There was a time when people used to eat “real” food. Forget the chemically altered, artificially flavored, pre-packaged “health” foods of the present day — people used to eat foods that came from nature, food with very little done to change or preserve them, foods that would nourish and sustain their bodies, not deplete them.
In some parts of the country it’s still easy to find foods like that, but in cities like New York, the barriers to accessing fresh and wholesome food can seem insurmountable (you can only carry so much on a crowded subway train and up three flights of stairs); both lifestyle and budget play a huge role in urbanites’ ability to eat healthy foods. Enter: forward-thinking restaurateurs like Leith Hill, founder and president of Ellary’s Greens in New York City’s West Village.
So many restaurants that serve local and organic fare do so because it’s the trendy thing to do. Ellary’s Greens is different. Hill’s sincere commitment to good, healthy, and responsible food radiates from all corners of the restaurant (both figuratively and literally — even her light fixtures are made with recycled cardboard).
The commitment to environmental responsibility doesn’t end there — Hill finds a use for everything that comes into her kitchen. Salmon trimmings are turned into no-filler-added burgers; vegetable “scraps” into the creamy and delicious purée served under the crispy roast chicken breast. The only thing in the Ellary’s Greens kitchen that has yet to find its purpose? Hazelnut skins. “We tried to make hazelnut milk, but it’s like putting paper in water. It doesn’t have any flavor; it doesn’t yield anything. We haven’t found anything to do with our hazelnut skins… yet.”
I had the opportunity to sit down with Hill (over plates of delicious house-smoked deviled eggs; gooey mac and cheese studded with pieces of smoky, house-cured, heritage bacon; and seasonal mushrooms in a nutty cashew cream) to talk a little bit about the state of food in the United States and the importance of healthy eating. Here’s what she had to say:
What would you tell someone who doesn’t understand the importance of healthy eating?
We know that when you don’t get enough nutrients in your diet you continue to want to eat. That’s why you keep eating even after you’ve devoured an entire bag of potato chips; your body hasn’t had any of the nutrients that it needs. If you eat a kale salad and a piece of bread instead, your brain knows that its needs have been met and you stop eating.
Everybody wants to feel great. And, at the same time, we can’t afford to get any sicker. We just can’t. No matter where you are, you owe it to yourself to eat simple, nourishing, nutrient-dense foods.
Any advice for someone who can only afford to eat local, organic food some of the time?
If I have to choose between organic and local I’m always going to choose organic. And, that’s because our bodies can process food from North Carolina or from Europe but it really can’t process chemicals. I hate that choice, but if I have to make it, I’m always going to go organic.
What’s one simple thing that anyone can do to instantly eat healthier?
Rethink your “fast” food. Some of the best fast foods are avocados, almonds, walnuts, and sweet potatoes. In the case of sweet potatoes, all you have to do is wash them off, put them in the oven — you don’t even need a baking pan, just put it on the rack that comes standard in your oven — set the oven temperature to 350 degrees F, and then walk away. Come back in 30 to 45 minutes and it’s like candy inside — and there’s nothing on it. Eggs are another great fast food (hard-boiled eggs are amazing because you can make them in advance and have them on hand), as are apples (which require nothing — not even to be peeled).
What’s the take-away? What do people really need to know about healthy eating?
It’s OK to take baby steps. Try ordering carrots, celery, and jicama with your guacamole just once at a restaurant and I guarantee you’ll instantly feel better. You never regret eating well, but you do regret eating badly.
One last piece of healthy eating advice? It turns out that Hill’s philosophy on the food served at Ellary’s Greens also makes excellent advice for healthy eating in general. As she says, “We really want to design our food and our menu so that your mouth feels like it’s had a party but your body still has enough energy to dance. We want you to live vibrantly and feel great.”
Kristie Collado is The Daily Meal’s Cook Editor. Follow her on Twitter @KColladoCook.