By Anastasia Yefremova
Words that seemed exotic and exciting a few years ago – Sriracha, agave nectar, kale and poaching are a few that come to mind – have become a staple in our vocabulary pantry. They populate menus, grocery aisles and cooking shows. We know the theory behind ingredients and techniques professional chefs use. But how much makes it to our own kitchens?
“People want to watch and know what’s out there,” said food stylist and Boston Globe contributor Valerie Ryan. “But they’re working, they have a family, there’s so much going on already and it’s a lot of pressure to mimic what you’re seeing, do what people are telling you, go to the farm or the farmers market, create the latest trend.”
So people order the things they feel they don’t have the ability or time to prepare at home, she said, such as a treat like lobster, steak or a chef’s special dish. Comfort foods that usually take longer to cook are always popular. Ryan has done a number of modern variations of classic comfort foods, like squash gratin and beef short ribs. These are dishes, she said, that touch on the familiar and make people feel good.
However, unless nutritional information is labeled on the restaurant’s menu, consumers underestimate exactly what and how much they eat, Ryan said.
“At home you have more control, and you can see and know what you’re putting in your dish,” she said. “How much nutrition is part of the agenda depends on the type of restaurant, the price, where it’s located.”
It also depends on what people perceive as having good value for their dollar. That perception, Ryan said, often involves big portions and meaty dishes.
“Chefs are poised to affect those kinds of issues,” said Ryan. “But if they serve a smaller portion size or all-vegetable dishes, they need to have an educated consumer who understands the nutritional impact and the value of local food, vegetables and healthier eating choices.”
Local food and nutrition-oriented cooking are more big-city trends. But, like many trends that start in big cities, they can be very influential once they take hold and spread out, Ryan said.
Locally sourced ingredients and high quality food are a big part of chef and restaurateur Michael Leviton’s professional success. Most of what he makes at home is “driven by the need to be quick and involve minimal cleanup.”
“I have two kids and when I’m at home I want to spend time with them, not in the kitchen,” Leviton said.
But whether at home or in one of his restaurants, he feels like he has an obligation to serve delicious, high quality, healthful food, he said.
Leviton’s Newton-based French bistro Lumière, Cambridge-based Area Four and Somerville-based A4 pizzeria have made him a regular contender for the prestigious James Beard Best Chef Award. But in his spare time, he chairs the national Chef’s Collaborative, a “nonprofit network of chefs changing the sustainable food landscape using the power of connections, education and responsible buying decisions.”
“For most, Lumière is a special-occasion restaurant and a splurge,” Leviton said. “A lot of health concerns go out the window on those nights. But our regulars have different dining habits, ordering more salads and fish, skipping dessert.”
“People are becoming more aware of what they’re eating and local produce, meats and fish are gaining momentum,” Ryan added. “It’s chef-initiated, but the response helps the movement grow.”