Laura Maioglio Blobel Speaks About Her Passion, Barbetta Restaurant
When in 1962 I took over Barbetta, my father’s restaurant, “healthy dining” was a concept yet to be born. At the most, those who wanted to look svelte were counting calories, but they were not differentiating between types of fat, were unconcerned about cholesterol, and only those with pronounced high blood pressure were avoiding salty foods, and only diabetics worried about sugar. Had my father’s restaurant that he opened in 1906 and which later became mine, serve “healthy food”? Mostly yes, as did other Italian restaurants, but not intentionally, not as a pursuit of “healthy dining”, but because in cooking Italian, Italian restaurants were serving what much later would be called the “Mediterranean Diet”, so highly touted today for it’s health benefits.
It was only when medical studies began to point out the dangers of eating too much animal fat, foods high in salt and in sugar, that people began to move away from foods that affected their cholesterol levels, their blood pressure, their blood sugar level. It was then that they not only counted calories to look good, but became concerned about the effect of certain foods not just on their weight but on their health. So was born the concept of “healthy dining”.
Did people immediately respond by changing their eating habits? Not really. And did restaurants respond by offering “healthier” dishes? Again, not really, except for Italian restaurants that had been cooking “healthy” all along. In other restaurants, Vichysoisse rich in heavy cream lingered on, as did Asparagus Hollandaise and steaks deliciously tender and tasty because of their heavy marbleization.
Perhaps earlier than other restaurants I became interested in serving “healthier” fare. Although I had an Art History degree from Bryn Mawr and intended to go on to become an architect, I had always had an interest in medicine (as did my father). To this day, I subscribe to over a dozen medical newsletters, which I pass on to my chefs once I have read them. I eventually married a doctor, Günter Blobel, who pursues research at Rockefeller University and who a few years ago won the Nobel Prize in Medicine. So through him I have always been kept informed of the latest findings in medicine.
How could I ever, therefore, bring myself to serve my clients food I did not consider healthy enough to eat myself? That led to some painful decisions, such as removing our most popular dish, Tortellini alla Panna, from the menu. Oh! Was it delicious!! How I wish I could recreate that taste without the heavy cream.
Meanwhile, with my chefs we proceeded to cut salt, to cut sugar, cook without cream, replace butter with olive oil, move to leaner cuts of red meat, and increase our selection of white meats and fish. Today, over 50% of our sales are in fish, salmon leading them all, because of those omega-3 fatty acids for which it has become famous.
More recently, Americans have become less rejecting of fruits and vegetables, the latter once considered a punishment by many children. Again, Italians have always been eating them in abundance and enthusiastically. With my parents we used to spend our summers at our home in Piemonte, Italy. Our large 17th century house was always bustling with (interesting!) houseguests. And although we hired a cook and maids who cooked and served elaborate meals, these, following Italian custom, always ended simply with fresh fruit. Desserts were only for birthdays.
Today, at Barbetta, we make 16 different desserts daily, 7 of which are fruit. My pastry chef makes desserts with very little sugar.
The number of vegetarians has increased over the years and we have developed some very beautiful and tasty vegetable dishes. No tasteless steamed or grilled vegetables for us! We have an especially fanciful and flavorful dish consisting of twelve different vegetables, each cooked separately and in a different manner, resulting in each having a distinctive taste. We are also able to accommodate vegans.
I think the future for healthy dining is brilliant. There is an ever-increasing awareness among the public for healthier food and the restaurants are poised to provide it.
And what do we eat at home on Sundays, when the restaurant is closed? Delicious salads, prepared by my husband. When restaurants are under the guidance of scientists, started doing molecular cuisine, Günter who won the Nobel Prize for a lifetime of work on the cell said to me, “Well, Laura, I could always offer you cellular cuisine”.