From Cowboys Stadium in Dallas to the plastic Tic Tac cases at cash registers across the country, pink is the color of the month as Americans walk, run, shop and dine to support awareness and raise funds to fight breast cancer.
Restaurants are doing their part, including 31 eateries in New Orleans that have banded together under the leadership of Ritz Carlton New Orleans executive chef Vincent “Vinny” Russo, who started thinking about how he and other chefs could support the cause after a good friend’s wife was diagnosed with the disease and underwent a double mastectomy. The result: NOLA Goes Pink. Each day this month, 31 of the city’s restaurants are offering $31 meals with a healthy bent and donating 10% of the sales to Komen New Orleans.
I spoke with Chef Russo about how the monthlong event came about and how it’s going so far.
How did you come up with the idea for NOLA Goes Pink?
I moved here in June [from St. Thomas], and when I got here I saw all the menus had to deal with and we only had one fish entrée in the menu. Specializing in seafood and [now] coming from New Orleans, I went to do a cooking segment on the Fox network in July, and that’s when I found out my best friend’s wife had been diagnosed with breast cancer. It happened real quick, she had to have both breasts removed.
I was just throwing things around with my PR person after that, I was like “The football players wear pink in October, why can’t the chefs do something for one month?” Let’s do a healthy month once a year. Being new here, I didn’t realize 40 restaurants would sign up for it. Then I went on vacation back in September and when I came back, it was like a whirlwind.
Personally, I never thought in a million years I would come up with something like this. But it’s something that happened and hits close to home for everybody. She’s still going through chemo. I was at their house last weekend — it’s just tough. All the other chefs involved, they were all touched one way or another as well.
How did you devise the low-fat dishes on the special menu?
I went to Whole Foods one day and came up with some of the dishes in about a day and a half. They’re just light and healthy, no butter, no chemicals. It was pretty easy, just going back to old-school cooking and traditions.
When I started it, I really didn’t know much about any of the [cancer diets]. I didn’t know what superfoods were. I picked up a few books at Barnes & Noble and researched it, and I read about superfoods and cancer-prevention diets. When you go to the bookstore, there are a lot of books, but not many that are specific to breast cancer. And, just like anything else, every book’s diet is different.
So, I just said knowing where the ingredients come from is key. The fish, the produce, and we’re maybe supporting some local farmers at the same time. So many chefs are buying in bulk now that they don’t have the time to even stop and think about it, but it’s something that a chef or executive chef should never stop learning about.
I put a memo out to the chefs to do research on what cancer-fighting foods are, to look for Omega 3s, Omega 6s, high-vitamin content and less mercury. You don’t want to use big fish, like tuna – the bigger the fish, the worse off you are. Instead of using Black Angus beef or something, use fish. Of course, it’s not a hard-and-fast rule – everyone’s diet is so across the board, you need to know your customers.
Is the focus on health influencing other changes to your menu?
It already has. When I got here, I had been working for the Ritz in St. Thomas for five years. There I was on an island and the restaurant was mostly seafood. In New Orleans, we’re by the gulf, and I thought we would do mostly seafood. Using what’s seasonal – that’s the way I’ve always been as a chef; you’ve got to use what’s seasonal and what’s available to you.
We’re keeping it simple, elegant and refined, keeping it as easy and eye-appealing for the guests as it can be. Maybe that means a two- or three-step dish, not something that takes 15 steps to put the dish out.
Also, I worked in Colorado and California. I grew up in New York, then in the islands. People who come there, they’re all New York City socialites who are watching their diets. You have a nice piece of fish right out of the ocean, why would you cover it up with butter?
Is your restaurant doing anything pink this month? Tell us about it in the comments.