The importance of catering for the health-conscious consumer

Once upon a time, eating healthily was an afterthought. Something niche that only a small group of people were interested in, and that very few indeed would care about when dining out at a restaurant.

And most of those who did care would go to a dedicated health food spot full of greenery and raw things where diets win over deliciousness, rather than a chef-led restaurant.

But that’s not the case anymore. Over the last couple of years — and especially in the past six months — health-conscious dining has put down roots and made it into the mainstream.

Now restaurateurs are finding that offering a range of healthy dishes is important for keeping their business in good shape, as well as their customers.

There are a number of factors at play which have spurred on this turnaround. The so-called clean eating brigade, including Hemsley + Hemsley and Deliciously Ella, have done their bit to make nutrition trendy, while Jamie Oliver is just one of many high profile figures who have been extolling the virtues of eating well.

With this, people’s expectations of how good healthy food can taste has been substantially upped. These personalities and others have shown that a balanced meal doesn’t have to be a boring one, and that there’s no reason why food that does you good shouldn’t taste great.

Also, as the UK becomes increasingly food obsessed and our restaurant industry booms — especially in London — people are choosing to eat out more than ever. In fact, research shows that despite the average price of a meal going down in the last couple of years, the total amount people spend on dining has gone up and up as they do so more frequently.

It makes good sense that people who view restaurant meals as a regular part of their diet, rather than a rare treat, will want to ensure that what they’re eating is balanced as opposed to splurging on a dinner out and making up for it with miniscule meals when eating at home.

Restaurants need to make sure that their menus reflect this mind change, and that they are dishing up a decent portion of choice which allows customers to eat healthily as well as heartily — all the while making sure not to alienate those who want to leave nutrition at home for the night.

Here are five winning ways to ensure the health-conscious consumer is well catered for:

Seasonal supper-heroes

There are many reasons why eating and serving seasonal food is important, but most of all because this is when it is at its most delicious. As a result if you use top produce that is at its prime, there’s often no need to add overly rich accompaniments, making it much healthier. On the new summer menu at Swan, Shakespeare’s Globe, Allan Pickett pairs grilled asparagus with a fried duck egg and chopped hazelnuts. Because it has so much flavour of its own there’s no need to cook it in butter, and he instead opts for just a little rapeseed oil.

Veg up

With vegetarians obviously excepted, most of us eat far too much meat — it’s bad for the planet and bad for our health. More and more people are recognising this and starting to cut back. This might be through ideas such as meat-free Mondays, or simply trying to cut down portion sizes. Restaurants can do their bit by ensuring that they offer plenty of creative dishes that put veg in the limelight so there’s lots to take the fancy of diners that’s not flesh. At Swan, Shakespeare’s Globe a summer dish of steamed Somerset spelt with asparagus, Cornish Yarg and parsley purée is wholesome but also vibrantly flavoured.

Lightly does it

We all love a good gutsy meal from time-to-time, but many dishes are actually better when they’re made a little lighter. Chefs and restaurants are often keen to reach for the cream and butter to make decadent sauces, when actually the modern diner craves something altogether fresher. One of Allan Pickett’s signature dishes on Swan’s dinner menu pairs sliced scallops with Granny Smith apple and a little squid ink mayonnaise. It is vibrant, brightly flavoured and refreshingly light.

Ready for requirements

A health-conscious menu isn’t all about low fat or plenty of veg. Many customers have food allergies, intolerances and preferences. A good menu should be able to accommodate the most common of these while still leaving diners with a bit of choice. It’s worth making sure there is a good scattering of gluten-free, dairy-free and of course vegetarian and vegan options.

A fruity finish

There is excellent fruit available in this country, so use it. Of course, diners will sometimes want gooey chocolate puddings and cheese boards, but if done in the right way almost any final course is all the better for the addition of some fruit — and it means diners finish feeling like they have had a more balanced meal. On his summer menu, Allan serves a steamed chocolate pudding with a berry compote (its sharpness cuts through the rich pudding perfectly), Kentish strawberries with a set buttermilk cream, and a rhubarb crumble tart.

There’s always room for something naughty though, as they say: everything in moderation, including moderation itself!

 

Season’s eatings: revel in nature’s abundance at this time of year

There are so many sound reasons to eat seasonally — from the environment, sustainability and cost to finding the fullest flavours.

One particularly rewarding, less well-documented benefit to planning your meals around nature rather than a supermarket shelf is the natural variety it brings.

 

Two of life’s biggest joys are exploration and experimentation, and being presented with an ever-changing line-up of available produce necessitates both of these things — whether you’re cooking at home or planning a restaurant menu that shows off the season.

 

If you stick wholeheartedly to nature’s calendar, no fortnight’s meals will be the same as the last. And thanks to varying weather (and changing climate) neither will one year’s timeline match the previous. You really do never know what ingredients will be rubbing shoulders with each other until they’re picked and on the plate.

 

As we move into the latter part of spring and see the first signs of summer, Britain’s produce is at its most fast-paced. Each week we are seeing the arrival to market of new seasonal stars, from young veg to eager fruit and flavour-packed leaves.

 

Top of the pile at this time of year is England’s almighty asparagus, a vibrant, verdant envy of the world. In fact, it is to many the regimented rising of the first asparagus stalks above soil that signals the start of the warm season and all the fabulous feasting that goes with it. Eat the grassy young shoots as simply as you can — perhaps lightly grilled and drizzled with sea salt and a touch of oil.

It’s also the time for samphire, known as asparagus of the sea due to its fondness for rocky, seaside locations. For chefs and diners alike, its subtle salty tang is hard to beat and goes especially well with fish. At Swan, Shakespeare’s Globe, Executive Chef Allan Pickett pairs it with roast hake, cockles and cocoa beans.

Samphire also pairs extremely well with crab, its salty tang cutting through the richness of the buttery brown meat. Handily, crab is also coming into season —  it’s as if nature new what it was doing!

 

If it’s a question of the season’s most high-profile ingredient, Jersey’s famous Jersey Royal new potatoes would take the crown. They are so iconic that they have a Protected Designation of Origin thanks to their light skin and nutty, earthy characteristics. Cook them simply to let these flavours shine, and whatever you do don’t peel them. They are on the menu at Swan West Malling, simply crushed and served with roasted sea bream, confit fennel and horseradish yoghurt.

 

Wild garlic, a much sought-after leaf with a beautifully gentle garlicky flavour, is also bang in season and a true short-lived pleasure. If you’re lucky enough to be able to forage your own, then enjoy it. The rest of us will have to pay but it is worth it. At Swan, Shakespeare’s Globe, Allan Pickett uses it to make a vibrant sauce to accompany slow-cooked ox cheek, making the most of its citrusy freshness. It also goes incredibly well with lamb, a meat which has become the poster child of spring.

 

Another food with no shortage of seasonal profile is rhubarb, which is also now in full flow. Whether from its heartland around Yorkshire or elsewhere in the UK, this unique vegetable is the perfect foil to creamy rice puddings or panna cottas. And when the English weather rather reliably leaves us cold, what better way to warm up inside and out than with a classic rhubarb crumble?

The best part of the season is that all of this really is just the tip of the Iceberg lettuce. This wonderful season is a time to revel in nature’s abundance and ensure you feast on as much of it as you can, because the beauty of seasons is that just as fast as they come around, off they go again.

About Diccon Wright

Christopher Diccon Wright is a restaurateur and property specialist who has established and grown successful operations in the UK and Mediterranean. He has also worked on a consultancy and advisory basis for a wide range of food and property clients.