In early February, Ali Maffucci was winding down a weeklong photo shoot. The author of The New York Times best-selling cookbook, Inspiralized, she was currently working on a second, trying to finish up her manuscript, and get the design in order.

The frantic pace was such that she hadn’t even had time to sit down and enjoy a meal at Houlihan’s. That took on extra meaning since, only days earlier, the American chain with nearly 80 locations unveiled a limited-time menu with Maffucci’s stamp all over it.

Houlihan’s special Inspiralized menu featured three items created by Maffucci and company test kitchen chef Nick Janner. The menu talked about Maffucci’s culinary vision of spiralizing vegetables to the center of the plate, and servers were even wearing T-shirts with her book’s title as a hashtag.

“It was really a dream come true to have my recipes at a national restaurant that can reach a lot of people, a lot of Americans. I was really excited for it,” she says, adding that she planned to sample the menu the following week with some friends.

Maffucci began blogging about spiralizing in 2013 after quitting the corporate world and launching a website. The inspiration began when her mother, a Type 1 diabetic, tried zucchini noodles at a restaurant. The experience led her to buy a Spiralizer online, which then hooked Maffucci during a Sunday night dinner a couple months later.

Jen Gulvik, the senior vice president of marketing and the creative director for Houlihan’s, reached out to Maffucci through email after following her posts on Instagram.

“I was so excited,” Maffucci says, noting that she’s never had anything happen to her quite like this. “I love that Houlihan’s has made such an effort to be a healthier restaurant and make strides to cook from scratch.”

She flew out to the company’s Kansas City headquarters in the middle of fall and sat down with Janner. Maffucci had previously emailed him six or seven recipes, and Houlihan’s was already testing their viability.

“It’s a total different ball game than just developing different recipes for a cookbook or a blog,” she says. “Especially because they’re going to be cooked by someone you don’t know, and they have complete control of it. And then you go to the restaurant side of things, and you’re trying to not only appeal to a more general customers but you have to make sure the recipe or the dish can be served to the masses in multiple quantities.”

The results went as follows: Thai Noodle Salad—Sriracha Thai peanut sauce tossed with spiralized fresh zucchini noodles, mango, red peppers, snow peas, tri-colored quinoa, basil, mint, and almonds with the option to add grilled chicken or grilled salmon; Sweet Potato, Corn & Bacon Mexicali Flatbread—spiralized sweet potatoes and zucchini, sweet corn, bacon, Greek yogurt white sauce, pickled jalapeños, blend of cheeses, and avocado salsa; and Butternut Squash and Sausage Lasagna—spiralized butternut squash noodles, herbed ricotta, Italian sausage, sautéed organic kale-spinach-chard blend, marinara and mozzarella, served with a pesto zucchini “noodle” side salad.

“We totally worked side by side,” she says. “There was a moment where the lasagna, which is apparently the most popular menu item right now, it came out and it was beautiful, cheesy, butternut squash lasagna, and I said, ‘Chef it needs a little something, it needs a little color. Why don’t we do pesto zucchini noodles on the side?’ Together we sort of developed it and finally found the perfect plated dish.”

Maffucci doesn’t have a tough time selling her ideas. Using vegetables to replace noodles, which can take on countless flavors and recipe combinations, cuts down on sugars, carbohydrates, and simply, loads up someone’s diet with healthy greens. Personally, Maffucci says she’s lost 30 pounds since beginning the diet, along with exercise, in June 2014. “You’re detoxifying your body. Your skin clears up. You have more energy. You don’t feel weighed down and you don’t feel lethargic. I think that’s the best part of this style of cooking,” Maffucci says. “Everyone likes to make an effort to be healthier. I think one of the issues is that dining out is such a social thing. Going to your favorite restaurant with friends and having wine or drinks or whatever. The issue is, when you go out, three’s not much on the menu where you can say, ‘I’m going to get this really healthy item, and I’m going to feel good about it.’ I think if more restaurants did that, people would feel better about what they’re eating, and when they go out, they wouldn’t second guess it.”

Gulvik echoed those sentiments. “In partnering with Ali Maffucci, we’ll introduce millions of people to this creative way of cooking and eating veggie-forward dishes that are surprisingly delicious. It’s unlike anything you’ll find in casual dining restaurants,” Gulvik says. “Consumers are looking for ways to reduce sugar and carbs in their diets, and the U.S. Government just announced dietary guidelines for reducing sugar intake. We’re hearing that sugar is the new fat. With Houlihan’s Inspiralized menu, pasta is replaced with vegetable ‘noodles’ for reduced carbs and sugar.”

Danny Klein

Casual Dining, Chain Restaurants, Industry News