In an effort to help bridge what many feel is a gap between nutrition and food, more registered dietitian nutritionists are headed back to the kitchen — even culinary school — in hopes of starting a food blog, writing a cookbook or teaching healthy cooking classes in their communities. But few have carved out food and nutrition careers in the restaurant industry as unique as these two New York City-based dietitians. Take notes on how to forge a career in the fast-paced, high stakes restaurant business.
Research Your Opportunity
Marissa Lippert, MS, RD, long had a dream of running her own restaurant. A self-taught cook, she used her culinary prowess to design meal plans and recipes for her private practice clients and for magazines including Health, Real Simple and Bon Appetit. Lippert's approach to eating is "bringing balance and flavor to the table." Her private practice, Nourish, grew to include Nourish at Home Meal Service, providing nutrition-minded, in-home meal preparation for clients. Recognizing the struggle that many of her clients faced finding fast and healthy meal options, and armed with market research showing a true business opportunity, NOURISH Kitchen + Table was born: a seasonally-influenced and locally-inspired takeaway food shop and 16-seat café.
Designed to feel like a "culinary jewel box," food is front and center at NOURISH, displayed in bountiful bowls to showcase the beauty and freshness of dishes that just happen to be healthy. Menu offerings, posted daily on NOURISH's Facebook page, mimic the kinds of food that Lippert eats herself, and is built around wholesome ingredients, without harsh restrictions on calories, fat or other nutrients.
As owner, Lippert acts as creative director, working closely with her chefs to develop new dishes. For dietitians desiring to open their own place, Lippert has some advice. "Do lots of research around your customer base, food costs and profits, and always remember your brand at its core," she says. "And raise double what you think you need — it costs more money to get a restaurant business going than you could ever imagine."
Focus on Your End Goal
Realizing she wanted a career that combined food and health while an undergrad history major, Kristy Del Coro, MS, RD, completed her master's degree in nutrition and dietetic internship at NYU, including a stint at high-end farm-to-table restaurant Blue Hill Farm and working at a catering company as part of her program. With all this experience, Del Coro knew what she wanted to do; she just had to figure out how to get there.
While working as a clinical dietitian, Del Coro attended culinary school. A required externship for her culinary degree led her to Rouge Tomate, and her dream career became a reality. A Michelin-starred restaurant (soon to reopen in its new downtown Manhattan location), Rouge Tomate offers fine dining cuisine that emphasizes sustainability and health in equal measure with delicious taste, even pairing chefs with dietitians to execute that vision.
As a senior culinary nutritionist at Rouge Tomate and its sister food consulting company, SPE (from the Latin phrase, Sanitas Per Escam or "health through food"), Del Coro ensures that specific nutrition guidelines are followed based on a charter validated by SPE's own scientific advisory board. This charter breaks down each menu course and provides specific nutrition requirements that incorporate global health recommendations and promote nutrient density. For example, a three-course lunch or four-course dinner is designed to ensure diners get at least 40 percent of the daily value for vitamins and minerals. Including more fruits and vegetables is a primary objective of SPE, so minimum amounts for each type of dish — from appetizer to dessert — are required. Healthy fats are emphasized over saturated fats. And, where possible, food synergies are used: For example, sodium is balanced with potassium-rich foods; and vitamin C food sources are paired with beans in vegetarian dishes to help boost iron absorption.
While Rouge Tomate's first location was open, Del Coro worked closely with the chefs, spending time planning the restaurant's frequently changing menus and worked in the kitchen during meal prep. She also trained front of house staff, providing details on menu items regarding potential allergy issues and special nutrition information to share with diners.
And, in her consultant role at SPE, Del Coro helps university food service programs, restaurants and hotel food operations incorporate SPE charter practices into their menus and earn SPE certification.
Del Coro's advice for dietitians interested in working with restaurants? "Culinary school gives you the insights and experience on how restaurant kitchens run. That made a difference for me when I started working with chefs," she says. "Take advantage of opportunities that are offered to you to gain restaurant and food experience. And keep in touch with colleagues and former co-workers, especially as a student. You never know when a volunteer or internship will lead to a job."