The Food Psychologist: Dean & DeLuca (Part 1)

Following the popularity of our mooncake feature, The Wellness Insider is on the prowl for healthier eats again. This time, we’re looking to uncover some of the restaurants in Singapore that incorporate healthy, wholesome ingredients, cooking methods and even philosophy. No, we don’t just mean salads and protein boxes that are all the rage now; we’re talking about proper food that leaves your body nourished and your taste buds satisfied without necessarily compromising a healthy lifestyle. I might intersperse my reviews occasionally with my very own recipes, should I be inspired to do some culinary experimentation of my own.

I will be reviewing these meals in terms of the quality and types of nutritious ingredients used, their taste and their cooking methods. Combining these three, I will rate each meal on how healthy it is or its “Wholesome Factor”. Each article will also have a “Featured Ingredients” section, which will showcase some of the items used in the reviewed food.

Let’s get one thing straight though – I’m neither a food critic nor a health food guru. I am, in fact, a Clinical Psychologist who believes that good, nourishing food makes for a happy body and mind. So join me, The Food Psychologist, on the hunt for delectable, nutritious meals.

First up, we head down to the bustling Raffles Place for lunch at Dean & DeLuca in Far East Square.

Background & Philosophy

Many know Dean & DeLuca as the acclaimed gourmet café from New York, but a lesser known fact is that it started out in 1977 as a corner deli store. Since then, it has developed into an international group renowned for its cafes and retail of gourmet and specialty foods, wines and kitchenware. Dean & DeLuca opened their flagship cafe and store in Singapore in June 2012 in Orchard Central, but has recently expanded operations to Far East Square and Hillview.

Although there are a lot of cafes sprouting out in the area, Dean and DeLuca has stayed true to the brand, which is about freshness and carefully sourced items. When it comes to retail, they have tried to work with products and farmers that are green as well to incorporate the best possible products in their items. This philosophy underlies the brand. They believe in wholesome, quick food without the use of processed goods (other that the sausages used for their hotdog mains).

Even with lunchtime crowds, Chef Clifford and his team never resort to the microwave or slipshod cooking methods and freshness is never compromised. The chefs are professionally trained and prepare most things from scratch. The menu has gone through vigorous rounds of tasting and the team has worked closely with Chef Clifford to keep up-to-date with current healthy dietary trends.

The flagship Dean and DeLuca stores in Singapore have tried to create a more local brand that is distinct from its New York counterpart. In particular, they have cut back on pantry items as locals preferred more economical options, so the emphasis shifted to cooked food, which people prefer.

The Dean and DeLuca team in Far East Square seemed to have clearly defined and zoned in on their target audience: the health-conscious office workers who believe in affordable, quick yet wholesome food. Unlike the New York branch and the other branches here, the Pekin Street outlet focuses less on desserts here since the people in this area adopt a more health conscious lifestyle. Even their grab-and-go food is geographically distinct and can only be found here. The team has also been trying to break away from the image Dean and DeLuca has of merely being a place for coffee and quick discussions. They hope for the people working here to eventually see it as a great place for lunch too. Even their prices are more affordable than the other outlets!

The Restaurant

The first thing I noticed was that the staff were welcoming, with smiles on their faces, and a cheery disposition. The layout was functional and comfortable enough, with seats available indoors and outdoors. It caters to the lunch crowd so convenience is of greater importance than comfort. With an open kitchen, the chefs clearly have nothing to hide in terms of what they serve up to their patrons. The pantry surrounding the entrance offers a range of fresh juices, specialty chips and other tantalising gourmet deli items.

The lunchtime menu offers up a gourmet plate option: a starter with just two sides (S$10), a regular plate with one main add-on (S$13) and a large plate with two mains (S$16). There is also a standard menu, which offers all-day breakfast sets, pasta, a couple of starters and entrees (the highlight of which is the mere S$18 steak chef-cooked on the spot), as well as desserts, including their allegedly famous Rainbow Cake. For those looking for a quick lunch, the grab-and-go options, mainly sandwiches and salads, are a good choice. Portions are generous to satisfy the hungry.

 

Meet Chef Clifford

The Head Chef in Dean and DeLuca’s Far East Square is Chef Clifford, who has been with the brand for a while now. He helmed the Far East Branch when it opened and has been with them since. With his good nature and cheerful attitude, Chef happily obliged to an interview to talk a little more about his philosophy on healthy eating and future plans for the restaurant.

The Food Psychologist: What is “healthy” about Dean & DeLuca?

Chef Clifford: Actually the company recently changed their menu, this [the gourmet plates] just came about a month ago. So I think we’re moving in the right direction because I feel that people nowadays are more health-conscious than previously, myself included! So I think they hit the nail with this new concept.

TFP: How has your cooking/eating become healthier over the years?

