When Seattle chef Maxime Bilet says he was presented with the “most amazing challenge,” you want to know more. After all, what could be more difficult than creating barbecue with a smoker, a sous-vide bath, a centrifuge or liquid nitrogen?
Think simple, really simple.
“You pretty much have nothing other than what’s in the food bank. You have to make a delicious dish from these ingredients in under 20 minutes. And you have nothing but the basic tools,” says Bilet, the 30-year-old co-creator of “Modernist Cuisine” and its sister cookbook “Modernist Cuisine at Home,” a groundbreaking exploration of cooking, art and science.
Food bank? Basic tools? Under 20 minutes? Dorothy, we are clearly not in Nathan Myhrvold’s kitchen anymore. (Myhrvold, a former Microsoft executive and master French chef, was the force behind “Modernist Cuisine.”)
University of Southern California professors Peter Clarke and Susan Evans enlisted Bilet in their ambitious project to transform the diet of Americans dependent on the free food distributed by food banks. They began in 1991 with a program to pair up the nation’s 200-plus food banks — whose inventory consisted largely of cereals, canned goods and convenience foods — with produce distributors who had surplus fruits and vegetables.
Clarke and Evans quickly discovered that getting fresh beans or squash into the food bank community pantries wasn’t enough. They needed to help people figure out what to do with the vegetables or risk having the produce dumped in the garbage.
Food bank visitors don’t have easy path to healthy eating
Time and resources are big barriers to healthy eating. Many of the people dependent on pantries are seniors or the working poor, who are juggling a couple of part-time jobs while raising children. They often suffer from diabetes or other chronic diseases. A growing number are Latino and Asian immigrants who aren’t familiar with the vegetables eaten in the United States. And their kitchens aren’t likely to be stocked with sharp knives, food processors or expensive spices.
They need food that is simple to make, fast and filling, which is why their default meals often come in a can, a microwaveable carton or a fast-food bag.
So Clarke and Evans created QUICK! Help for Meals, a computer program that provides pantry clients with recipes that incorporate the produce of the day and are available in English or Spanish. They found that by customizing the recipes to the individual’s needs — family size, health issues, flavor preferences — they could double the amount of vegetables people took home.
Clarke and Evans scoured cookbooks and the Internet to build a recipe list based around the vegetables most commonly found in food banks: zucchini, broccoli, green beans, carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, root vegetables and cabbage. They also sought the help of top food professionals.
Brian Wansink, Cornell University food psychologist and author of “Mindless Eating, Why We Eat More Than We Think,” taught them about the hidden things that influence people’s food choices. His research shows that restaurants can increase sales by 20% with menu descriptions that evoke positive feelings, such as “Grandma’s oatmeal cookies.” With his assistance, Clarke and Evans revised their recipes and are currently testing the dressed-up versions at several Southern California pantries.
Lachlan Sands, the executive chef at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts Los Angeles, and his students reviewed several hundred recipes for ease of preparation, flavor and nutritional value. “The number one thing is that the food is properly cooked,” Sands says. “People don’t like Brussels sprouts because they have such a strong flavor. But if you cook them right, they are nutty and sweet.”
Bilet was asked to use his culinary wizardry to develop recipes with kid appeal, an important priority for pantry clients. His biggest challenge was “making a head of cabbage awesome to a kid who’s accustomed to eating Big Macs.” The solution? Cut the cabbage into thick wedges, baste them with a little oil and salt to release the water and then roast them with a few sprinkles of feta cheese or brown sugar and honey. “When in doubt, roast,” he says. “Kids prefer the softer textures with vegetables and they love that roasted flavor.”
Bilet also created a whole-grain stew featuring sautéed zucchini, brown rice and creamed corn, all popular pantry items. “It had all the flavor notes,” says Bilet. “It had the vegetableness, the nuttiness and substance of rice and the creaminess and sweetness of creamed corn. The kids loved it.”
Bilet, who recently left Myhrvold’s cooking lab to pursue new adventures, believes food empowerment can become a powerful tool for improving public health in America. And he credits Clarke and Evans with helping lead the charge. They are now working with researchers to transfer QUICK! Help for Meals to a smartphone app to make it easier for pantries to administer. “It’s just so brilliant,” Bilet says.
Photo: Fresh produce is handed out at a community pantry. Credit: Peter Clarke