Is Food Medicine? We Ask Niko Romito

13 January, 2022
Food as Medicine

Illustration by Giulia Masia

 The role of the chef

In 1973, the decalogue of nouvelle cuisine was drawn up. One of its principles spoke of the lightness of preparations, the search for lightness and digestibility in contrast to the heavy sauces fashionable in those years. Among the signatories was Paul Bocuse - during his career, however, the legendary French chef distanced himself from the manifesto and from the movement. Among his most famous phrases are "every self-respecting lunch must always include meat", the kitchen is "a perfect marriage between cream, butter and wine", and a rather clear warning to his customers: "If you want to feel good, go to a doctor."

Since then, things in the restaurant industry have definitely changed. And we're not just talking about initiatives like the UK's obligation to include calories in menus, or the growing popularity of bistros that give a nod to the concept of healthy food in recent years. Even fine dining, with all due respect to Bocuse, has understood the need to lighten up: the latest trends in haute cuisine, influenced by Scandinavian cuisine more than French in recent years, seem to say that there is no longer a need to amaze the customer with opulence - and often the heaviness - of the dishes. Sometimes you can have a memorable experience in a restaurant without leaving it feeling weighed down and with sluggish digestion.

chef-niko-romito

Niko Romito (photo credit Andrea Straccini)

More and more chefs are interested in the field of nutrition, trying to reconcile the hedonistic component that drives us to enjoy cooking in a playful sense with the nutritional one, which now seems unavoidable. One of the first and most active experimenters in this field is Niko Romito. His latest project is called Farmacia Alimentare (Food Pharmacy). In the town of Aprilia, he opened the restaurant right next to the municipal pharmacy, whose administrators Elena and Marco Cecchini gave life to the project with the advice of nutritionist Ferdinando A. Giannone.

Niko Rimito's team

Niko Romito's team (photo credit: Alessandro d'Angelo)

Food Pharmacy is open from breakfast to dinner. At first glance, the menu has nothing different from that of a normal bistro - except perhaps a richer menu. But if you go deeper, you discover that the maritozzi are filled with water-based creams; the aubergine parmigiana is cooked in the oven in a starch film to recreate the feeling of fried food, but without actually being fried, and does not contain lactose; the vitello tonnato sauce is an emulsion based on soy, capers and anchovies. And for lunch, the offer is mainly plant-based.

Niko Romito's Farmacia Alimentare menu

Maritozzo, Parmigiana and Vitello Tonnato (photo credit: Mauro Corinti and Alessandro d'Angelo)

“It is a place where food becomes precious support for the pharmacological treatment of many common diseases. A collective food education project aimed at the entire population,” explains Romito. "Food Pharmacy aims to identify a tool to support pharmacological treatment, through food, highlighting the combination of taste and health. A dish can give joy to the palate and, at the same time, be a valid ally for one's health." Romito has no doubts: the concept of taste cannot be separated from that of health (although the latter is a term that is too overused and too broad to be reduced to a mere question of nutrition).

This is not the chef's first project in this sense. He worked closely with the world of hospital catering, and from that experience he understood how "the correct transformation of food, facilitated by modern technologies, can, on the one hand, preserve the organoleptic, nutritional and curative qualities of food, and on the other become part of a new system of interpreting human nutrition, based on environmental and economic sustainability, on circularity, on the reduction of waste and on democratic access to quality food."

The so-called Niko Romito Method is a system of food transformation, validated by the Sapienza University of Rome, which will be taught at the Higher Education Research Campus that will launch in Abruzzo, of which the chef will be scientific partner, dedicated to the specific theme of collective catering. “This year, more than ever, it has taught us that nutrition, food and the complex processes of food transformation are linked in a double way with the well-being and health of people. I have often wondered why, in the common perception, a food considered healthy was almost always associated with an unpleasant and not very rich taste, and from this assumption I decided to try to overturn the paradigm,” explains the chef.

"With the brigade of my research laboratory we have done hundreds of tests, we spent months correcting and fine-tuning recipes, preparations, cooking processes and techniques, to obtain dishes and products that were both flavoursome and good, light and healthy."

Niko Romito's team working in the kitchen

Niko Romito's team working on the giardiniera mista (photo credit: Mauro Corinti)

A meeting of medicine and cuisine

If chefs approach the world of medicine, can doctors also approach the world of cooking? We are not talking about dieticians, but about all those who graduate in medicine, perhaps without having ever seriously dealt with nutrition during their years of study. "I attended medical school 20 years ago. At that time there was no room for nutrition,” says Dr Viola Zulian. “The few notions I knew had been taught to me by diet culture. I believe that things are changing, and more and more colleagues are realising the need for in-depth knowledge on the role of nutrition, both as a pathogen and as a means of healing. I am an optimist and I see the revolutionary wave approaching. I am happy to be part of it."

Perhaps in the next few years, a crossover between the two fields will be inevitable. Chefs will address more issues relating to nutrition, and doctors will approach the world of cooking. It is only to be hoped that the process will take place without obsession and extremes on both sides. Maybe we can rely less on calorie tables and trust our bodies more, which, according to Dr Zulian, is smarter than we think. "We are made up entirely of cells whose components derive from what we have eaten: proteins, hormones, enzymes, electrolytes and trace elements are taken from food. We have a natural appetite that drives us to eat thanks to hunger. The physiology of nutrition is fascinating. We think that we develop specific appetites depending on the deficiencies that are established in our bodies. If there is a lack of magnesium, we will be attracted to chocolate and dried fruit which are rich in it, for example. "

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