Alf's Cafe Head Chef

In order for Alf’s Cafe to comply with the Healthy Choices guidelines, the changes had to start in the kitchen.

Led by Head Chef Jamie Smith, this process took a number of months, but after this The Alfred’s food outlet was in a better position to know which dishes could stay, which dishes needed modification and which dishes needed to be axed.

The first step was to record all recipes and every single ingredient used in food and drink items made onsite. Next, every food and drink item, including those supplied externally, was assessed as GREEN, AMBER or RED.

Recommendations were made by a dietitian about alternative products and modifications that could be made to make recipes healthier, either by including or excluding ingredients, swapping ingredients for healthier versions and reducing portion sizes.

The next challenge was for Jamie and his team to break old habits, such as adding salt to dishes and using items like thickened cream. To their amazement, reverting back to traditional methods of cooking gave way to excellent, rich and fresh flavours without the need to add the salt, fat and sugar.

In the kitchen, the main changes implemented included:

  • a significant reduction in the amount of salt used in cooking
  • using more vegetables in main meals and side dishes
  • using reduced fat instead of full fat dairy products
  • using light coconut milk instead of coconut cream in curries
  • using fruits (with natural sugars) to sweeten muffins and cakes for internal catering
  • reducing the number and visibility of deep fried items.

New recipes with new ingredients meant finding suppliers who could source them. This was initially time consuming, but suppliers, keen to keep the contract, obliged and delivered.

Jamie encountered challenges with low fat varieties of full fat products, but he persevered, and went back to the supplier, to source only high quality ingredients. Jamie also called on his suppliers to find ingredients outside their usual range, such as reduced fat coconut milk.

Jamie credits his team’s commitment to not compromising on flavours and standards for the success of the changes, and the reason why most customers have not noticed a difference, despite significant recipe modifications.

Q&A

What was it like in the kitchen at the beginning of this process?

We had to weigh everything for all the recipes, make sure the ingredients were the healthy option and had to make sure the salt was the right amount. Sometimes the difference between an AMBER and GREEN food was just the addition of salt.

The first six months wasn’t easy, because I constantly had to remind my chefs to use this ingredient, or that or the other. Now it’s a lot easier. We’re all on the same page; we all understand the importance of it.

It’s reminded us all that we can use healthier and better ingredients and still get the same result. We now have 400 or 500 recipes all catalogued and classified as GREEN, AMBER or RED in one manual. So if I were to walk into the kitchen tomorrow and say ‘we’re cooking X, Y and Z’ anyone can literally read the recipes and cook them to the guidelines. It was hard work at the beginning, but it’s paid off.

What’s an example of a recipe you modified to make GREEN?

Some of our chicken dishes were high in salt so we reduced that and they became GREEN (from AMBER). Changing the preparation procedure of a couple of our salads and Thai curries moved them from AMBER to GREEN. Before, we were marinating the chicken, now we braise it in stocks to get the tenderness. Another example is the calamari salad, which we used to fry, but now it’s grilled.

Which RED dishes have you removed from the menu?

The obvious ones are fried items. There’s also a couple of curries that we got rid of, based on the fat content. We tried replacing the fatty ingredients, but they didn’t come out the same. We’d rather serve a product that’s renowned and respected by the customers than giving them something and for them to turn around and say “that’s not butter chicken”, because it’s not.

Have you created any new dishes that you didn’t have before?

There are a couple of vegetarian dishes that have gone well, using chickpeas and so forth. We’re using a lot more legumes in general and people are really enjoying the flavours.

It’s also amazing how many salads we sell. We do a fresh beetroot, ricotta and pine nut salad, and a pear, almond, and rocket. Our chicken salad is very, very popular. We vary that with seasonal vegetables.

How do you create your menu each day?

We create it the night before. Two chefs and I will get together and we’ll write down and make sure we’ve got the items or products here. Then we order fresh ingredients for the next day. There’s no writing menus in advance.

What’s the feedback from your regular customers?

They’re all very pleased with the changes. They love the new menus and different items on board. Some of them stick with what they know, but they’re very positive about the new items.

And I must admit, I can’t believe how well the mini portions have gone. I was sceptical at first, but it’s been received very well!

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