10 East 60th Street
New York, NY
Recently opened Rouge Tomate is the brainchild of Belgian restaurateur Emmanuel Verstraeten, whose original Brussels-based Route Tomate was opened in 2001. His New York restaurant, under direction of chef Jeremy Bearman, has already drawn raves from its upper east side customers who are drawn to its socially and environmentally conscious approach to cuisine. The interior, designed by architectural firm Bentel & Bentel, has two distinct spaces, the first a café upstairs with 30 seats and 15 more at their walnut and oak bar, and a 120-seat dining room downstairs. Bearman and pastry chef James Distefano worked with culinary nutritionist Natalia Rusin to create a menu that uses local purveyors and the best ingredients to provide clean, tasty and authentically nutritious meals to its customers. Verstraeten created a culinary and nutritional charter called S.P.E., short for Sanitas Per Escam, or “Health Through Food,” and this document contains the principles for the creation of every dish that Bearman and Distefano create at Rouge Tomate. Restaurant Insider spoke with executive chef Jeremy Bearman, executive pastry chef James Distefano, and culinary nutritionist Natalia Rusin.
Restaurant Insider: When you were studying at Johnson and Wales, when did you become interested in the dietician side of food rather than concentrating on being a chef?
RUSIN: Johnson and Wales sent me to a chef internship in Florida and it was then that I decided it wasn’t what I wanted to do with my career. After I graduated, Johnson and Wales created a new 2-year culinary nutrition program, which would give you a combined degree, so I decided to try it. After that, to be a dietician you need to do a one- year internship at a hospital, so I did mine at New York Presbyterian. That’s how I moved to New York City.
Restaurant Insider: What were some of your first jobs after you finished your internship, cooking or dietician?
RUSIN: When I was doing my internship at the New York Presbyterian there was a dietician who worked there who was approached by a hedge fund guy who had just been diagnosed with type-one diabetes at the age of 30. He wanted a personal chef so I started working for him. I would count out his carbs, keep things healthy, but also keep things high-end. I’ve been cooking for him for about 6 years now. It’s something that I’m still passionate about -I get grouchy when I’m not cooking!
Restaurant Insider: The food at Rouge Tomate is based upon the principles of S.P.E., where did that originate?
RUSIN: It originated in Belgium about 6 years ago by the owner of Rouge Tomate, Emmanuel Verstraeten at his first restaurant in Brussels, along with a well-known dietician there, Veronique Maindiaux. They worked on a 100-page nutritional charter document called S.P.E. which is Sanitas Per Escam, or “Health Through Food.” It gives the chef and the dietician a roadmap to create a menu that has food that is not high in saturated fat, that is balanced, and that is from local farms.
Restaurant Insider: Do you think that these ideas are transferable to other restaurants?
If another restaurant would like to use our nutrition principles, S.P.E., I can go over and help them achieve that, and they can have S.P.E. food on their menu. Right now we are focusing on our restaurant but in the future that is an idea. With the use of our charter and a dietician, another restaurant can have those kinds of dishes on their menu.
Restaurant Insider: How did you originally come across this job at Rouge Tomate?
RUSIN: Having a culinary background as a dietician isn’t very common, and when I heard about this job I think within a half an hour of sending my resume, I received a callback. They wanted a registered dietician with a culinary background so it sounded pretty ideal for me. They told me they are taking their nutritional principles from WHO so I knew that the concept was legitimate. When you have a fine dining restaurant, whatever kinds of ingredients you want you can generally get your hands on. So it sounded like the perfect job for me.
Restaurant Insider: What were your early responsibilities before you opened, and what are your ongoing tasks here?
RUSIN: In the beginning the chef talked about the idea of his menu, what ingredients he’s going to have and what cooking methods, and then I look at each ingredient and make suggestions. Different fruits and vegetables can introduce different colors, different vitamin content and different antioxidants. There are definitely some cooking methods that he can’t use, and I look for ways to put ingredients that are high in Omega-3’s on the menu. We had pasta and while we can’t serve 100% whole wheat pasta in a restaurant like this, you can make a portion of it whole wheat. Once we have a tasting and we agree on a dish, I have to do all the nutritional analysis on that dish. I have a software program to do that called NutriBase.
Restaurant Insider: Do you enter the nutritional information into this system for every dish your restaurant serves?
