Michael Pollan: we need to rewrite the restaurant rule book

Date:28-05-2013 07:58:06 read:2

Michael Pollan: we need to rewrite the restaurant rule book

Food sage Michael Pollan says we need to think about how, and how often, we eat out

Michael Pollan
Cool customer: Michael Pollan wonders whether a restaurant meal might be justified  Photo: Alamy

Can’t be bothered to cook? We all feel like that sometimes. The solution (funds permitting) used to be so simple. Phone for a reservation and head to a restaurant. Job done. None of the tedious kitchen slavery, none of the guilt about whether we’ve shopped local or bought organic or Fairtrade. And while takeaways have a reputation as waiting rooms for bypass surgery, restaurants are real cooking, so it’s practically as healthy as homemade, right?

Not according to Michael Pollan, guru of the sustainable food movement. He believes it is time for us to pay attention to how we eat out, as well as how we eat in. Pollan is the author of The Food Rules, a pithy (if somewhat simplistic) list of guidelines for making good food choices, like “Eat mostly plants” and “It’s not food if it arrived through the window of your car”.

Now he has compiled a new list, this time for eating out, for the Sustainable Restaurant Association, the not-for-profit organisation which monitors its members for responsible environmental, social and sourcing practice, awarding a one, two or three-star rating accordingly. Sort of a Moral Michelin.

Pollan is hardly a restaurant champion. At the Hay Festival next weekend he will talk about his new book, Cooked, a tale of his own experimentation with learning cookery skills – bread baking, fermentation, slow cooking and barbecuing. But among the anecdotes – the story of his rapacious pet pig called Kosher is worth the price of the book alone – there is also a passionate plea for us to embrace home cooking again.

His beef is that, for all the so-called food revolution and the trendiness of food and the avalanche of food-themed telly, increasingly we don’t cook, can’t cook, won’t cook. The result is that we are palmed off with unhealthy, un-environmentally friendly food, not to mention losing the social benefit of sharing a meal.

So why the advice on choosing a restaurant? And (more to the point) is there no simple pleasure that doesn’t have to be scrutinised by the worthiness police? I called Pollan at his home in California (he is a journalism professor at Berkeley University), and put it to him straight. Do we have to feel guilty about eating out?

He didn’t hesitate. “No! I don’t think we should feel guilty about anything.” The problem, he said, was the frequency with which we treat ourselves. “We have confused special-occasion meals with everyday eating. In America now, one-third of all children are eating in a fast-food restaurant on any given day.”

It’s not just fast-food restaurants which are guilty of overloading the fat, salt and sugar. “If you’ve ever spent time in a restaurant kitchen, the liberality with which they drop in whole sticks of butter is astonishing. Even in the best restaurants, if you ate there every day my guess is you’d find your waistband expanding.” Pollan speaks from experience, about the fast food at least. “I went through my twenties having a cheeseburger and french fries and a beer every day for lunch. And I weighed about 30 pounds more than I do now.”

Is he never tempted, these days, to splurge – with a McDonald’s, say? “About three years ago I was with my son Isaac [now 20] driving by a McDonald’s we used to eat at when he was little.” They stopped to buy Isaac his old favourite, chicken nuggets, Pollan hoping that Isaac would be disappointed. In fact, the teenager loved them. “You have to realise we now have a generation for whom these are the Proustian smells and tastes of childhood,” Pollan explained phlegmatically.

I’m relieved to find that even Pollan, scourge of the multinational food industry, was once seduced by the lure of the Happy Meal. Me too. How times have changed. “At that time I knew a lot less about what it meant,” he shrugged. “I hadn’t done the reporting I did later, on where a McDonald’s comes from, and where they make their French fries, and how the cattle live. I was like most people – it was normal food.”

The answer to junk-food cravings, he says, is to cook your own. Making chips, for example, is such a hassle that you won’t bother very often.

Let your culinary treats be trips to the kind of restaurant where the menu announces high-welfare meat and local sourcing – even though Pollan admits you can’t be sure they are telling the truth. So it’s up to us to ask questions – I’ve been known to request, politely, to see the packaging of so-called English asparagus in September (it turned out to be from Peru). But at least, as Pollan said, references to particular farms, for example, “indicate a restaurant that is thinking about sourcing, and that’s something”.

Nor is all Pollan’s advice about saving the planet or your health. There’s his counsel to order steak rare, even if you prefer it well done – then send it back to be cooked more. A cunning trick to make sure the chef doesn’t palm off a poor bit of meat on you.

One of Pollan’s rules I can endorse is to ask for a doggy bag rather than feeling obliged to finish a gargantuan portion, or allowing the remains to be binned. I’ve trialled this in some of the smartest restaurants and the waiters don’t turn a hair, and the leftovers taste even better at home. Especially when you can’t be bothered to cook.


Dig doggy bags

Restaurants serve supersize portions to make you feel you’re getting your money’s worth. If there’s enough for another serving, ask them to wrap it to go — so you really will be getting your money’s worth.

Seasonal menus

Don’t eat at restaurants that serve asparagus all year round (or strawberries, peaches or apricots). The chef’s not paying attention to the seasons, and it’s unlikely the food will be special.

Small suppliers

The smaller the delivery truck out the back, the better the food inside will be. If a restaurant is getting its ingredients delivered by articulated lorry, the food is apt to be undistinguished.

Name that farm

Look on the menu for the names of specific farms, not meaningless generic pastoral terms like “farm eggs”, which means nothing.

Specials are special

If there are daily specials, order them. They often mean fresh ingredients and thoughtful preparation. But if the waiter doesn’t tell you the price, ask — sometimes specials can carry special prices as well.

Don’t order steak well done

Chefs typically serve the gnarliest pieces of meat to people who order well done, either out of a lack of respect or because overcooking covers a multitude of problems. They serve the nicest cuts to patrons who order rare. If you want well done, order it rare and send it back for more cooking.

How meat is raised matters

Don’t eat meat in restaurants unless the menu specifies that the animals were sustainably and humanely raised. In the case of ruminants, look for terms like grass-finished or pasture-raised.

'Cooked' by Michael Pollan (Allen Lane, £20) is available from Telegraph Books (0871 870 1515).

Michael will be speaking at the Telegraph Hay Festival at 5.30 on June 1; Hay Festival

    Ever For Health Copy Rights 2013