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Seasons 52 chef says fat does not equal flavor

November 19, 2010

CliffPleauDoes food have to be full of fat, sugar and salt to taste good?

Clifford Pleau, executive chef for Darden Restaurants’ Season 52 chain, where every menu item is 475 calories or less, doesn’t think so.

“I haven’t touched butter in 10 years. You don’t need it,” said Pleau, uttering words that would make the late, great, butter-loving Julia Child roll over in her grave.

“I know there’s a slogan that says fat is flavor. Scientifically that’s not necessarily true.”

Pleau says fat is a flavor “transitioner”. For example, the fat in short ribs can enhance the flavors of a rich, bold wine by taking it to different parts of your mouth. On the other hand, he said, a mouthful of butter or olive oil would desensitize the palate.

There are no deep fat fryers in the kitchens at Seasons 52, which recently opened its first restaurant in Southern California and plans to have 20 around the country by this time next year. Fat isn’t ladled into cooking pans, as it is in many restaurants, it’s spritzed by spray bottle- wielding kitchen staff.   

So how does Pleau make the kind of food that one restaurant consultant called “craveable” and “indulgent” without leaning on the industry’s unhealthy habit of layering on sugar, fat and salt?

“I always balance sweet and sour and push the extremes of that,” said Pleau. Reductions with honey or molasses supply the sweet, while tastes like tamarind and lime add the sour, he said.

“Next, I’ll put in aromatics and spice.”  Aromatics like lemongrass, cilantro, fresh herbs and cumin seed  “give intrigue”,  he said. The kick comes from ingredients like chili, garlic and black pepper.

“Then I add a texture element,” such as crunchy jicama or fresh greens.

Then comes the “technique” — smoking, grilling or cooking on a cedar plank.

“The very last thing I reach for is salt,” said Pleau. “There are so many other flavors to expand the palate before salt goes.”

(Photos courtesy of Seasons 52)

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