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New Restaurant Certification Rates Healthy and Sustainable Meals

By Amy Zimmer | June 18, 2012 9:29am
Warm octopus salad from Rouge Tomate.
Warm octopus salad from Rouge Tomate.
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Rouge Tomate

MANHATTAN — While eco-friendly buildings can prove how green they are through the LEED certification process, restaurants have been stuck when they wanted to prove their commitment to health and sustainability — until now.

Entrepreneur and restaurateur Emmanuel Verstraeten has created a new certification process which would allow eateries to wear their principles on their sleeves.

Verstraeten is trying to spread the gospel of his food philosophy SPE, an abbreviation for the Latin phrase Sanitas per Escam — health through food.

Starting last month, he has certified a handful of restaurants as SPE, including such upscale spots as Telepan and Danji, according to SPE officials.

Verstraeten first applied the principles of SPE at Rouge Tomate, which he opened first in Brussels in 2001 and then in Manhattan on East 60th Street between Madison and Fifth avenues in 2008 and which has won a highly-coveted Michelin star.  

The principles, developed after nearly 10 years of research, are based on “sourcing” — using local and seasonal food as much as possible; “preparing” — using cooking techniques that preserve nutrients; and “enhancing” — where a chef and culinary nutritionist work together on determining the best “nutrient density” of a dish.”

"Many restaurants have been practicing the farm-to-table approach for years," SPE COO Nil Sonmez wrote in an email.

"It is great to source good products, but if you do not prepare them in a healthy way, the balance is lost. SPE goes two steps further in making sure that the best products are prepared the best way possible and that nutritional density is optimized."

This is by no means crunchy salad bar-type food.

Just as LEED-certified residential buildings tend to be luxury condos, SPE meals can be extremely high-end.

An ideal SPE-certified meal at Rouge Tomate, for example, could include an appetizer of gazpacho with muscatel grapes and pumpernickel croutons followed by crispy duck breast, ginger-rhubarb glaze, rice, wilted ramps and baby turnips. The finale could be rhubarb custard with coconut meringue.

“Ultimately, taste must remain at the center of the plate,” Sonmez said.

“SPE is not a diet. SPE is building a bridge between the culinary and nutritional worlds so diners enjoy themselves when they eat out.”

Verstraeten was inspired to create the new certification system in response to the growing obesity epidemic, citing that in 2030, 42 percent of the Americans are expected to be obese.

Places like Rouge Tomate or Telepan, however, aren't necessarily known for serving the embattled 16-oz. soda.

Yet Sonmez said the certification is "to help consumers find their way," since these dishes have been approved and controlled by an independent third party." He added, "They know they can trust the SPE seal."

The SPE team is starting small, certifying restaurants in New York before expanding to the East Coast. SPE's culinary nutritionists work with a restaurant's chef on increasing the nutritional density of a dish to meet the program's criteria.

The process usually takes up to two weeks, Sonmez said, insisting it won't alter the "culinary vision" of the chef. A restaurant could simply be SPE certified if 10 percent (or three dishes per season) met the criteria.

Silver certification is given if 25 percent of the menu meets standards, gold for 50 percent and platinum for 75 percent.

"As for any new program, it is difficult to predict the time it will take to catch on," Sonmez said, "but we believe that what we are offering is very much aligned with the current conversation on health, dining and well-being."

The Bloomberg administration has been implementing its own guidelines to regulate healthy food in restaurants, such as the trans fat ban and the proposed big soda ban.

Though he said the soda initiative was too new to comment on, Sonmez said, "The issue of public health is at stake and is so important that I would welcome any new initiatives, public or private, to help the fight against obesity in the years to come.

"And SPE Certified is one of these initiatives that will play a defining role."


Recipe for an SPE-certified dish: farro risotto with celery root and black truffle

Yields six servings

Celery Root Puree

1 3/4 cup celery root, cut into 2" cubes

1 – 2 tbsp. celery root cooking liquid

1 tbsp. truffle oil

1/4 tsp. sea salt


In a pot, cover celery root with water and simmer until tender (about 15 minutes). Add celery root to blender with salt and cooking liquid. While blender is running, add oil.


Farro Risotto

1 1/2 cups dry farro, soaked in water overnight and drained

3/4 cup dry white wine

1/2 tsp. sea salt

2/3 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

1 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

3/4 cup chopped onion

3 cup chicken stock (no or low sodium)

4 cup chopped Swiss chard


Heat the olive oil in a pot. Add the onions and sauté for 1 – 2 minutes. Add the soaked farro, stir to coat with oil and cook for another 1 – 2 minutes. Add the dry white wine and cook unit it is absorbed into the farro. Add the sale and as the liquid is absorbed, add stock one ladle at a time, stirring constantly. Continue to ladle and stir for approximately 18 – 20 minutes. Add the still hot celery root puree and stir. Add the cheese and Swiss chard. Cook until chard is wilted.



1 1/2 cup sliced crimini mushrooms

1/2 tbsp. truffle oil

1/3 cup thinly sliced radish

1 3/4 cup sliced maitake mushrooms, sautéed

3/4 tbsp. sliced shallots

1/2 tbsp. sherry vinegar

1/4 cup thinly sliced celery

1 – 2 cooked chicken breasts

1/4 chives


Saute the crimini mushrooms and shallots in truffle oil until moisture from mushrooms has cooked off. Deglaze the pan with the vinegar and add the celery and radishes while the pan is still warm.


Plate farro and garnish with criminis, shallots, celery and radishes. Thinly slice the chicken and add 3 – 4 slices of chicken and 2 – 3 slices of maitake mushrooms. Sprinkle chives over the top and serve.