sauce on the side, but it’s better to choose a restaurant that fits your lifestyle than just picking a random restaurant and having them put the sauce on the side.
How difficult is it to enjoy top notch cuisine and also stay fit?
I think in general you can go out and enjoy gourmet cuisine and still maintain a healthy lifestyle, but it depends on where you are in the world. In places like Tokyo, for example, you can get amazing gourmet food that’s still relatively on the light side. If you’re talking about western dining or French gourmet, then it’s probably a matter of how active you are in your lifestyle. I know a lot of friends in France who are absolutely gorgeous and they’re eating cheese and butter every day, but they also have a very active lifestyle- they’re not taking cars to work, they’re walking or biking, they’re getting out on the weekend and staying active.
Something that always surprises me in fancy recipes is how much butter, heavy cream, and cheese goes into the food. Do you ever think twice about adding that kind of stuff to a dish?
I never think twice at the moment because we always think very carefully before preparing a dish. Professional chefs who approach their job as a craft, not just an occupation, go through extensive drills to plan not just recipes, but dishes- how they’re structured, how they’re presented, and more importantly, what ingredients go into them.
Especially at our space here, everything’s crafted to the requirements of our guests. So if we know we have diabetics, celiacs, pescetarians, full vegans- we make sure everything is taken into account before we plan that menu.
You worked with Kenzai to develop a lot of training-friendly recipes. Do you have any that you like so much you'd enjoy them anytime, not just when you're in a training cycle and watching every gram?
I found a love for yogurt and vinegars, and still stay away from excess salt. These days I bind tuna fish sandwiches with yogurt instead of mayonnaise, or dress a large plate of vegetables with yogurt and rich, hearty herbs like cumin and arabic spices so those flavors really marry and transfer with the yogurt.
Suppose you had an extremely overweight "regular" at your restaurant with all the diseases of an indulgent lifestyle. Heart disease, gout, high cholesterol, that kind of thing. You know he's eating too much rich food too often and its taking its toll. Do you, as a chef,feel any responsibility for his condition? Would you feel any twinges of guilt serving him huge meals and desserts?
As a chef, it’s not on us to say whether that person’s health or body shape is dependent on us.
There are very few positions in this world as far as chefs or food service where you’re accountable in that you’re nourishing an individual on a daily basis. Chances are when people come to restaurants it’s at the end of the day. Restaurants are about escape, they’re about entertainment, and they’re about offering something that is not available at home. It’s meant to be a release point for people. As a chef, it’s not on us to say whether that person’s health or body shape is dependent on us.
Is there a special ingredient you couldn’t live without?
I would say a great olive oil, an olive oil that’s meant for seasoning. We have some exceptional olive oils in our space here, where you put a drop on a tomato, and it is now what a tomato should taste like. A great olive oil adds depth, body, seasoning... two or three drops is more than enough, that’s how pungent it is. We have a producer here in Hong Kong whose family has been making olive oil in Tuscany for 300 years, we’ve done several workshops with him and we’re looking forward to getting that olive oil online so those who want to buy it outside of Hong Kong will be one click away very shortly!
Nolan has a lot more to say about eating and living well, if you're ever in Hong Kong you should look him up. In addition to his own Umami Concepts kitchen, he's just launched a whole new enterprise called Crafted 852, which provides curated food and beverage experiences for the people of Hong Kong. It's great to see the enthusiasm and energy in the craft food and beverage space, people around the world are saying no to processed food and chain restaurants and embracing choices which are better for their bodies and local economies. I'm proud that Kenzai can be part of this movement to give power back to the people!