The Wellness Challenge Moves Into Local Restaurants
By Emily J. Weitz
The Wellness Foundation was begun by Doug Mercer in 2005 as a way to “make East Hampton the healthiest town in America.” Since then, it has led classes, lecture series, outreach programs for kids and other educational programs to help bring awareness to the community about eating well and fitness.
“Our goal is to empower people on the East End to greater health through nutrition and exercise,” says Barbara Kinnier, Outreach Director and Facilitator at the Wellness Foundation. Their most popular program is their Wellness Challenge, which takes place several times throughout the year in a few East End locations, and is focused on getting people healthier in the span of only six weeks.
And this year, East End restaurants are starting to come on board with the Wellness Challenge, to create dishes that work with the challenge so that participants can have the healthiest options, even out on the town.
The Wellness Challenge is aptly named: it’s not easy to make all the lifestyle and dietary shifts that are suggested. Participants are “challenged to get rid of processed foods and animal proteins,” says Kinnier. “We focus on teaching people how to get nutrient dense foods.” The results have been remarkable, said Kinnier, with people finding they are lowering cholesterol, losing weight, sleeping better, feeling younger and more vibrant.
But it’s one thing to make these dietary shifts when you’re cooking all your own meals. Out in the restaurants, it’s much harder to stay true to that.
“I’m always looking to make it easier for everybody,” says Kinnier. “As the outreach director I’m on the road a lot, and I am always stopping for food, wondering, ‘Is this really a whole grain?’ So I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to get the restaurants involved?’”
It’s great for people involved in the Wellness Challenge, and it’s great for local businesses too. When the hundreds of residents who participate in this program are looking to eat out, there are now a handful of options where they can rest assured they’ll find something within their parameters. Kinnier works with the chefs of participating restaurants to scrutinize the ingredients and approve dishes. When an item has been approved, it will be marked by a “W” on the menu. Some restaurants, including the Golden Pear, have devoted entire menus to the Wellness Challenge.
“We didn’t have to add anything to our inventory,” says Roj Patterson, General Café Manager at the Golden Pear in Sag Harbor. “But we tweaked what we had so it would be configured for them.”
For example, the warm burrito with steamed vegetables in a whole wheat wrap has always been on the menu, only on the Wellness Challenge menu, it comes with avocado instead of sausage. The Golden Pear wanted to participate in the Challenge because “It represented what we’re all about,” explains Patterson. “All natural, organic as much as possible. We’re in line with that philosophy.”
Teaming up with the Wellness Foundation has impacted the business at the Golden Pear because “People are coming in looking for a healthier lifestyle,” says Patterson. “We can introduce that to people, and it’s a pretty interesting challenge to step with.”
That W on the menu doesn’t just mean an item has no animal products.
“Things can be vegan and still be completely unhealthy,” warns Kinnier. “We’re also working on eliminating processed foods.”
They allow small amounts of oil in their dishes, but not much else that’s been processed. So, the restaurants involved have created new dishes specific to the Wellness Challenge. The Golden Pear, for example, has always had a grilled veggie wrap, but it used to come with cheese. Now they have a Wellness Foundation approved vegetable wrap that Kinnier calls “Delicious”.
Other participating restaurants include Sen and Gurney’s Inn, which were the first two on board. The quinoa and chickpea salad at Gurney’s has the W on it, and at Sen “There are a lot of things we can approve,” says Kinnier. “The sushi roll with avocado and cucumber with brown rice was always there, but now it has a W next to it, and that’s easier for people. It also makes them less self-conscious than always having to ask ‘Is this okay? What’s in it?’”
Page in Sag Harbor, Muse in Water Mill and Rugosa and East Hampton Gourmet Foods in East Hampton have recently joined in the Wellness Challenge. And there are lots of other restaurants interested in participating.
“Everybody in the communities have been great to work with,” says Kinnier. “There’s a snowball effect. People are seeing the success others are having: Their bodies are lighter, their skin clears up.”
With the Wellness Foundation making its way into the restaurants as well as the schools and libraries, Mr. Mercer just might be getting closer to his wish of making East Hampton (and the whole East End) the healthiest community in the country.
Braised Cauliflower with Chickpeas
courtesy of Bill Mammes, Chef and Owner of Rugosa
1 medium Cauliflower (cut into florettes)
8 oz Chickpeas (cooked)
1 medium Potato (peeled and diced)
4 each Plum Tomatoes (seeded and diced small)
1 tsp chopped ginger
1 tsp chopped garlic
1 tsp cumin seed
Over low heat, warm 3 tbsp olive oil, ginger, garlic and cumin seed in a wide pan. Allow the oil to infuse and become aromatic, about 3-4 minutes. Increase heat to medium, but, do not allow garlic to brown. Add diced potato, turmeric and paprika. Sweat potato for 4-5 minutes, add cauliflower, increase heat and slightly roast. Season with salt. Add chickpeas and tomato. Bring to a strong simmer and cover. Cook until cauliflower is tender. Adjust consistency of stew by reducing liquid or adding a little water if it is too thick. Allow the cauliflower to sit for 30 minutes for the flavors to develop and marry.