Mayor’s Fitness Council Kicks Off Healthy Recipe Contest for Austin Restaurants

By Leah – November 4, 2011

with Dr. Jennifer Conroy

The Mayor’s Fitness Council’s (MFC) city-wide contest is one part self-control, three parts access to healthy foods, and they’re challenging every restaurant in the city to create and offer one healthy entrée.

During the contest, restaurants are invited to create and submit an entrée. Austin residents will vote for their favorites via social media and the top ten entrées will compete in a final round with celebrity judges drawn from a mix of Austin’s finest chefs and food critics. There will be a tasting with the general public in the spring.

Dr. Jennifer Conroy, an MFC Board Member and the Chair of the Programs Committee, came up with the contest idea and pulled together a panel of local nutrition experts to develop the criteria. The panel included a registered dietician, an Oriental medicine practitioner, an emergency room physician, public health experts, local restaurateurs, and a representative from Whole Foods Market, all of whom worked for more than a year to develop and finalize criteria for a “healthy” entrée.

“Nutrition is a bit of a moving target,” says Conroy. “Deciding how to eat is challenging when there are so many options, and the research is always changing about what’s good for you. People get overwhelmed trying to keep up. Our goal is to simplify choices and make sure folks have something they like that’s also good for them, wherever they go,” Conroy said. “We want healthy food to be easy to find.”

The MFC’s goal is that every restaurant in town will provide one healthy entrée on the menu. There are more than 3,600 restaurants in Austin and it is the MFC’s hope that even the fast-food chains will participate.

“It’s important to remember that lots of people eat [at fast food chains] and crave those flavors, or the bargains, or the convenience,” explains Dr. Conroy. “If we want to move the needle on our obesity epidemic, we need to reach the folks that eat at these places. Interestingly, at least in Austin, Taco Bell and McDonald’s have let us know they are very eager to participate. All we need is one fast-food chain to decide to lead the fight against obesity. The rest will follow.”

Dr. Conroy stresses that the new dish created for the contest should be something that is “guilt-free [but] really satisfies” and it should “carry the signature flavor” of the restaurant. Take, for example, a popular local restaurant known for its comfort food: Hoovers. Hoover Alexander, well known restaurateur and owner of Hoover’s, with its “soular” home-style cooking, is one of the first restaurateurs to take on the challenge. Perhaps best known for his chicken fried steak or home-style meatloaf with mashed potatoes, Hoover is quick to say that his passion for good comfort food has to be balanced out with some sensible lifestyle choices.

Dan Marek of Whole Foods Market has been recognized as a whiz in the kitchen when it comes to making healthy food taste good. He thinks the contest (and its contestants’ participation) is a good idea. When Dr. Conroy first talked with Marek about bringing Mr. Alexander onboard with the contest, she smiles that “we were both drooling over the idea of Soul Food with a healthy twist…or mashed potatoes with a cashew gravy,” [Dr. Conroy is a vegetarian]. Marek elaborates that cooking is full of options but the cook has to be willing to “shift your paradigm a little.” He explains further: “A lot of what I do is dispelling common myths about cooking. Showing people that it’s as easy to cook with water instead of oil to avoid the calories is just the start. Most of our cooking techniques have developed out of necessity to get the big flavors we’re used to.”

As an example, Marek describes how he caramelizes onions with just water in the pan—no added oil—for the same sweet, delicious flavor. “It’s really about baby steps and finding balance,” Alexander agrees. “We’re experimenting a lot with incorporating more vegetables [at Hoovers], and [we] will soon have a new food trailer that features mostly veggie-centric entrées. I myself am trying to get back to my roots—to simple foods, fresh from the garden, and home grown.”

Marek has been showing people how to convert their favorite dishes into healthier options for more than two years now as a healthy eating specialist at Whole Foods Market. Through cooking classes, demonstrations, recipe building and his plant-strong supper clubs, his passion is obvious when it comes to helping people rethink their dinner plates. This passion is important now, especially in light of recent dietary changes.

“There has been a major shift in the way Americans look at food in the past 50 years,” Marek says. “Most people’s diets are made up of more than half processed foods. Fresh vegetables are used as a garnish or pushed to the side of the plate. We need to take control of our plates, one meal at a time, to ensure healthier lifestyles for ourselves and for our children.”

Alexander is looking beyond the contest to the big picture of a healthier lifestyle in his restaurant’s community; he’s partnered with the Sustainable Food Center and his church to create a neighborhood garden and is working on a walking program in his neighborhood. He reflects on the importance of his own personal journey to get healthier. “Exercising, growing and preparing food, and growing community are all part of stirring the cosmic pudding on this road to goodness,” says Alexander.

What does Hoover’s plan to submit as its contest entry? Alexander’s keeping that a secret right now, but the Mayor’s Fitness Council and the Austin public might be pleased to taste the spinach salad with chopped bacon, egg, and smoked mushrooms, or the rosemary chicken with side orders of mustard greens and “okra ‘n tomatoes!”

Are you curious to taste these winning healthy entrées? Watch the calendar for an event this spring held by the Mayor’s Fitness Council that will give the public a chance to sample the top 10 contestants’ submissions. Details will be announced in an upcoming issue of Austin Fit Magazine, and you can decide for yourself what pleases your palate.

To see the list of restaurants participating in the contest or to vote on your favorite entrée, go to

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