Nutritional intelligence

Although I work in a 30-seat restaurant, I like thinking in terms of big numbers. I don’t believe this is a contradiction, for the technical research and reasoning that we do at Reale offer continuous cues for products intended for a much larger public than we’re able to serve in Castel di Sangro. It’s a ‘trickle-down’ phenomenon that involves other fields (e.g. design, fashion, Formula 1…), a lot of people have talked about it.

This is the direction of the ‘IN-Intelligenza Nutrizionale’ project, presented at La Sapienza in Rome this past October 19th. We’ve been working on it for a year and a half, since Lorenzo Miraglia of the Giomi/GioService Group (which provides catering services to a number of Italian hospitals) asked me to rethink the entire production process for patient meals, starting with the Cristo Re hospital in Rome. We wanted to bring back goodness, by which I mean both the enjoyability of the food and the coefficient of wellness it provides. Food can be curative, but unfortunately, as explained to us by Professor Lorenzo Donini of the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at La Sapienza, who followed our research and certified our method, there are many cases of malnutrition connected with hospital food. A poorly transformed ingredient is a ruined ingredient, and provides no benefit to anyone. 

I knew there were two major restrictions – food cost on the one hand (around 10 Euro per patient per day for three meals, meaning we’d have to work with the same ingredients used by the hospital), and on the other the lack of specialized cooking staff, such that a simple step like adding salt to a sauce can often vary greatly from one individual to another. Then there were the ministry guidelines regulating the nutritional requirements that patients receive through food. We began by studying the old menus and broke them down according to several factors, from the number of times the same ingredient is used to food pairings by color and texture. The first thing was to eliminate useless fats and processed foods like industrially-produced bouillon cubes and stuffed pastas. Then we applied a ‘method’. We figured out that in order to balance the books, respect the nutritional value of the ingredients and bypass the aforementioned structural limitations – in other words, in order to create a sustainable model – the entire process had to be standardized and therefore reproducible so as to ensure the same result every time. As such, we couldn’t simply create single recipes, but rather an application protocol that explained how to treat each separate ingredient – tomatoes, zucchini, codfish – and how to organize the work process, from preparation to assembly to service. We did so by drawing on high technology and the procedures we use in haute cuisine. 

Intelligenza nutrizionale_Niko Romito

I like to go back to the example of tomato sauce, which is a good proving ground. Here’s what the classic hospital method often involves: pot on the stove, then, according to the cooking time and the palate of the individual cook, it gets a little or a lot of salt and reduces as it cooks, with a significant reduction of volume and therefore waste of both material and nutrients. Instead, we put the tomatoes in a vacuum-sealed bag, then we steam it at 120º C. We add neither fats nor other aromatic vegetables, and we lose no nutrients. The result is a ‘base’ of bright red tomato, versatile and always the same, which we use for example in the pork stew with chick peas, the lasagna, the rice. Another technique we use is brining, which is basically a marinade of water, salt, oil and sugar in which vegetables are cooked, a process that limits the loss of natural moisture and clorophyll, thereby maintaining the vegetable’s bright color (as in the cream of spinach with cow’s milk ricotta), an important element of visual enjoyment that can positively impact the patient’s mood. Then there’s the technique of high-temp cooking with a starch film made from maize, basically an external seal that protects internal moisture from escaping even at high temperatures. This allows us to cook quickly without damaging the fibres within, and at the same time create a crispy patina. 

First a taste test, then a trial run in the Urology and General Medicine departments at the Cristo Re were met with significant approval from the subjects involved. The structures, taste and appearance of the food on the IN menu are better. Moreover, for the first time, thanks to Dr. Roberto Luneia of the Analysis Laboratory, the dishes were tested not just before but after being transformed. Something happens when food is cooked poorly: it loses antioxidants and generates so-called pro-oxidants, which are harmful. With the ‘gentle’ transformation developed for IN, we achieved an antioxidant loss of less than 7% and a negligible presence of pro-oxidants. ‘Intelligenza Nutrizionale’ is a pilot project that will launch on December 15th at Cristo Re, where they’re finishing up the modifications to the kitchens: an investment in food prep technology and service was necessary (flash freezers, ovens, temperature-regulated carts), but there’s a lot of savings on primary ingredients, thanks in large part to the drastic reduction of weight loss during cooking and, to a lesser extent, a policy of reusing what would otherwise be considered waste, such as using the cooking liquid of various vegetables which we turn into a broth. And that’s without counting the indirect savings resulting from better nutrition and reduced recovery times. We will start from a ‘base’ menu, then we’ll fine-tune the variants for patients with pathologies that require particular dietary programs. The idea is to then export IN to other structures, not just hospitals. The potential applies to collective catering across the board: schools, prisons, rest homes, company cafeterias. Finally, there’s something that is very important to me, which is the opportunity to redefine, through a training process that we’ll do initially, the role of the hospital cook.

Perhaps in the future there will be young people who make it their chosen profession.

IN-Intelligenza Nutrizionale from Niko Romito