Why Calories Have No Place On Menus, According To a Chef

The Irish food industry is outraged about the new changes and Jordan Mooney understands why.

The proposal to put calories on restaurant menus has been floating around for a number of years.

But it now looks like it will happen sooner rather than later as part of the government’s National Obesity Policy and Action Plan 2016-2025.

Chefs from around the country have expressed their anger about the proposal on social media, with Damien Grey of the Michelin-starred Liath in Blackrock in Dublin among those stating that they will never adhere to the guidelines and will pay whatever fines they may incur. 

As a chef, I am completely in agreement with them. Everything I’ve learned while working in kitchens tells me that this won’t work. 

A chef's perspective

My first proper chef job was in The Three Qs in Greystones in Co Wicklow, a small, family-run restaurant that’s very well regarded locally. I worked there for more than three years, and during that time there were never more than six chefs – two of the three owners, and four others – covering breakfast, lunch and dinner service seven days a week.

Everything we served was made from scratch, from ketchup right up to desserts, and while we all followed the same recipes, there were differences in how we all cooked.

When one is under pressure to prep an entire dinner menu in the two hours before service, as long as you know your culinary basics and have an idea of the recipe you’re working with, it’s unlikely that you’re measuring out every single ingredient.

Then there is the fact that produce is not standardised, and changes from season to season.

Mushrooms release more liquid at certain times of the year, for example, meaning that a mushroom sauce may require less butter, milk and cheese in November than it would in June.

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An example of a dish from The Three Qs. Photo by Harry Weir and Brian Clarke.

An example of a dish from The Three Qs. Photo by Harry Weir and Brian Clarke.

The nutritional aspect

To calculate the calories in a dish would initially require outside help, and that would cost.

In theory, a chef could do it themselves, but it would require a lot of time and expertise that many don’t have. Each dish is slightly different every time it’s made, as every chef has their own unique way of doing things.

How could you even start to account for this? 

The move will also teach customers to treat calories as the most important nutritional element of food. But while a low-fat yoghurt will have fewer calories than a full-fat version, it is also likely to have less protein, vitamin D and other nutrients. 

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A stagnant industry

What would consumers get from seeing calories on the menus at restaurants like Aimsir or Liath? For many people, visiting locations like these is a real treat, a once-off occasion to be enjoyed and savoured.

These restaurants serve up some of the best Irish produce available – produce that is bought from local suppliers and transformed by some of the most creative chefs in the country. It is hard to see how having to put calories on menus would not stifle their creativity. 

It’s all well and good for chains like McDonald’s or Nando’s to put calories on their menus. They serve standardised food and also have big budgets which allow them to hire experts to create menus, calculate the calories, and then roll that information out across the world.

For small restaurants around Ireland, this isn’t the case.

A move like this could drive many Irish culinary stars to close their doors, resulting in our growing food industry becoming stagnant and overwhelmed by international chain restaurants. 

As a chef, that’s something I desperately don’t want to see. But if proposals like this come to fruition, I don’t see how we can avoid it. 

This article was originally published by our sister site, FOOD AND WINE. Learn more about Jordan's time in the restaurant business here.

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