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Why more chefs are taking a risk in the name of wellness

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Photo: Facebook/The Wild Son

The idea that food is medicine isn’t exactly the sexiest concept when it comes to fine dining. As far as critics and diners are concerned, usually it’s: the more decadent, the better. (That’s why there’s a two-hour wait to get a Black Tap milkshake.)

But recently, a group of celebrated chefs with major industry cred are changing that—with David Bouley leading the way. While the New York City culinary star has never been an over-the-top unhealthy type (even in the ‘80s his French cooking didn’t have the usual heavy cream), his decision to temporarily close his beloved Bouley restaurant next year and open an entirely new uber-healthy 25-seat eatery, marks a major shift in the food world. And it’s all because of his passionate belief in the healing powers of food. (Bouley’s other restaurants Brushstroke and Bouley Botanical will remain open, as will Bouley Test Kitchen, which will move to a new location.)

It’s all because of his passionate belief in the healing powers of food.

The chef and restaurateur will be on sabbatical, studying with the country’s most sought-after doctors and traveling around the world to learn other countries’ holistic secrets. He rattles off the names of Harvard- and Cornell-educated physicians as if they are part of his Saturday night squad, casually mentioning the tests they perform on how various foods affect the body, specifically for him.

When Bouley’s new restaurant opens in two years, the emphasis will be on teaching people how to cook healthier at home. It’s clear he’s morphing from chef to holistic healer.

Keep reading to learn what the future holds for a healthier Bouley—plus, why the star chef is not alone in making fine dining a bit more wholesome.

Originally posted September 16, 2016. Updated March 7, 2017.

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Photo: Facebook/Bouley Restaurant

Adding teaching to the menu

“I’ve given away over 300 copies of Dr. Frank Lipman’s book, The New Health Rules, he says. “It’s changed lives. People have to realize that they have to focus on learning how to cook the foods that they need—and it’s my job to teach them.”

It’s taken decades for Bouley to feel confident making the transition from student to teacher. “I started going to Japan 18 years ago and seeing huge results from ancient ingredients,” he says. “Everything [Japanese chefs] cook with has a medical purpose.” Bouley has also traveled to Cuba to observe the benefits of biodynamic farming, and how soil quality affects the nutrient density in produce—something he’s working with a Cornell doctor to test in labs.

“People have to realize that they have to focus on learning how to cook the foods that they need—and it’s my job to teach them.”
– David Bouley

Bouley 2.0

So how exactly is Bouley going to bring all his knowledge to the masses? Recently, he hosted a dinner series, where diners hear a lecture by a renowned doctor, paired with a super nutritious meal. “The doctors talk about the foods they’ve seen results with firsthand, and then I tell people how they can incorporate those ingredients into their cooking,” Bouley says of the series.

And then of course there will be the big opening of his new locale, which will be as much of a classroom as it is a restaurant. He describes it as being spacious and romantic, with an unusual seating arrangement: Diners will be positioned to actually watch the chefs cook. And instead of using typical restaurant kitchen equipment, they’ll be using home appliances (albeit very nice ones), so diners know how to re-create their meal at home.

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Photo: Flickr/T.Tseng

The growing crew of healthy chefs

And Bouley isn’t the only chef revolutionizing the food scene in a big, health-focused way. In New York City, Hearth owner Marco Canora famously opened Brodo after experiencing firsthand the healing powers of bone broth (and soon after, tweaked his Hearth menu to be a little more wholesome). Ditto for Springbone owner Jordan Feldman. Even Nobu is going sugar-free, now using monk fruit in their entrees, desserts, and cocktails.

Restaurateurs Robert Ceraso and Jason Mendenhall were living the typical service industry lifestyle, working long hours and eating whenever and whatever they could (read: not typically something healthy), when they opened The Wayland and Good Night Sonny in NYC. Even though The Wayland’s food menu was veggie-focused (despite the bacon and pork belly trends that were popular at the time), Ceraso says he wasn’t eating all that nutritiously in his personal life. Then he turned 40.

“It was like my body switched and said, ‘Hey, you need more vegetables now.'”

“When I hit 40 and had a couple kids, I started seeking out healthier, natural foods,” he says. “It wasn’t really a conscious choice. It was more what I was craving. It was like my body switched and said, ‘Hey, you need more vegetables now.'”

The lifestyle switch manifested itself in Ceraso’s and Mendenhall’s newest brunch destination, The Wild Son in the Meatpacking District. The menu touts gluten-free buckwheat pancakes, roasted cauliflower with soft scrambled eggs, and a beverage menu with drinking vinegars and a charcoal-infused soda. “The concept to have a healthy menu wasn’t really a discussion Jason and I had,” Ceraso says. “It was more just like, this is what we eat now.”

Union Square Cafe, Tabla, and ABC Kitchen alum Dan Kluger is currently in the process of crafting the menu of his upcoming restaurant (opening this fall) and says it will definitely be veggie-centric. (Fellow ABC Kitchen chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten is exploring plant-based cooking as well—his vegetarian restaurant abcV opened this month.)

In Kluger’s opinion, the timing is finally right—he doesn’t see it as much of a risk as it would have been a few years ago.

“There are plenty of places that are serving vegetables at a high-end level, like Eleven Madison Park serving carrot tartare,” he says. His meat-on-the-side approach stems from his background in nutrition, and says his love for plants grew at Union Square Cafe and Tabla, where he really got to know the farmers growing the food they sourced.

In Kluger’s opinion, the timing is finally right—he doesn’t see it as much of a risk as it would have been a few years ago.

“It was so eye-opening for me to go to the different farms and see how things grew, what their different strengths and qualities were,” he says. “Even learning about new breeds of grapes, for example, that I didn’t know existed. I’d bring that knowledge back and craft the menu around what I’d seen and learned.”

Menus crafted by personal knowledge instead of food trends set by the masses—it shouldn’t be as revolutionary as it actually is. Hey, maybe soon we’ll eventually shake off that whole “American food is so bad for you” cliche.

Even meat-loving Momofuku founder David Chang is putting a vegan burger on his menu. Find out why—and how it tastes. And if you’re looking for somewhere to eat tonight, here’s a list of the 21 buzziest, healthy restaurants in New York City.