The nutritional counselor Jared Koch has a few ideas about what makes for a good, nutritious restaurant meal, but the last thing he wants to do is get preachy about it. He wants you to enjoy your food. Together with food writer Alex Van Buren, he’s written a guidebook called Clean Plates NYC, which eschews numerical grading systems, star systems, and riffs on restaurant design in order to just focus on supper. Rather than cast a myopic eye toward the antioxidizing properties of plums, or romancing the red cabbage, Clean Plates aims to identify some of the more nutritious, decent meals to be had in the city for the vegan, locavore, and meat-eater alike. We spoke with Clean Plates NYC founder Jared Koch yesterday; the book is available in stores now.
How did you first get the idea for putting together Clean Plates NYC? The idea was brewing for a while. Because I think about nutrition a lot I really want to eat healthy food, but it’s always been equally important for me to enjoy the food I eat. I started to keep track of what I ate at restaurants, and even made notes about each restaurant’s approach to food. When I started sharing that information with my clients, it became clear that they were making some significant changes to their diets and perhaps their resistance to eating healthier food was dropping as I made the information more available. With this book, the idea was to turn this information into a practical resource. You can eat all this food that's in there and it's still healthy.
It’s a nice looking book. Portable, too. One of my clients really came up with the idea of actually making it into a book. First I gave her the list, and she was like You should sell this, it's great. And I was said no, no, I’m not interested, but the idea kind of popped and I started thinking about it more. The idea was to reach more people and to do things on a broader scale. I didn't 100% know what it was going to look like, and the more I got engaged with it, the more it evolved.
Did you design Clean Plates NYC to upend what some people feel is superfluous or outdated about restaurant guides like Zagat or Michelin, guides that are based on ratings or points systems? There's this consciousness about food production and consumption that has grown over the past few years and has outpaced these more traditional means of deciding what’s for dinner. What you're alluding to, I think, is that our culture is starting to see a significant shift and awareness in the food production system, that farm-to-table connection people talk about. Everything has to change; all of the industries have to change. In a way I think this book provides real, fundamental, and practical information that people actually need and want. A lot of people are suddenly looking for a specific kind of food that’s sometimes hard to find, and a lot of the guidebooks just aren’t able to do give that information effectively, or deal in specifics.
You're establishing a platform to talk about these things like food production, and issues like sustainability, in a way that other books really aren’t right now. Right, exactly.
Do you think score- of star-based ratings systems in general that dominate guidebook culture are outmoded or outdated? I wouldn't say I'm super-passionate about giving things scores, but I think they can serve a purpose. My short answer is that for this book, it was really about giving people real practical information that they could implement, and in turn not get so caught up in the subjectivity of all that. Of course, we were subjective in terms of distinguishing taste for Clean Plates, but really our goal is really to provide a resource for people for people that just doesn’t really fully exist yet.
Frank Bruni recently announced he was retiring from the restaurant critic position at the New York Times. If you were given the opportunity to be the restaurant reviewer for that paper, what would you change? You know, that’s a tough question. The quality of food that restaurants are serving—from a sustainability and health standpoint—hasn't really been a focus at all for restaurant reviewing. And that needs to shift. But I think reviews are moving in that direction.
Are you planning on giving other cities the Clean Plates treatment? The main goal is to have a national online database of all of these restaurants, one that is simultaneously focused on health and sustainability, but also kept up to date.
And at the end of Clean Plates NYC you're basically asking people to visit the website and participate in some kind of online community. We want to be able to supplement the book, maybe through an application on a mobile phone that provides more up-to-date information. Ultimately there’ll be at least a handful of restaurants for various cities, for when people travel. We want to be able to identify the best restaurants around and generate awareness that people actually want good choices. From an economical standpoint, maybe more restaurants will actually start serving more nutritious and sustainable food.
Your first precept, or guideline, that you mention in the book is that “there’s no one right way to eat for everyone.” Precept number three starts off: “Everyone would be better off if a larger proportion of their diet consisted of plants.” What do you think of Michael Pollan’s now famous maxim, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants” as a general rule of eating? The short answer is that it’s a very well crafted, shortened version of a general rule of thumb. It gets a little complicated on the level of the individual, so that for example in terms of a terms of a plant based diet, there may be an digestive issue with grains for one person. In general what Pollan is saying is about natural, whole food, not processed food. Most studies are showing that over-consumption contributes to degeneration of the body, and that lower calorie diets are overall more effective at lengthening one’s life expectancy. So that’s the “not too much” part. Most diets benefit from a lot of green leafy vegetables.
