It’s hard to remember now, but there was a time when the majority of diners couldn’t pronounce acai and kale was just the thing that filled in space on salad bars. Over the last decade, though, the functional food movement, highlighting ingredients for their specific health functions, has exploded. Nutrient-rich ingredients like spirulina, turmeric, and bee pollen first began popping up on menus at health-food restaurants and smoothie bars, but quickly transitioned to the full-service restaurant world where they’ve been amping up the flavor and the function of menus across the country.
“Quite a few chefs and restaurants have been making a conscious effort to create more diverse and healthier menu items, which is great because it tends to tie into superfoods,” says David Wang, chef at Boleo, a Peruvian- and Argentinean-inspired spot in Chicago. At Boleo, Chang uses a variety of functional foods on his menu, but perhaps the most notable one is quinoa.
“Quinoa is an ancient grain and considered a staple of Peruvian cuisine,” he says. “I like cooking with quinoa because it’s a versatile plant-based protein that can be used in a variety of ways, ranging from just adding texture to a dish to substituting ingredients to make a dish healthier.” At Boleo, he uses quinoa as the main ingredient in his version of chaufa, a traditional fried rice dish, making it richer in protein and lighter in calories. Chang even adds it to the restaurant’s dessert menu, using a puffed version of the grain to add a crunchy textural element to a chocolate mousse dessert.
At True Food Kitchen, which has nearly 30 locations across the country, brand chef Robert McCormick focuses on nutrient-dense ingredients like avocados, flax seeds, and sumac spice as part of the company’s overall idea of how restaurants should approach cooking. “Other full-service restaurants need to take a step back and realize that they have a huge opportunity to contribute to their guests’ well-being,” McCormick says. “It’s not enough anymore to only offer genuine hospitality and flavorful food. Guests should be walking out of your restaurant feeling energized and empowered.”
The team at daytime cafe chain First Watch has had a similar philosophy since opening its first location in Pacific Grove, California, in 1983. “We introduced quinoa back before anyone knew how to pronounce it,” says Shane Schaibly, vice president of culinary strategy and corporate chef for the brand. In addition to adding the grain to its pancakes, First Watch offers dishes like the a.m. Superfoods Bowl and avocado toast, whose nutritious ingredients and healthy fats keep diners full for longer. “Food is fuel, so not only should it taste good, but it’s important for restaurants to recognize that oftentimes customers are looking for something that’ll give them the energy they need to get through the day,” Schaibly says.
McCormick has a similar approach. “Integrating delicious, nutrient-dense foods into everyday life is nothing new,” he says. “In fact, it’s how much of the world currently consumes food.”
Lucinda Grain Bar in Seattle has embraced this philosophy, working in ancient grains like einkorn and wheat berry throughout its menu. Chef Edouardo Jordan was inspired by the local grains and produce of the Pacific Northwest, believing that as long as the food was delicious, diners would be excited. “Some people have had a bad experience with a bowl of barley,” he says. “A bowl of barley isn’t that exciting. We try to make it exciting so that, even if people might not come in saying, ‘I want to eat barley today’—they might want to eat duck—maybe we can introduce them to a cool new type of barley as well,” he says.
For restaurants that are looking to incorporate more functional foods into their own menus, Jordan suggests starting with the pastry program. “Bread and pasta are the easiest outlets to start experimenting,” he says. At Lucinda, the bucatini is made with buckwheat and the whole-grain brownies are topped with an oat toffee. “With pastry, you can start taking out all-purpose flour and adding in whole grain flour, buckwheat, things like that.”
Whether they’re working with seaweed or sunflower seeds, one thing all superfood chefs seem to agree on is the bright future of the movement. “The functional food movement is one of the more sustainable food movements, because it’s geared toward eating healthier items instead of restricting,” Boleo’s Wang says.
Schaibly of First Watch says the same. “People are really focusing on making lifestyle changes with long-term benefits in mind. Of course, there will always be fad diets that come and go, but the focus on health and wellness, on powering our bodies with superfoods like these, isn’t going anywhere,” he says.
- Ancient Grains: Quinoa is great, but there’s a whole world of ancient grains out there, including bulgur, millet, freekeh, and more. Less processed than most pantry staples, they also often contain significantly more protein, making them perfect for swapping out in recipes that call for things like white rice.
- Avocado: We all know how much people love avocado, but there’s good reason for it: in addition to adding a rich, creamy texture to dishes, they’re amazing sources of potassium, healthy fats, and fiber. At First Watch, the restaurant works in avocados wherever possible, including adding it into salads, sandwiches, omelets, and on burgers. (And of course avocado toast!)
- Turmeric: This intensely golden-hued spice is related to ginger and has an earthy, slightly bitter taste. Known to help reduce inflammation and for being high in antioxidants, turmeric is a key ingredient in the traditional South Asian golden milk and can also be added to a wide range of dishes from curries to puddings.