Michelin-Star Chef Niko Romito on Transforming Ingredients
- Written By:Valentina Di Donato
It's upon us: that time of year right after the indulgence of the holiday season, followed by the sense that only restriction can make us feel virtuous. Although that may sound effective - there is scientific data that shows diet restriction does not work long term. A sustainable way of nourishing oneself is the only way to maintain not only a healthy lifestyle but a balanced mindset.
The Mediterranean diet has widely been considered one of the healthiest in the world. The cornerstone is cutting processed foods and processed meats and focusing on fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, seeds, and nuts. Italian Three-Star Michelin Chef, Niko Romito, and owner of Il Reale (ranked among The World’s 50 Best Restaurants), has been working on synchronizing nutrition, gastronomic simplicity, and most importantly delectability for years by revamping the Mediterranean diet as we know it, through innovative cooking methods and gastronomic projects.
“The correlation between food and health today cannot be a choice, it must always be a habit. Both at home and in restaurants, regardless of restaurant type or market positioning,” says Romito. Although he is best known for his restaurant in Castel di Sangro, Abruzzo, he has garnered wide appeal from a larger audience. He created more accessible eateries like the Food Pharmacy, ALT, Nutritional Intelligence, and Spazio, which are more affordable restaurants and food projects that allow for not just gastronomic savants to taste his deeply researched health forward creations, but everyone.
Romito, who is from Abruzzo, Italy, uses the Mediterranean diet as his benchmark for creating dishes but also gets inspiration from the cucina povera, or poor Italian cooking. Today it is understood as healthy due to its vegetable centricity, (animal protein was historically more expensive to use), and also innovative cooking methods.
His extensive research in elevating and maintaining the nutritional qualities of ingredients to create dishes in collaboration with nutritionists and pharmacists, ensure that nutritionally proteins, fats, and vegetables are cooked to be the most digestible. Digestibility matters so much because it measures the degree to which macronutrients are digested and absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract.
“Filet is the leanest part of the red meat, and if cooked at a low temperature it does not disperse the juices of the meat making it more digestible. Choosing wild-caught bluefish like mackerel, anchovies, shrimp which are the highest in good fats, and anti-inflammatory properties like omega-3. The objective is to not compromise the fat and protein by using low temperatures to preserve the nutrition of the fish and meat,” explains Romito.
Techniques for cooking meats at high pressure and low temperatures, the use of steam, extensive use of vegetable extractions, natural reductions, and concentrated broths are some of the elements that Romito uses to create a cuisine of wellness and delectability.
In 2016, Romito partnered with the University of Rome La Sapienza and the Giomi/Gioservice Group to launch Nutritional Intelligence. A gastronomic project that was the impetus for Romito to redesign the entire food production within a hospital. Through the application of cooking techniques using technology that would standardize dishes, optimize the nutritional density of ingredients, and even lower food costs for patients within the hospital. With the arsenal of new cooking methods he gained in those years of testing, he wanted to widen the applications to other food formats.
In his experimentation, Romito’s favorite dish he created revamping a traditional dish was an eggplant parmigiana. “I like the eggplant parmigiana made without lactose, made with dark purple male eggplants that have fewer seeds, sprinkled with cornflour and a few drops of olive oil and then put in the oven to obtain the crunchiness and taste of a fried, classic parmigiana but avoiding the excess fat. Then, layer the baked eggplants with a layer of tomato sauce and a layer of water-based Parmigiano sauce, where the fat separates during boiling the Parmigiano with water. The resulting whey, which is very lean, is bound with water and cornstarch to give creaminess. This is a dish that is suitable for everyone and rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals with 70% less fat than the traditional recipe,” explains Romito.
In looking at the etymology of the word diet, which derives from Greek meaning lifestyle, or a way of living, the culture of food is not a synonym for deprivation. “It’s not meant to deprive or starve or eliminate. That is not what diet means. Diet means lifestyle. The diet and lifestyle of the Mediterranean must be revalued, which is why the objective is to create a new 2.0 Mediterranean diet,” explains nutritionist Ferdinando A. Giannone, who also worked on launching the Food Pharmacy with Elena and Marco Cecchini, pharmacists that came up with the original concept. Many of their clients were trying to optimize their health through preventative measures by way of food. With the Food Pharmacy, “food became an opportunity instead of privation,” said Elena Cecchini.
Since the beginning of time, food has always been medicinal. Romito wants to return to the roots of our food being nutrition, without compromise. As the old adage says, we are what we eat.