Tuesday’s opening session of the Menus of Change leadership summit, held at The Culinary Institute of America’s Hyde Park campus in upstate New York, touched on a variety of topics, everything from mammoth meat to global warming. But perhaps the most fitting comment was saved for last.

Walter Willett, the renowned Department of Nutrition chair from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, noted, “The 8,000-pound gorilla is really a 2,000-pound steer,” in the waning moments of the three-day conference’s introductory discussion. Co-presented by the CIA and Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, this year’s Menus of Change centers on the convergence of environmental and nutritional science, and public policy. With a nod to plant-forward cuisine, the fourth edition of the conference aims to advance healthy, sustainable cuisine, both from a business and practical standpoint. Willett’s comment drew a bold line under an overriding theme—that meat-centric diets are playing, in many cases, a very damaging role in the health of individuals, the environment, and the overall future of the planet.

“Environmental concerns are now a cost, not just a risk,” he says. That issue is pointing in a positive direction, however, which means this market, from an operator standpoint, is primed for exploration. “If you step back and look over a long period of time, people do make changes in their diets,” he adds. “… It’s simply not true that people won’t change their diets.”

In fact, a 1999 to 2012 study conducted by Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health showed that healthier eating habits prevented 1.1 million premature deaths during that span. While there’s plenty of room to grow, Willett believes positive steps are being taken. Tuesday’s sessions focused on the debate from several angles. Thinking about our lifespans, and our planet’s for that matter, it’s going to be crucial to start redrawing center-of-the-plate norms.

Tim Ryan, the president of the CIA, began by talking about some of the conference’s achievements before delving into what’s ahead. He didn’t take long, however, to jump into the protein discussion. In one example, he pointed to a blind burger test where they kept increasing a mushroom blend until participants noticed. It turned out a 70/30 mix of beef and the earthy vegetable didn’t bother consumers. Rather, the mix actually produced a patty that didn’t swell in the middle and needed less salt—another topic of much discussion—thanks to the umami profile.

Seeing as Americans eat some 50 million burgers a year, Ryan says, even making a small dent in this sector would yield major results. Ryan also opened the conversation into not strictly vegetarian, but vegetable-starring cuisine. He pointed to successful operators like Amanda Cohen of New York City’s Dirt Candy, who offers grilled and smoked broccoli hot dogs (there’s no meat), and Eleven Madison Park’s Daniel Humm and Will Guidara’s efforts. The famed Big Apple restaurant duo recently presented a carrot tartare to guests. Also, they have plans to open a fast-casual spot called Made Nice that will focus on grains and seasonal vegetables.

“I’m feeling good about the direction taste makers are taking this industry,” Ryan says, mentioning several other vegetable-friendly chefs, including Josè Andrès and his Washington, D.C., fast casual Beefsteak, as well as Jean-Georges Vongerichten's upcoming meatless restaurant ABCV. “Key taste makers and innovators are embracing these [Menus of Change] principles and are having great success with it. … This is qualitative evidence of a vegetable revolution.”

David Katz, the director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center and the president of American College of Lifestyle Medicine, gave a rousing take on diets and their surrounding myths. He began by taking aim at the trendy paleo form, which tries to mirror the eating habits of early man.

“When we talk about the meat-centricity of the Paleolithic diet, the meat itself is very different,” he says. “We’re not eating mammoth. … If they’re going to eat game [meat] and lots of insects, then fine. But that’s not what most people want to do.”

Katz also touched on many of Willett’s points, saying that 80 percent of premature deaths could be avoided by improving how we eat.

The last topic of the day explored global warming. Notably, how the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP 21, held in Paris, did little, if anything, to address food’s role in the conversation. Roni Neff, an assistant professor of environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and the director of food system sustainability and public health at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, referred to the “Climatarian Diet” as having more plants, less meat, and producing less waste. “If waste is 40 percent of our food supply, that’s a lot of greenhouse gas emissions that didn’t need to happen,” she explains.

All of these topics, including a plenary session on fish, seafood, and oceans, will be explored in further detail during sessions Wednesday and Thursday at the CIA.

By Danny Klein

Burgers, Consumer Trends, News, Sustainability