How I Decide What You Should Eat

August 8, 2010

My menu at The Monk’s Kettle has morphed over the last two years. I’ve grown exponentially in regards to how I approach food, how I design menus and what people should eat when they enter the restaurant. I’ve also watched many documentaries on food, have researched animal husbandry and why people buy organic. Here are some of the products that I chose and why I chose them.

The approach I took with how I created the original menu at The Monk’s Kettle was the ingredients had to be natural. I’ve not always been able to do this in past restaurants because I was really never in the decision-making position to have these items available. There were always obstacles which were mostly surrounded around budget. I would see chefs I worked under being given direction to steer away from higher end products in order to keep their food costs in line. We took a different approach at Monk’s. We provide the best product that is available and the cost was passed along to the customer. They know what they are buying and will pay to have the best products presented to them.

I always used natural proteins like Creekstone, Naturewell and Premium Gold angus beef. There was never any other option. It had to be hormone, chemical free and humane cattle raising practices had to be in place in order for them to be able to sell the product to my restaurant. Our chicken, pork and lamb all followed suit. In my strive to keep moving forward with natural products took a turn when I watched the documentary Food Inc. I learned during the viewing of this film that beef cattle in the vast majority of ranches across the country were fed mainly on corn. This was not ever to ensure they had a vegetarian diet but was merely a way to increase the weight of the cattle to give the purveyors of this product a higher yield. Actually cattle cannot digest corn at all and have to be given antibiotics because of the acid produced trying to digest something that their stomachs are not designed to do caused ulcerations in their stomaches which could kill them so they were pumped full of chemicals to keep them healthy and keep them eating corn.

This practice raised serious questions in my mind so I made a call that evening to my meat company representative asking him what feed my steer were given since he said it was a vegetarian diet and low and behold, corn was used as a finishing feed to fatten them up right before processing. I immediately removed this product from my menu and went with two different types of grass-fed only beef. Estancia Beef from Uruguay and Humbolt Grass Fed beef from Humbolt County family farms in Northern California. There was no other choice. The bi-product of serving corn-fed beef to Americans has also helped in the increased obesity problem not to mention the resistance to antibiotics many Americans face from the diet they choose.

I take what I serve very seriously. If there is organic produce available, I will only buy organic. Chefs I don’t think are outspoken enough about the importance of buying grass-fed beef, organic produce and using products that do not contain trans fats. My olive oil I use in my vinaigrettes is thirty dollars a gallon. The honey I use for my cheese plates and dressings comes from a family owned California bee farm. Again, only the best for my customers. My eggs are cage free, my milk and cream are all natural. I recently read a food blog where the question was who had the best french fries and the overwhelming majority said McDonald’s. Do they know how many chemicals go into the making of those things including the use of beef fat? High fructose corn syrup? It is absolutely never to see my kitchens dry storage. I encourage chefs and restaurateurs to re-examine what they put on people’s plates before they serve it to them. It speaks volumes on their own philosophies on the appreciation of good, wholesome food.

11 Responses to “How I Decide What You Should Eat”

  1. lisa hopping said

    awesome!!!! totally awesome!!!

  2. Kevin, I am so impressed with how you are running your restaurant, way to make a great example! I think more and more chefs are being more responsible about what they serve their guests, as they should be.I don’t mind paying a bit more to ensure the food is of the highest quality and sustainably procured, and if you love food you shouldn’t either. Hopefully one day soon I will be able to sample your creations, in the meantime I will send my bay area friends your way for some recon.

  3. TR said

    Kevin,

    While I respect your principles, your convictions, and the choices you’ve made with your menu selections, the thing I’d love to point out is that for an average family of four, eating organic and/or vegetarian/vegan becomes increasingly more expensive. In a country running double-digit unemployment, the bulk of our country cannot afford 30+ dollars a plate for a meal. But they can afford a 6 dollar a person jaunt over to MickeyD’s to treat the kids. Access to affordable, clean and organic food is increasingly difficult. For cripes sake, you’re importing beef from Uruguay. The average American doesn’t have access to resources like that, and they don’t have the cash to spend on it.

