Thirty-nine year-old Hudson Valley, New York restaurateur and chef Marcus Guiliano is not content to simply craft your next meal. No–for him, making sure all restaurants serve healthy choices is a calling. Color him idealistic, but he is making a difference, both at his own restaurant, Aroma Thyme Bistro and around the country.
He exposes chefs and food companies who mislead or even deceive consumers, blowing some loud whistles on his website Truth in Menu, his YouTube channel and whenever you push a microphone in front of him. And not only is he passionate about eating well, he puts certified organic and sustainable cooking and eating into practice.
We recently asked Chef Guiliano a few questions about his MO, how he gets to the bottom of food deception and why he cares so much.
TOQUE: You’re a chef with a mission. You must have had a field day when all the news came out about pink slime. Were you aware it was so ubiquitous?
GUILIANO: I’ve seen a lot of stuff that goes on in beef packing houses. It didn’t surprise me they used more than the animal that they should have and put ammonia in.
What did surprise me was how massively it was being used – in schools, government programs. [At one moment] you didn’t hear about it and then [all of a sudden] everybody was using it.
I am not sure when it was developed, but the developmental stage, being mass produced on a big [scale] [seemed to have] happened relatively quickly.
TOQUE: Tell us what you do as a watchdog for consumers and restaurant goers.
GUILIANO: I do research, research, research and some more research. I ask so many questions about the food we bring in.
[For example, when] I met with a company rep from a cereal producer the first question I asked was, ‘is your company independently owned – is there an owner present?’
It says a lot about a company if you have an owner present …. Or is it being run by a board of directors? It says a lot about the company itself. Local is great and I love local but let’s face it: We’re in a global economy and workplace, and unfortunately I have to buy things that come from abroad.
The same thing applies when I buy tequila, which only comes from Mexico, cognac only comes from France. Is there someone I can go visit in person?
[Another question would be], if you are going to say it’s organic you have to say what’s in there… [Also, you must be accurate about a product's contents generally]. Whole Foods’ extra virgin olive oil went to the lab and to get tested. This was its 365 brand, and it wasn’t even “extra virgin” or “from Spain” so you really wonder what’s going on with what they’re doing.
TOQUE: What inspired you to become the guardian of our health, essentially? Is it because of your asthma?
GIULIANO: I had asthma. I got rid of it 11 years ago. It took one person to ask one question to me when I got my first executive chef job. The ex-president at a country club asked me if the beef I was using was hormone and antibiotic free, or if I could get some. I didn’t know what to say. I was so young in my career, back in the 90s. This wasn’t in the spotlight for most Americans, and I was like ‘well of course, I will try.’ Once I did the research I thought ‘oh my gosh, I had no idea this was going on in our food supply.’
“The way to get to misrepresentation is to have a conversation with the chef of the restaurant whose product [you’re investigating]. When you start asking questions and they can’t answer, that is one major flag. If you ask if they are serving wild salmon but they don’t know where it’s caught, your suspicions should be raised.”
Then my wife became pregnant with our first child, Courtney, and I knew I was a total mess health-wise. I thought, ‘it’s one thing I’ve screwed up my own health, but I am raising a kid and it’s unfair to screw up [his] health too.’
My wife (Jamie) and I went farm to farm. Alice Waters had been doing it for years, but it hadn’t hit every restaurant and it wasn’t even on the awareness level. I remember having this quest to know where my food was coming from and what I was serving.
TOQUE: How do you get to the bottom of a menu misrepresentation? Is it just a matter of “I taste it and I know”?
GIULIANO: No – it’s more difficult than that. I can tell salmon, by the coloring, flavor … even on beef I can blind sniff whether it’s grass fed versus corn fed. On beef the fat smells different. Maybe it’s a combination of fat and flesh, the more gaminess, so really the way to get to misrepresentation is to have a conversation with the chef of the restaurant whose product [you’re investigating]. When you start asking questions and they can’t answer, that is one major flag. If you ask if they are serving wild salmon but they don’t know where it’s caught, your suspicions should be raised.