Keto Craze: Why More Chefs Embrace the Keto Lifestyle

Join us as we look at some of the biggest dining trends of 2020. Today, it’s all about keto – read on, then download our Year in Review infographic here.

In a plethora of dietary terms sweeping the social media and restaurant review landscape in recent years, the word “keto” is among the most typed. Diners mentioned keto 683% more in OpenTable reviews since 2017. Mentions of keto-friendly ingredients are on the rise, too – our reviews referencing “cauliflower crust” increased by 487%.

Like most weight loss plans, the ketogenic diet has its origins in disease treatment, and more specifically, in epileptics to help control seizures. Adhering to a keto diet forces the body to get its fuel from fat storage, rather than carbohydrates; as the body burns fat, it enters into a state called ketosis. The contemporary path to going keto means plummeting carb intake, upping fats, and achieving ketosis. 

For one household or home cook, keto is a snap: Calculate the macros you need for height and weight, and eat mostly fats, some proteins, and almost no carbs (including sugar). For chefs – whose guests may arrive at the table expecting deliciousness and keto in the same meal – it’s not so simple. 

Think Outside the Starch: Keto-Friendly Flavors & Ingredients

Among its faithful observers, chefs also find the keto lifestyle transformative. Just ask Chef Austin Foster, a classically trained chef and culinary consultant who lost 125 pounds following the keto diet. He empathizes both with guests trying to lose weight via keto and chefs challenging the lessons they learned in school. 

“In culinary school you’re not taught to cook healthy, and in the professional cooking world, you’re taught to cook what society deems as ‘good food,’ which oftentimes is unhealthy,” says Foster. “We are trained to eat what’s not good for us – such as fast-food cheeseburgers being $1 while a healthful salad is $6. With keto, you do not touch processed sugar. That’s hard, because the average person in the U.S. consumes about five pounds of sugar a day.”

He cautions chefs who are new to keto cooking against the hidden carbs in typical meal prep, and recommends starting with research to understand what makes a keto dish. From there, they can start planning and cooking intuitively over time. 

Fat

Foster recommends avoiding dishes with dairy and butter during early phases of keto. Don’t skimp on olive oil, and make sure it’s excellent quality.

Consider incorporating MCT oil and avocado oil, and offer coconut oil with coffee service, which provides a little fat and cuts the bitterness without the side effects of dairy. 

“Get fats from avocados, almonds, pecans, and things like bacon, and make your own mayo with egg yolks and oil,” says Foster. “Chopped shallots and anchovy paste are bold flavors, and keep the fat in moderate protein, like 70/30 ground beef and ribeye for marbling.” 

Sugar(-Free)

Foster is a fan of Swerve sugar replacement and warns against stowaway sugars, like cooked onions – keep those raw or only slightly cooked. And for bread, chefs should bake or sample a few loaves of keto bread until they find one diners will enjoy. 

Greens

Jay Pierce is the chef at Mozelle’s, a Southern bistro in North Carolina, where diners flock for his shrimp and grits, tomato pie, and other assorted non-keto friendly fare. But Pierce can prepare a keto plate with just as much flavor. He has a loyal following for hearty, filling salads, and reviewers rave about his classic Caesar.

“The key in making lighter, keto-friendly dressings more appealing is to emulsify – for example, you can make a classic vinaigrette with a coconut oil blend and emulsify it, so the dressing hits your palate like it’s creamy,” says Pierce.

“Also, don’t be afraid to use sturdy greens, like Swiss chard greens, radish leaves if they’re young, and mustard greens, because they can hold a heavier dressing, unlike the soft summer lettuces.”

The entrée salad is a must-have on any keto menu. Pierce suggests topping it with a crispy, crunchy piece of fish as opposed to breaded and fried chicken and find more ways to add texture. 

“Put crispy fish on a salad and add nuts like toasted almonds or walnuts, because they are healthy proteins, good for the brain, with the right amount of fat, and together they will add a textural component for that salad,” he says. 

Meat

Veteran chef Matt Boland heads the culinary team at the Hilton Aruba Caribbean Resort & Casino and shares a chef’s keto experience at the property’s steakhouse, Sunset Grille. From his guests, his family members, and his own life, he understands why keto is all the rage among diners.  

“The steakhouse is a perfect opportunity for the kind of food that checks most of those boxes and it’s a way of life now for many people including myself – I was on the Atkin’s diet and now I practice keto,” says Boland. 

Protein and vegetables make up the bulk of the dishes he likes to eat, a combination echoed in his menus. “The biggest thing for us when it comes to protein is the quality, so we serve a highly marbled Certified Angus beef from Creekstone Farms Beef in Kansas and we hear from our diners how good it is,” says Boland. Even his pork chop is highly marbled. 

Boland believes how producers harvest proteins also has an impact on the flavor. He patronizes Creekstone Farms because of the farm’s humane practices: The beef processing plant was designed with animal welfare in mind by Dr. Temple Grandin.

Heat & Spice

One key to packing enough flavor on the plate is brightness and heat, and Pierce has a knack for using ingredients that do both. Rather than load up a dish with heat using jalapeño, Pierce suggests adding radishes. “You’ll get a fresh snap of heat, but the heat doesn’t linger like the hotness of a chili pepper, which you continue to feel later on,” says Pierce. 

“To me it’s really about getting more whole grains and green leafy vegetables, and when you pair them with Caribbean flavors with a little heat and a lot of spice, it blends well,” adds Boland. “Chefs can use a lot of global spices to kick up the flavor in otherwise bland dishes, like tamarind, mangos, cilantro.”

A Perfect Plate

“The trick is to avoid the trap of doing the default starch and finding a star vegetable to fill that part of the plate,” says Pierce. His Jamaican curry fish, for example, is packed with flavor and served with kale.

Boland recommends chefs find new ways to prepare healthful takes on less healthy classics. He prepares a veggie layered lasagna, which he also offers for vegans in a dairy-free portion.

His Super Bowl dip is always a hit, for which he uses quality Greek yogurt with freshly diced green onions and Nueske’s thick-cut bacon, cooked until crispy and chopped for garnish right before serving. 

“With all the citrus flavors, vinegars and spices, browning and grilling, you don’t have to soak ingredients in flour or sauce,” says Boland. 

Cook with Compassion

When Foster consults on menus with restaurant owners, he encourages them to include keto dishes. He also hopes chefs can glean a better understanding of how guests feel and support what might motivate them to make such a drastic life change. 

“Self-loathing of your body is real – for me, I hated looking in the mirror, was tired of being tired and my body hurting. I was just tired of all of it,” he says. “You have to be in control of yourself, be self-reliant and committed so you can’t be swayed.” 

Many diners can relate to Foster’s wake-up call, and especially in the beginning will seek out supportive resources – like local restaurants where they know they can find dishes that already fall into the keto-friendly category. 

Pierce relishes the educational angle of food and communicating with guests. Guests might worry that their special requests pose a burden to the kitchen, but as an operator, he says presenting options that conform to their diets encourages them to support you.

“There is a certain amount of outreach to diners who are doing things in their diet to feel better, and the more we do that, the more latitude it gives us as professionals to do more than just cook burgers,” says Pierce. “We want to make dining experiential so diners will want to eat out more frequently for lunch and dinner, not just on special occasions.” 

Boland knows from personal experience that dietary restrictions are not a fad. His sister, an accomplished pastry chef, suffers from celiac disease. He has compassion for diners who request a gluten-free, vegan, or keto dish, no matter what the reason.

“We get special requests all the time. It’s really a pleasure to provide dishes that fall within the keto plan because everyone has something that requires special attention.”

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