    When I have a choice, I personally prefer true organic vegetables, and free range meat. But after losing a job, I have the tradeoff between eating organic meals 4 days a week or eating non-organic 7 days a week. I certainly don’t eat in restaurants nearly as often as I once did.

    What I would really love to see is initiative on the parts of chefs and restauranteurs to find a way to make organic ingredients affordable. Mass production in farming and produce is only more affordable because people buy it the most. If the money could reasonably be re-routed to more organic and free range production, that would be wonderful. But the impact individual consumers have will be negligible compared to the economic pressure the restaurant industry and commercial food production industry could place on producers.

    Unfortunately, especially in the last 2 years, more people have had their diets determined by economics and not nutrition. Hopefully, that will be reduced in the years ahead. Until then, keep working towards a positive impact on your diner’s diets, and keep cooking great food.

    • TR, there are plenty of resources on the net as well as locally that can meet the needs of people with budget incomes for example using farmers markets to purchase organic and sustainable vegetables that would be normally marked up by more than 30% in the grocery stores. No one ever suggests that you must eat organic and grass fed products. My point comes directly from a restaurant to table mentality. The problems with families that have diets that consist of fast food vs. budgets is that the trade off is far worse in regards to health issues ie; obesity, diabetes and cancer when consuming products from places like McDonald’s than doing research and planning meals. I for one know the issues with having to plan my meals on a budget and it’s really frustrating. I also have access to great farmers markets and try to store accordingly so I don’t have to use fast food as a meal replacer but we all have our moments. Thanks for the feedback.

      http://www.350.org/
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  4. @TR

    I understand the debate here well, but I have to disagree with you a little bit. I think the whole price over organic and natural food is very much over exaggerated a bit.

    Does it cost more to shop at Whole Foods Market for example over your local grocery store or Walmart? Ya…sure it does. But by how much? I’ve done the shopping and comparisons myself and overall it doesn’t add up for that much more on a monthly, weekly, daily etc basis. Again, this depends on what you buy.

    That being said…Shopping at a place like Whole Foods is still expensive compared to buying things fresh from farmers markets, first hand off farms or from butchers. You would be surprised how cheap you can find natural organic food at a lot of these places.

    Yes, you have a point and I understand it. I also understand that it’s different for those that actually have to worry about their large families. I just think the point (not just your, but the whole idea or organic and natural being so expensive) has been grossly over hyped. It’s not just for movie stars anymore.

    @Kevin

    Keep taking what you do very seriously…I mean have fun and live your passion…but take your passion seriously. It’s not just a line cook job at Chili’s…when you’re living your passion…it has to be part of your life constantly. Can’t wait to stop by Monk’s Kettle when in the area! 🙂

    Ilya

  5. Scott said

    Kevin,

    Nice blog and great post! I think you and the other folks are highlighting one of the great debates that is beginning to occur in this country regarding the cost vs. quality of food available. It’s become well known and documented that bad food is cheap. Fat is cheap to produce as are salt and all the other chemicals that go into pre-processed and fast foods. It’s easy to see tons of examples just by googling them.

    Organics have a higher cost because of their more limited production as well as their higher susceptibility to damage in transit. Good, organic produce doesn’t look as pretty in a grocery store and it doesn’t last as long on the shelf… that adds to the cost.

    Part of that can be avoided by going to the farmer’s markets or co-ops and getting things direct from the grower but that’s only really effective during the summer; all the farmer’s markets vanish around the end of August/September where I live. That leaves places like New Seasons or Whole Foods or a couple of co-ops that are 15+ miles away. That’s a little counter productive having to drive 30 miles round trip just to eat organic.

    Here’s some real world pricing examples…

    I have three people that live with me including two teenage boys. One 3 pound tub of bing cherries from Costco will last us about 3 days; they are $9.00 for the tub or about $3 a pound. Organic Bing cherries at my local New Seasons Market run $6 a pound… double the price. A pineapple at Costco… $3. At New Seasons? $5. I am a carnivore… I love a good steak. A decent pack of ribeyes at Costco is $7.99 a pound; New Seasons… $13.99 a pound for organic beef. When feeding four adults, that price difference adds up quick and over time, it becomes incredibly expensive to eat just organics. (Side note: This in no way is meant to be a comprehensive examination of Costco vs. new seasons… both have stuff that is cheaper and more expensive. Hell, Costco has a tremendous amount of organic food throughout their store; and it’s priced accordingly. These examples are simply things that I know the prices on and they exemplify the difference between shopping cheap and shopping organic on the same, exact items.)

