Survey: Chefs focus on pizzazz, not calorie counts
If you don't pay attention to calories when deciding how much of something to eat, you might want to know that the chefs serving it to you...
The Associated Press
BOSTON — If you don't pay attention to calories when deciding how much of something to eat, you might want to know that the chefs serving it to you don't either.
A survey of 300 restaurant chefs around the country reveals that taste, looks and customer expectations are what matter when they determine portion size. Only one in six said calorie content was very important and half said it didn't matter at all.
While it may make diners happy to get piles of pasta and mountains of meat, they'll pay the price in pounds, said doctors at the annual meeting of the Obesity Society, where the survey was presented Saturday.
Chefs agreed that big servings encourage people to eat too much, but said it's up to the diner to decide how much to consume — and how much to take home.
Portion sizes have bloated during the last few decades, a trend that worries doctors because two-thirds of Americans eat at least one meal a week at restaurants, which increasingly offer a dizzying array of diverse and fattening cuisine.
"As you increase portion sizes or the variety of meals served, people are going to consume more calories," said Thomas Wadden, president of the Obesity Society and director of the Center for Weight and Eating Disorders at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.
He had no part in the study, which was led by Barbara Rolls, an obesity researcher at Pennsylvania State University. She and others gave questionnaires to chefs attending culinary meetings last year. More than 400 responded, and 300 who gave complete answers formed the final sample.
Two-thirds were executive chefs at fine- or casual-dining restaurants, and the rest were assistant or kitchen chefs. Most had worked at least 20 years, and three-fourths had a degree in culinary arts.
Chefs said these factors strongly influence portion size: food presentation (70 percent), cost (65 percent) and customer expectations (52 percent). Only 16 percent said calories were a big influence.
"Most of them thought they were serving regular-sized portions," Rolls said, but four out of five gave more than the recommended 2 ounces for pasta and 3 ounces for strip steak.
Portions are a touchy subject and some chains outright refused to discuss it.
But at The Cheesecake Factory, "we're known for our generous portions" and the value they offer, said Howard Gordon, a senior vice president of the chain whose signature dish is dozens of varieties of cheesecake.
"There is a 'wow' factor in the way that it looks," he said of the food.
Eric Bogardus, executive chef at Boston's Vox Populi, a trendy American bistro-style restaurant, said too-large portions "corner people" into eating too much of one dish, he said, so he keeps his on the small side.
But he doesn't hesitate to adjust when he feels a dish demands it, like serving half a duck instead of the duck breast that most restaurants serve.
"If you're going to have a duck, you have to have a leg. That's where the flavor is."
Chefs, after all, are cooks — not diet coaches.
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.