Meet Natalia Rusin, Rouge Tomate’s healthy fare hall monitor. (If you haven’t been, Rouge Tomate is one of the city’s healthiest modern American restaurants, which just last week landed a Michelin star.) As the kitchen’s culinary nutritionist, a new field that combines chef skills and nutrition, Rusin has the unique responsibility of implementing strict ingredient guidelines and analyzing the nutritional value of every dish—no small feat given Chef Jeremy Bearman’s ever-changing seasonal menu. Also part of the job—frequent dining in the restaurant to make sure no butter is being slipped into the Whole Roasted Brook Trout with heirloom cauliflower and chanterelles. Well+Good recently sat down with this dietary whip-cracker to discuss the job’s challenges.
We’ve never heard the term “culinary nutritionist.” Can you explain?
I’m trained in both culinary arts and nutrition, which means I make recommendations about food preparation and nutritional value and assist the chefs in creating well-balanced, nutrient-dense dishes. I also help executive chef Jeremy Bearman adhere to the guidelines of our culinary charter called SPE.
What is the SPE charter?
Chefs and nutritionists developed the charter, which stands for sanitas per escam (Latin for “health through food”). It’s also an acronym for our sourcing, preparing, and enhancing methods—we’re very careful about ingredient selection, use specific cooking methods that preserve or enhance food’s intrinsic nutritional properties. That’s what creates a wonderful meal and leaves you feeling great.
So you preview the menus, and act as a nutritional checks-and-balances system for Chef Bearman?
Yes, a dish doesn’t go on the menu until I’ve analyzed it. I also spend time in the kitchen during dinner service to keep an eye on preparation and ensure that nothing changes. And to make sure the dishes haven’t strayed from the original, analyzed recipe, I dine at the restaurant a lot.
Your dishes are gorgeous. Why is hard for most chefs to cook interesting, healthy food?
Classically trained chefs have a hard time forgoing certain rich ingredients like butter, cream, and cheese. Of course, we don’t use butter or cream in our appetizers or entrees. We spotlight the flavors of local, seasonal produce, which taste great, and our chefs make them look beautiful, too. Once chefs cook this way for a while, it’s hard for them to go back to their old ways.
Is there a cooperative vibe in the kitchen? Surely you must not always see eye to eye.
Creating delicious dishes that are really good for you is our goal, not just mine. We were just awarded a Michelin Star last week, which was so tremendous for us, so it looks like we’re accomplishing it.
Final question: What is your favorite healthy “junk food?” Is it the delicious lemon popcorn at the bar?
I toss air-popped popcorn with extra virgin olive oil, sea salt, cracked black pepper, and a little grated Parmesan. It’s so simple, and tastes really good.