Training a New Generation of Chefs to Cook With Less Meat

The Culinary Institute of America wants to 'flip' the role of protein in restaurants.

A chef slices off the skin while preparing Peking duck. (Photo: Any Photography/Getty Images)

May 21, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Some of the most famous chefs and food personalities in the country learned how to do brunoises, turn vegetables, and cook steak at the Culinary Institute of America, one of the leading cooking schools in the country. But if Anthony Bourdain, a CIA alum, is known for championing all things meat, the school is hoping that the next generation of chefs will think a bit more like fellow alum and Top Chef winner Ilan Hall, who has a vegan ramen restaurant in Los Angeles. In two new publications released this week, CIA is calling on chefs to “rethink the ‘protein portfolio’ on their menus,” according to a release.

“Right now, chefs have a tendency to use the term protein to be synonymous with meat,” said Sophie Egan, the program director for Menus of Change, CIA’s partnership with the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. “And that’s something in the very wording that needs to change.” Egan and her colleagues are working to redefine chefs’ terminology in The Protein Flip, a graphics-heavy white paper published last week. Instead of diverting plants and grains into the production of meat, The Protein Flip calls on chefs to feed the plants directly to diners, “with much smaller amounts of accompanying animal protein.”

Meat has long stood at the center of the American plate, especially in restaurants, where—despite some of the great vegetable-centric cooking that's in vogue—vegetarian or vegan items often feel like more of an afterthought. But there is more to cooking with vegetables than a meatless pasta dish, veggie burger, or pile of mixed grilled vegetables, and the CIA wants chefs to explore the terrain. Americans eat three times as much meat as the global average, and more than half of that is red meat. As a recent report from the World Resources Institute highlighted, Americans eat far more protein than is nutritionally necessary.

But unlike reports on meat, diet, and the environment that are rooted in public health policy, the data in these documents includes percentages of mushrooms and other plant-based ingredients that can be blended into burger patties, and also the meat’s carbon footprint. “These are menu strategies that are versatile and can be adopted in any dining context,” from a corporate cafeteria setting to a fine-dining restaurant, Egan said, “but they have to lead with flavor. If it doesn’t taste good, then no one is going to eat it, and if no one eats it, then it isn’t going to make a difference.”

In addition to blended burgers, vegetables can be treated in a manner that recalls more meat-centric dishes. Examples from prominent chefs cited by CIA include hip cauliflower steaks, smoked vegetable preparations, and a dish of breaded carrot cutlets with pork Bolognese served by chef Dan Barber at his New York City restaurant Blue Hill.

Instead of asking people to not eat meat, The Protein Flip suggests eating less and different kinds of animal protein and increasing the amount of plant-based proteins included in meals. Instead of a portion of meat occupying the center of the plate with some vegetables on the side, the idea is to flip the balance, with plants making up more of a dish and meat moving into a condiment-like role. Why not serve two ounces of meat in a dish instead of eight or more? Animal-based protein sources (including eggs and dairy) account for 85 percent of the protein Americans consume (20 percent of that is chicken), with legumes, for example, coming in at just 1.3 percent of the total.

There’s a public health angle here too. As the white paper explains, high levels of meat consumption can lead to diet-related disease and drives the use of antibiotics in livestock. Conversely, minimally processed plant-based proteins are, according to the paper, “associated with a lower risk of chronic disease and mortality,” in addition to requiring fewer resources.

The second, more guidance-focused paper, called The Protein Play, includes menu-planning advice. For example, it says to “feature a greater diversity of seafood species from sustainable wild and farmed sources” and to use eggs and poultry in moderation “because while poultry production has a lower environmental footprint than that of red meat, it still represents higher negative impacts than production of plant-based protein sources.”

Egan is clear that moderation is the key here. “We are not advocating for veganism or vegetarianism,” she said, noting that some people have misconstrued the “plants-forward” approach these papers call for as a push for meatless diets. “We’re trying to reach mainstream American culture.”