    Throw in a job loss or economic hardship and it is damn near impossible because non-organic food is just so damned cheap. Eat at a place like McDonald’s or Burger King and it gets even cheaper by sticking to their dollar menu. Studies have been done that show one of the causes of malnutrition in this country- the USA- is that too many poor families that live at or below the poverty line eat too much of their daily caloric intake at fast food places because they’re so freaking cheap for the volume of food. When you’re hungry and broke, a $3 value meal will fill you up more and for longer than a $3 organic apple from the co-op. All of that fat has a higher caloric density and will make the person feel full longer than the apple will. And yes… I have bought a $3 apple at a co-op before; it was a big apple, but it was still just an apple.

    Kevin, what I take away from your post is that you have really gone the extra mile to ensure you are getting only the best quality ingredients for your restaurant and your patrons. And that is awesome… because at the end of the day, all your patrons know is that you’re feeding them great *tasting* food; but you know it’s actually great *quality* food-which is exactly what I’m looking for when I go out to eat. Give me ambiance, give me great service and give me excellent food and I’ll be back over and over again. Keep up the great work… and keep writing the blog. It’s a good read.

    • I absolutely agree Scott. My wife and I lived in Kentucky when we moved back in 2000. We were basically broke and she was out of work and I had to step down from my previous chef position and take a line cook job just to pay rent. Trust me, the fast food was flying onto our tables regularly. I am a proponent of organic food but I’m also a realist. You can’t always afford or actually have available the best products around but I do know one thing is that we finally learned our lesson and went to Costco and cooked our own meals after the pounds started to pack on vs. fast food which we will never do again regardless of our income status. There are options when buying food and if you have a family of four who spend 20 dollars at Burger King, it is very easy to get a full home cooked meal with that same money. We just had to learn to slow down, get a shopping list together and cook the food. It has been a great lesson for both of us. Thanks for reading!

  6. TR said

    Kevin,

    Just wanted to chime back in. The access to local markets and organic produce is easy out here in the suburbs, and even moreso if I went a hundred miles northwest towards the area where I attended college. The area out that way is much more rural, neighbors are further apart, and it’s 10 to 20 miles between Wal-Marts.

    Out here in the burbs, I’m no more than 5 minutes from a Kroger, Randalls, WalMart, Target, Fiesta, or any of a number of large-scale chain grocery stores. But I’m 25 miles from the nearest Whole Foods & 30 miles from the nearest Central Market. We have local markets around here (one Cajun, and a bunch of Mexican carnicerias/panderias). There’s just not the emphasis on farmer’s markets and such this close (~25 miles) to downtown Houston. Even then, there’s no guarantee that the produce in those markets is pesticide free or “organic”. With small-scale farms, I have a hard time believing the local growers around here don’t use pesticide–that’s their livelihood they’re risking if they don’t keep the bugs off. Longer growing seasons also translate to longer periods of time where environmentally sensitive insects and pests are active.

    I don’t even want to think about living downtown. Sure, in the Heights or Midtown, where incomes are drastically higher than normal, there are specialty markets and boutique/artisan food shops. But those areas aren’t where the middle and low income folks live. I’m scared to google “Starbucks” or “McDonald’s” for the downtown area.

    The other thing to take into account regarding fast food is the parameters of the average American’s work day. At work by 8am, with a half hour or more commute. That means waking up well before the sun to get showered, shaved, and dressed. Then you’re in a car for the time that a standard breakfast would be eaten during school days (6.30 to 7.30) as a child. With breakfast being eaten earlier, and lunch lasting but an hour, finding a quick, filling lunch is pretty important. Five to six hours after lunch (if one is lucky), the average worker gets to fight traffic home for another 30 to 90 minutes, putting them home between 6.30 and 7.30pm at night. Then it’s time to get dinner prepped, cooked, and eaten. Eating around 8pm was normal in my household growing up with two working parents. Being in bed by 9.30 or 10pm, after eating the first meal in 8 hours (which means we usually eat more than we should), just adds to the metabolic problems begun by the crap we shove in our bodies.

