Every one of us has a horrendous experience of ‘canteen’ food. Whether it was in a hospital, at school, in an airport or at the workplace, canteen food has the tendency to be not only unappealing and unappetising but also not healthy.
Niko Romito, chef of the three Michelin star restaurant Reale at Casadonna in Castel di Sangro, Abruzzo, Italy believes this should not be the case.
He believes the nutritional aspects of food are often forgotten even when it comes to simple things like vegetables and he has set himself the task of changing this with a project he has been working on with the University La Sapienza and the Group Giomi/Gioservice to tackle hospital food. The aim behind the project is to improve the nutritional aspect of the food while respecting budgetary considerations. It is a project that has the potential to be applied to any time of ‘canteen’ or large scale cooking.
“A top down approach is more interesting than a bottom up approach,” Niko Romito believes. And while the nutritional aspect of cooking at his three Michelin star restaurant is not necessarily his focus, he believes that the food he serves is healthy and nutritious to be served in hospitals.
“At the very top, chefs are carrying out a lot of research, testing, experimenting. I am convinced that working from the top we can change things,” Niko told Food and Wine Gazette in an interview.
He uses the Formula One analogy. “The technology starts in formula one but then it is eventually used for the mass market. The same can be said for fine dining and canteen cooking. You can study the produce and then you can provide the change because you have the ability to influence people since more people follow you. You can afford to have 18 people working with you to carry out the research,” he said.
“For me, nutrition is the future. People today are more aware that what they eat impacts their health. The cook of the future is the one who has the experience and uses it in ways to improve the way we eat. Who is better than a chef to use this knowledge to help make the change and raise awareness. If we manage to codify and standardise the way things are cooked we will not only just improve the health of people but we will also educate them to eat better,” he said.
“If I take a six-year old and explain how they can eat vegetables, fish and pair the food and that child has been eating like that for 10 years his or her perspective on food will be completely different,” he said.
The Italian chef says there are many similarities between a chef in a high-end kitchen and one working in a canteen. “What is important is to understand what is happening to the produce. Once you understand a sauce it can be standardised. I use a lot of technique in my kitchen but it is not visible. That technique eventually helps me to standardise the process. That philosophy allows me to know what ingredients I need to use and also the costs involved. Once this is applied to large numbers, the results will always be the same even when cooked in large quantities. I’ve studied this model and if you go to a hospital using this method, the kitchen will look exactly like the Reale kitchen because I have standardised the process,” he said.
He uses the tomato sauce as an example. “When I make a tomato sauce, I know the percentage of tomato there is, the percentage of salt etc. I know at what temperature it will cook in a steam oven. I will work on the antioxidants, the colour, the flavour. But once that is done, as a chef, I can prepare exactly the same sauce 365 days a year.”
We tell the people working in the canteens how vegetables are cooked, the percentage of salt needed in water. “Previously all vegetables used to be cooked in the same way. We have compared our model with that of a hospital kitchen. Using the same produce like beans, broccoli and tomatoes, we have not increased costs and the improvements we’ve been able to make from a nutritional point of view have been incredible.”
He said that at the European level, the quality of the food is checked upon entry. “When a box of spinach arrives at the hospital it is checked. If it is good, the control has been done. No one has tested the end result which is absurd because when you are cooking ingredients you are transforming them. If I take the best bio spinach and then I destroy it when I cook it, I am creating a disaster. Many people speak about the importance of the quality of the produce. Of course this is important. But what is also important is the preparation because a bean might be exceptional but if you do not cook it well, it will lose all its nutritional aspects.”
Niko believes that a lot of education has gone into raising awareness on the importance of buying quality produce. “For me the next step is to communicate about how to transform that produce. Otherwise, we will not be able to benefit from the quality of the produce. This is why we need new communication platforms,” Niko said.