I’m 50, by the way, and I now exercise and go to the gym more regularly. Maybe when you reach a certain age, you know that your health is important and the government has done a good job in promoting awareness of a healthy lifestyle. Personally, I try to refrain from sugary beverages and I drink more water. Occasionally, of course lah, I will crave a coke and I’ll drink it.

TFP: What are the stereotypes of ‘healthy food’?

If you asked me this question years ago, I would have said “boring food”, you know, just salads…I just think of salads. But when you read up more and you look around at the new types of food, like poké bowls, it looks appetising. Even though I’m not a fan of raw foods, it’s something I might try if the tuna were cooked. So I think that the health trend has improved in that there are so many varieties of food we get nowadays. Not just foods, but smoothies and fresh juices.

TFP: So you think the stereotype is shifting from just plain, bland food to more exciting things.

Yes, that’s correct. I remember, in the 1990s, I was working in Boat Quay at that time. This health shop opened there and I felt sorry for the owner because there was no business. People were not ready for it yet.

TFP: What is your favourite health food trend then in general?

I like the ketogenic diet, but a lot of people are disagreeing with it. I like ketogenic food as it is plain and simple to do. Actually, my wife was the one who got me into it because she is slowly shifting her diet (to something healthier). One simple dish to do is cauliflower rice. You blend it so it becomes like granules. Then you sauté the granules with a bit of sesame oil. When she was doing it, I was telling her, “Are you sure or not?” But when she did it, I said, “Eh, this is pretty good!”

TFP: So clearly she’s the cook in the house huh?

She can cook lah, fortunately [laughs].

TFP: So you are into the keto diet. Does this mean you try to stay current with new trends?

Well, we try to cook simple food one or two days a week. I can’t speak for the kids as they can’t do it, but my wife and I have something simple at least once or twice a week – such as seared salmon with a light glaze of shoyu sauce with a simple salad.

TFP: How do you test the quality and taste of your ingredients?

I’ll be very frank with you. For the more usual foods, like Brussels sprouts, broccoli, quinoa, you know the taste, but some of the other foods…even I don’t know. You have to try it one to three times to get familiarised with the taste. Also, with things like this, I don’t test it alone. My staff, the General Manager, all of us give feedback about the food. We have two to three food tastings before we come up with the menu. Everyone wants to have their two cents!

TFP: How is your menu catered towards healthy eating? Are you looking to incorporate more ingredients for this purpose or a different way of cooking?

Actually yes. Now there is a trend, we are currently using products such as quinoa and couscous, but I want to incorporate things like wild rice, sorghum, freekah. I have already spoken to the GM and he is ok with us coming up with new ingredients as long as it’s with the latest trends. And I know where the company is heading. This [healthy food concept] started in Orchard Central two years ago, and we’re moving in that direction. People are coming here specifically for this kind of food.

TFP: How do you maintain the quality of a dish if you’re trying to make it healthier?
That’s the hard part sometimes.

TFP: I mean, I’ve seen it happen a lot, where people try “a healthier way of cooking” but end up adding sugar and salt to compensate for flavour.

To be very frank, I’m still learning. But what I’m doing is I’m minimalising. What I mean is that we don’t add any preservatives, no MSG. But we try to minimalise the use [of sugar and salt] in the sauces.

TFP: What is the healthiest item in your kitchen?

I can’t say healthiest, but my favourite dish is soba. I just like soba. It’s a great mix of the sweet and savoury. There’s shoyu and there’s also seaweed. We use Japanese sesame seeds. I don’t know if the healthiest, and it’s hard for me to pinpoint which is the healthiest in all the salads.

TFP: What is the one ingredient that you would recommend to those embarking on a healthier way of eating?

They should try quinoa because of the unique nutty taste, and it’s supposed to be a superfood. And it’s just light. When you mix quinoa with a light dressing and squeeze a lemon, it just tastes wonderful.

TFP: Advice for those who want to adopt a healthier way of eating?

I can’t give a very long answer but all I can say is that one should make the effort to try and stay healthy. It is a decision, it is a choice, read more information about the healthy lifestyle, read about the dangers of diabetes – one of the leading causes of deaths in Singapore. Just make the choice.

TFP: Are you going to be expanding this healthy food trend to desserts someday?

That is something that the management and I are looking into it. It’s not fixed yet, but it’s something we definitely want to do.

 

With Chef Clifford leading the way, Dean & DeLuca certainly looks set to usher in a wholesome way of eating. So we’ve met the team, we’ve heard their philosophy. Stayed tuned for Part 2 where we get down to the grub!

 

If you liked this article, please support our book project “Building Body Confidence” by pledging an amount here. Every dollar goes into the publishing and distribution of the book and you will get a copy of it once it does get published!


Photo Credits: Dean and DeLuca, Pexels

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