    And that’s if you’re working a traditional job. Working in restaurants, my days started between 6.30am (kitchen) and 10.30am (waiting). Then I’d work 8 to 16 hours, with a short lunch break where pounding calories into my body was more important than where they came from–just to stay on my feet for the dinner shift. Getting off between 10pm and 1am didn’t leave me with a lot of thought for anything but getting food in my body quick.

    These statements are not meant as excuses for eating crap food, or rushing through life without taking care of our bodies. They’re simply meant to illustrate how the constant pressure to rush has put Americans in a place where they are less concerned with what they put in their bodies than they are about how quickly they can put it in their bodies. It’s a societal emphasis on “right now”. See: toaster, microwave, iPhone, iPad, high speed internet, email, OnDemand cable programming, cell phones, puddle jumpers, and any of thousands of different things we do in our day that are normal for us now–but were revolutionary shortcuts when they debuted. Why on God’s green earth would someone pay 5 dollars for a cup of coffee? It takes 5-10 minutes to brew one person’s quantity of coffee. But we’d rather pay 10x what we should to wait 30-90 seconds than take the time to do things for ourselves in 10 minutes, for 10% of the cost. People are more willing to sacrifice money than they are time.

    The societal epidemic isn’t so much obesity–it’s the ingrained, instilled, and very broken decision-making process that is nurtured through youth and into adulthood. The belief that sacrificing time is the most detrimental thing that can occur to someone is responsible for the choice we make to push ourselves into obesity. It’s also responsible for car accidents being one of the leading causes of death in Americans. We’re not willing to wait for trains or buses, and we want to get there _now_. The most offended you’ll ever see an American is when they think someone is “wasting their time”…

    • TR, we live in a life of “now.” Yep, you are correct. The human has evolved into an instant gratification machine and it’s really ruining the planet. Disposable income equates to disposable waste and people are just not taking the time to slow their lives down enough to do the basics. Hell, I work 10 hours at a time in front of a stove. Do I really want to go home and cook dinner? Nope and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I go out to eat and have them cook dinner, but most of the time, my wife and I plan ahead and get some simple vegetables together and toss it in a Dutch oven with a whole chicken and by 7 p.m. we have a full meal plus extra for sandwiches the next day. You have hit it right on the head. Our incessant need to save time and it’s going to eventually kill us all in one way or another. We need to just slow down.

  7. Jutten Jude said

    Live in San Fran and I’m afraid that I’m like most people here, completely jaded by all the great local produce we have here. Want organic, it’s here in abundance. Don’t give a shit, we have that too. It’s not like that everywhere. The real downside to this debate is the lack of choice had by most Americans. Lived in Ohio and Kentucky and was not well off at the time. Moved there with no job and $450 to our names. We ate a hell of a lot of mac n cheese…and I’m afraid Burger King. There were about 12 different fast food chains within 5 blocks of us and we rolled into line just like all the other families out there. Filling, yes. Boring, yes. Cheap, yes.

    But that was before we learned of the outcomes of these type diets or what animal eats what. It was before this debate came into existence. If you could grow it, I found no more fertile place than Kentucky. But with the new jobs and the stresses of life, you find it hard to change these patterns. We are still living with the bulk that came from these meals and we haven’t eaten like this in over 8 years. We have spent a hell of a lot of money to try and reverse the impact of years of eating that crap.

    Should you have the time and energy, you should look at from whence your food comes. As chef, Kevin can make that choice for you and insists on doing so. But as we debate this, access to real food requires energy, information and a bit of time. Hell, the majority of corn farmers don’t even grow corn they can eat. It has to be processed first. I didn’t know this. There is no built-in incentive to feed people good food. Give them access to farmer’s markets and quality food and decent prices and they will make the change too. Unfortunately, the choice isn’t there for them. Kevin’s demands for his customers adds another voice that might be heard by those in charge of growing/harvesting/slaughtering our food. It’s up to all of us to clamor for that choice. Demand equals more choice.

  8. […] How I Decide What You Should Eat August 201010 comments Posted by Chef Kevin Kroger Filed in Uncategorized Leave a Comment » LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

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