RUSIN: Yes, we have two restaurants here, the fine dining and the café, so there are at least 10 appetizers, 10 entrees, and 6 or 7 desserts. The desserts are the hard ones because if you have a layer cake, there are 3 different recipes just inside that layer cake. In the end we calculate the average nutritional content of all the dishes, and the average of one app, one main, and one dessert has to be within 40% of the daily nutritional needs.
Restaurant Insider: Are the waiters expected to know the nutritional information on the dishes in order to share that with the customers?
RUSIN: They are trained a little bit, but the general manager has all the nutritional information so if customers want they can have a sheet containing all of that. Calories are the last thing we’re concerned with, that’s very European to not be concerned with calories. I’m more interested in putting in ingredients that have the nutrients that we’re interested in having. Antioxidants and high in fiber, and when you follow that scheme and you’re avoiding unhealthy ingredients, in the end the calories always work. But unfortunately in the U.S. the first thing people are concerned with are the calories.
Restaurant Insider: You attended Cornell in their hospitality management program, how did you switch from management to cooking?
BEARMAN: When I entered Cornell, I went there because I wanted to get a broader based education. When I got out of school I decided that I didn’t want to become a consultant like many of my other classmates. After working an externship at a place called Citrus Grill in Rockland County, I was watching the guys working the line, seeing the energy in the kitchen, and at that moment I realized that was what I wanted to do. After graduating I went back to Citrus Grill for about a year, and a friend there decided to go to work in the city and I thought it would be a good idea to follow him there. After working in the city for about a year I started trailing at a number of different places all over the city, anywhere from 2 days to a week at places like Aureole, March, and Gramercy Tavern. In 2001 while I was at March, Michael Anthony told me about an opportunity at db Bistro which was just about to open. So I trailed there for a day and became part of the opening team as a saucier. After a year I decided to do something else, and they didn’t want me to leave so they offered me a sous chef position, which of course I accepted!
Restaurant Insider: How long did you stay there at db Bistro?
BEARMAN: I stayed there for 2 ½ years. It was definitely one of the best experiences I’ve had. It’s a tight kitchen down there. We did 350 covers sometimes for dinner, 180 covers for lunch. It’s a small kitchen, it’s tight and it’s hot, but the quality level is really high. It’s the epitome of the well-run New York kitchen. All of his restaurants make a lot of money, they’re very efficient, and there are a lot of good people who come in and out of his places. It was an intense environment, a lot of yelling and a lot of screaming but it was definitely a place where I learned a tremendous amount - not only about managing and cooking but also about handling pressure.
Restaurant Insider: So how were you introduced to the Rouge Tomate opportunity?
BEARMAN: I met my wife who is a pastry chef at db Bistro, and she and I were both working in Lark Creek Steak in San Francisco. After working in Vegas at Medici Café and L’Atelier for Robuchon, we were ready to move back to New York where we were from. So I put my resume out on the market and began talking with the owner here, Emmanuel Verstraeten and his partner Nil Sönmez, about their project. To be honest, at the time I was saying to myself, “who are these people,” and “they’ve never opened a restaurant in New York City before.” I talked to them for a month and a half before we pushed forward with anything. They were explaining this concept to me - no butter and cream and so forth - and where I came from was such a French background which was all based around butter and cream and sauces, so it was definitely something that was a concern to me that you’d be able to do these things. But the more I looked at it, the more I thought how interesting the project was and how much of a challenge it could be.
Restaurant Insider: How did you prepare for what was a very different kind of executive chef assignment?
BEARMAN: I went to Brussels for three weeks and had some training sessions there, not only in the kitchen but in a classroom setting with a dietician and a nutritionist showing up the charter that we abide by. From there I understood the guidelines and I came back here to start the fall menu and I started building my staff from there.
Restaurant Insider: What are the most popular dishes so far?
BEARMAN: In the dining room, the best selling appetizer is definitely our brussel sprout salad. I’m not sure why it’s our best seller, but people seem to really love it, it’s a really innovative way to serve brussel sprouts. We peel off the leaves and blanch them then we toss them with hazelnut oil with some lemon zest and thyme, then we roast some pears and add a drizzle of balsamic. People seem to go for it. Another one is the squab, that’s a very “fall” dish. With entrees, there is not one that outsells another, but we do sell a lot of vegetarian entrees. In the café, we sell a lot of broccoli soup, as well as roast chicken.
Restaurant Insider: Have you detected any interest from other chefs you know in what you’re doing here?
BEARMAN: I talked to a chef the other day who was asking me where we bought certain things, but most people are saying “wow that’s a good direction to go in.” We’re not the first one to not use butter and cream, but everyone can’t be doing what we’re doing. I went to a friend’s restaurant the other night and there was a lot of protein on the plate, a lot of fat, but it’s also wonderful!
