Ludicrous, genius or a disaster? How chefs feel about calorie-reduction plans | Food

L ast March, Public Health England (PHE) announced a plan to reduce the calories in the food we buy. The British public routinely consumes more than it needs and the NHS has to fork out £6.1bn a year to deal with the fallout. Overeating, the government made clear, is something that needs to be tackled early and urgently. The year-long public consultation it duly launched – and which is about to close – is the first step.

PHE’s plan is detailed in a 93-page white paper entitled Calorie Reduction: The Scope and Ambition for Action. It defines the extent of the problem: one in three children start secondary school either overweight or obese, and a direct correlation can be made with the two in three adults who are in the same categories. A proposed course of action is laid: the country’s eateries – which the report lists as restaurants, pubs, cafes, takeaways and delivery services – must cut the calories in the food they sell by 20%. Once the consultation on this programme closes, targeted businesses will have until 2024 to achieve the reduction.

A year on from the announcement and nothing has changed for PHE: the 20% goal, the timeframe, the scope, it’s all still on. For everyone else, though, things are less clear.

As any ambitious dieter will tell you, counting calories, let alone cutting them, is hard enough. How then are chefs – who at any given time have not one but several people’s meals to manage – planning to complete this latest proposed governmental assignment? Are they even aware of it?

When I ask Michael Caines, chef rep for Relais & Châteaux UK, whether the chefs he represents are aware of it, his reply is: “Probably not.” He puts this down mostly to Brexit; the chefs’ concern right now is whether they are going to have anything to cook with after 29 March.

Some of the chefs I speak to are aware of the proposed calorie-reduction plan. They are not wild about the idea, labelling it variously stupid; ludicrous; ridiculous; absolutely crazy; crazy and horrendous; a massive disaster; a nightmare. Public Health England, it would appear, has touched a nerve.

The collective objection is that eating out is usually a treat, for which people save up, says Chris Harrod at the Whitebrook restaurant in Monmouthshire, “sometimes for a once-in-a-lifetime thing”. No paying punter wants to be careful when they are treating themselves. And no chef can realistically cook up a custom array of celebratory treats for a dining room full of paying punters if they have to abide by strict calorie counts.

Of course, everyone acknowledges the pressing health issue at stake. “If we have got to this point,” says Neil Campbell, head chef at Rovi in London, “maybe it does make sense for the government to intervene. Something needs to happen.” He doesn’t think that restaurants are responsible, or indeed able, to fix things. As Caines puts it: “We’re not the offenders.” He has a pretty clear idea of who is, though. “I mean, come on,” he says, listing McDonald’s and KFC as outlets categorised as restaurants where there are lots of saturated fats and sugar.

Setting aside those chefs who categorically refuse to entertain the very notion of a blanket application of calorie limits on their dishes (“I would petition,” says Campbell. “Get the chefs to protest outside the Houses of Parliament”), there are those who express dismay but still rally to the challenge (“We will get there, we won’t say no to it,” says Hrishikesh Desai at the Gilpin in Windermere. “But it will stifle creativity”). Several point out that they didn’t need the government to tell them to cook healthily. While Rafael Lopez, of the Goods Shed in Canterbury, Kent, came up with an old-timer chef whose MO was: “We’re not dieticians, we’re here to produce good-tasting food”, he says that things have changed: portions are smaller; ingredients fresh and seasonal; fat decidedly scarcer. That said, only one chef is actively cutting calories – and her experience illustrates most clearly why it poses such a problem for others.

Nisha Katona runs the Mowgli Street Food chain of Indian restaurants, with outposts across the country. “I’m 47 years old,” she says. “I was a mother, a consumer and a child-protection barrister.” In that previous life on the legal frontline, she saw children taken into care when obesity-induced sleep apnoea pushed overeating into the realm of neglect. So she doesn’t exactly come at her new job from the timeworn strategies for building restaurants. For her it is absolutely necessary that people be more aware of what they eat. To this end, she has made counting calories an economic incentive; she has built it into her business model. “I need people to want to eat in my restaurants two to three times a week,” which is to say, she needs her food to be healthy. She eats there every day, and her kids have a few meals a week with her there, too.

From the outset, she honed her ingredients: rapeseed oil and low-fat yoghurt in place of ghee and cream respectively; soy instead of dairy milk wherever possible; no gluten. And she is in the process of having the calories counted in the 30-odd dishes on her menu.

This is a huge task, costly in time and money. Undertaken by a nutritionist, it involves several recounts: raw ingredients are assessed, then the calories reassessed in the cooked dishes – because heat and evaporation alter the food’s composition. And it is all only made possible by the fact that her menu doesn’t change; she has served the same 30 dishes since she started. And once the recipes have been specified to the microgram, her chefs will continue to prepare them specified to the microgram, in lab-like kitchen environments.

In other words, Katona’s whole system (conceptually, financially, nutritionally, logistically, in terms of staffing and equipment) is geared towards providing food to customers that is calorie-specific. And, as she puts it, if your restaurant isn’t – if you change your menu every day, say, to reflect the seasons, or if you cook intuitively, by hand, by eye and from memory – it is an impossible task. Which brings into sharp focus the affront of other chefs at attempts to tell them how to do their jobs.

Katona likens her Mowgli Street Food kitchens to apothecaries and her chefs’ daily work to making paracetamol; in the context of a child population in crisis, the medical analogy is a poignant one. But, as she is quick to point out, insisting every restaurant kitchen operates in a similar way (which the programme seems to suggest) and castigating them if they don’t (which people fear the government will) is just not fair. “You can’t penalise smaller restaurants that graciously and lovingly change their menus every day,” she says. “l have an army to do what I do; it’s taken months and thousands of pounds.”

This article was amended on 21 March 2019 to remove one quote and revise another.

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