When a restaurant claims they serve sustainably-raised meat, and it says so on the menu, how do you know when you’re really eating sustainably-raised meat? That's the million-dollar question. I'd say, there's no 100% foolproof way to know. I looked into this a lot when we were putting together the book. We did our best to create a multilayered approach of fact checking and research, we asked at all different levels. We asked staff, owners, chefs, in person at the restaurants, and over the phone. We looked for consistency. And you start to get a general idea of things this way by being persistent. No one knows what's really going on behind the scenes in kitchens. It's a matter of trust. And in fact, there were a couple of places we discovered who we just giving very inconsistent and unreliable information about their menus. These places, because they didn't seem truthful, didn’t make the book. And in fact, I walked into a place a couple of weeks ago and they were promoting organic products on the menu. I asked the staff if that’s what they were serving and they were like, No, it’s not organic.
And you’re not going to tell me what restaurant that was, are you? No. But that was one of the main reasons we made the book. It may not be 100% perfect, but it's the closet thing we have out there. Our goal is to do the research, build credibility, and give people a good level of comfort about what they’re eating. Ultimately we’d like to somehow include more material about the farms and place where restaurants source their food.
There’s this whole “Tasty Honorable Mentions” section toward the end of the book, which is essentially a runners-up list of restaurants that were disqualified for one reason or another along the way. One of those factors is the use of “filtered water,” which leads me to believe that places that serve tap water to drink and cook with it didn’t make the grade. I need to preface by saying that there wasn’t a single restaurant that failed to rank just because they weren't filtering water. It wasn't a breaking point consideration for the book’s listings, ever. I will say, however, from a health perspective I’m not a big fan of tap water, and I’m not 100% convinced it’s not harmful. I think there are enough questions to avoid drinking unfiltered water whenever possible. From a sustainability standpoint, people end up buying expensive bottled water, when a simple solution would be a filtration system, cutting down on a restaurant buying bottles. I'll drink tap water once in a blue moon, but I prefer and feel more comfortable drinking filtered water.
Say it’s after a few cocktails and it’s 4 a.m. You’re hungry. As a certified nutritional consultant, do you feel that eating late at night is a bad idea? I'm not going to say I've never done that, or will never do it again. You want to shoot for eating well 75% of the time, and that gives you a foundation so your body can handle it when you don't. I don't recommend eating at 4 a.m.; the body's not designed to be eating at that time. If you’re doing it once in a while, then it's not the end of the world. But you still want to make the best choices you can.
So, what’s a great late night place to get a Clean Plates-style bite to eat in NYC? Cosmic Cantina. It’s Mexican, in the East Village. It’s not that expensive and it’s open very late. You can make your own burrito, and they have things like spelt and whole-wheat tortillas to choose from. Everything is organic, and they have lots of vegetable options.
Is there a spot in New York that’s in the book that completely surprised you when it came to your criteria and you want to go check it out? We did a lot of screenings before hand, so we weren't really shocked by anything. One nice find was Cosmic Cantina, which kind of has a divey feel to it and they do such a good job on the organic side of things. It’s hard to find a place like that. And City Bakery is also kind of surprising, because most people think of the sugar, but it has a great selection and quality.
What about a cheap, Clean Plates-style bite to eat? Dirty Bird To Go is good, and there are a couple of pizza places in the book. There are a few burger places, too, and spots like Chipotle, which we found was a controversial choice after the book was published.
What’s your response to that? My response is that when it comes to the fast food category, they're doing one of the best jobs out there. All their animal products are hormone-free, and they do a good job with locally sourced foods. They're starting a special program along those lines this summer to strengthen those local food connections, and there are a lot of Chipotle locations in the city. And now people are saying, oh now I don’t have to feel guilty for eating there. One misconception I think people have about Chipotle is that they're partially owned by McDonalds, which hasn't been true since 2006, when McDonalds divested.
In the process of writing this book, you ate a few hundred restaurants with co-author Alex Van Buren, so I imagine your pattern recognition instinct kicked in pretty strongly after a while. Maybe you began to see the same thing over and over in dining rooms, and on the actual plates you were being served. Is there one thing, or a couple of things, you witnessed over and over at restaurants you feel just shouldn’t be happening, or crimes against food? The biggest change that needs to happen on the nutritional level is the refined sugar issue. Everyone still uses refined sugar. And the problem with locally produced sugar is that it’s still sugar. There are some in vegetarian restaurants using natural sweeteners but most places aren't even addressing that. It's one of the more harmful products we're eating. Only a few people are moving forward and really producing food without sugar.
Who doesn't use refined sugar? A good place is the vegan ice cream store called Stogo, which makes dairy-free ice creams and uses agave nectar instead of refined sugar.
Anything else? The breadbasket at the beginning of the meal is another thing that should go. If people come in hungry and want a little something before they start really eating, restaurants could be more creative.
What would you elect as a bread basket successor? I don’t know. Maybe just some raw carrots and vegetables, with something nice to dip them in.