Restaurant Insider: What’s been the feedback from customers thus far, has it been surprising, or about what you expected?
BEARMAN: It’s been overwhelmingly positive, and that’s what we live for, the feedback from the customers. Even people posting on blogs and writing about us, they all seem to be saying that the food tastes fresh and very clean and they can’t believe that we’re not using butter or cream. When people realize what we’re doing after they’ve eaten, they really feel like this is a huge added value. Most of the guests in our dining room lately are repeat customers, we have many people who come here now 4 or 5 times a week!
Restaurant Insider: How were you introduced to the Rouge Tomate position?
DISTEFANO: Jeremy Bearman had received my resume from our Director of Operations, Erin Bellard, whom I knew from my time at Blue Fin. I met Jeremy at the restaurant and we wound up talking for about an hour, and I immediately fell in love with the concept. Personally, I had been working towards changing my lifestyle for about three years. Through exercise, rest and changing my diet I knew it was critical if I wanted to remain healthy for my future. I really felt strongly about what they wanted to achieve and wanted to be involved with this project from the beginning.
Restaurant Insider: How did you handle the limitations in ingredients that you had to adhere to in creating new dishes?
DISTEFANO: I really don’t consider them limitations at all. I really feel that once you think about the concept and what we’re trying to achieve they open up a broader spectrum of possibilities. It’s no longer cooking with primary and secondary colors. It’s just one more aspect about this job that I truly love. Creativity doesn’t end with butter, cream and sugar.
Restaurant Insider: What was it like working with a nutritionist when you were creating dishes and what kind of techniques ended up differing?
DISTEFANO: My menu was more or less planned out before Natalia and I even sat down. I had a pretty good idea of what I needed to do in terms of ingredients and what needed to be on each dish, so when we did sit down, we spoke about what was going to be on the menu and she pointed out certain things that may raise red flags for her, in terms of nutritional content or that I needed to make sure that a certain amount of fruit needed to be on each dish. It’s great working with her because she does have a cooking background as well. She can offer suggestions that make sense for a chef like alternative ingredients, or maybe a different cooking technique.
Restaurant Insider: Did you find that the taste of the food was occasionally at odds with the nutritional goals?
DISTEFANO: In terms of working with chocolate, yes, it can be challenging at times because I don’t feel too many fruits complement dark chocolate well, so that can be a stumbling block, but I feel like a small amount of fat is important to help round out the flavors and help with the balance of a dish.
Restaurant Insider: Tell us a few examples of dishes that had certain ingredients that were changed to improve their nutritional value- what were the ingredients and how did the dish taste after the modification?
DISTEFANO: Honestly, there weren’t too many. Going in to the recipe testing I had an idea of certain flours (like quinoa, amarantha and buckwheat) that I wanted to try out or maybe a different oil, however there wasn’t too much that had to be modified. During the testing, we’d try incorporating a flour or even something like Flax seed or another ingredient that has the added nutritional value that we’re looking for. If we were able to integrate the ingredient without any problems and it added something to the dish and made it taste better, we kept it.
Restaurant Insider: The Hudson Valley Apple soup that we photographed, tell us what makes that dish special?
DISTEFANO: I think the main thing that makes this dish really special is the variety of apples that are used and how they are used. At any time we have about eight different varieties of heirloom and local apples in our walk-in. Red skinned apples, green skinned apples....they all play a part in the over all flavor of the dish. This dish starts with local apple cider that we mull with a touch of clove and cinnamon. We take a small bit of all the varieties of apples and cook them in the cider. At the end we bloom a touch of orange zest in to it. Once the apples become soft, we push that through a china cap in order to extract more of the flavor. Once that portion is done, we take more local apples, toss them with some local maple syrup, bourbon and a bit of cracked black pepper and we roast them until the sugars caramelize and they become soft. Those apples get pureed in the robot-coup and we use them to thicken the cider base. It takes on the quality of a veloute; luscious, velvety and smooth.
Restaurant Insider: What’s been the feedback from customers thus far, has it been surprising, or about what you expected?
DISTEFANO: The feedback has been great. We all really feel like we’re doing something special. I’d love for more people to have dessert. I think that when they come in and find out about the concept they don’t necessarily realize that it also applies to the desserts as well. While they are all light in calories, they are all flavor rich. They are decadent without being heavy.
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