Sometimes, a love for fine food can get in the way of a healthy lifestyle.
Helping to show that those two concepts can go together is part of the impetus behind the new “Beyond the Plate” series of demonstration dinners launched this month at the Greater Naples YMCA.
For the inaugural dinner on a recent Saturday evening, two dozen diners gathered in the Y’s new demonstration kitchen, a room with a setup that might appear familiar from a multitude of television cooking shows, featuring a mirror above the range and counter giving the audience a bird’s eye point of view of the cooking taking place.
If the presentation seemed like a cooking show, it’s no coincidence – preparing the meals in the series is being filmed for broadcast on WGCU-TV, the Southwest Florida public television station.
Greeted at the door with a flute of Champagne and an amuse-bouche of lightly grilled ahi tuna, the guests were treated to a four-course dinner, with each dish paired with another wine, prepared by Kensington Golf & Country Club’s executive chef Ralph Feraco, assisted by members of his staff.
With one course after another, Feraco practiced cooking as performance art, showing tricks of preparation, and how to create foods that tickle the taste buds without ladling on the butter and sugars. As he put together a sample for each dish, the assistants in the adjoining kitchen “backstage” assembled the plates that went to the 24 diners.
There were 24 because that’s how many the four tables in the demonstration kitchen, built with a quarter million dollars in gifts, including a $150,000 grant from Publix, will accommodate. Each place was set with four wine glasses in addition to water and champagne glasses.
The chef, or to give him his full title, Chef Feraco, CEC, AAC, a gold medal winner and past president of the Caxambas chapter of the American Culinary Federation, was instrumental in creating the “Beyond the Plate” dinner series, and also in equipping the Y’s kitchen, using high-end home-style appliances rather than going with strictly restaurant equipment.
“A commercial kitchen wouldn’t make sense,” said Feraco. “We want the stoves to be more familiar, more like what people have in their homes.” In keeping with the YMCA’s mission of promoting a healthy lifestyle, all the dishes were chosen with nutrition and calorie count in mind.
“Wine dinners can have so many calories – but we’re staying healthy,” said Feraco. “Our entrée only has 385 calories. He stressed using fresh ingredients, heavy on greens and vegetables, with only the ahi and the entrée, a 5-ounce filet of black grouper, representing the meat group.
While he shared various tips for holding down calories and fat, including limiting olive oil, pressing tomatoes and scoring mushrooms, it’s necessary to monitor the size of the serving that goes onto the plate to help in the effort.
“When you’re trying to eat healthier, portions need to be a little smaller,” said Feraco. “And ranch dressing or blue cheese? No good.”
When choosing one dinner for 24 different people, inevitably someone will have a dish set in front of them they would never choose to order. That became apparent when local pediatrician Todd Vedder was presented with a platter of mushrooms, which were wonderful but not his favorite, after a reporter was compelled to eat a variety of beets, well-prepared no doubt, but nevertheless not something that should really be considered food.
Vedder is the former chair and current board member of the Safe and Healthy Kids Coalition, and a devout believer in the importance of diet, particularly to get children accustomed to eating in a healthful manner. Another diner, Joe Balavage, shared that concern. The Naples resident is the father of a diabetic child and co-founder of the Help a Diabetic Child Foundation.
Not having kids on hand was fine with another diner, Adrianna Birk, wife of former Baltimore Ravens’ center and 2011 NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year Matt Birk, enjoying a girls’ night out sans children with her friend Nicole Weber.
“Wine and no kids? This is great,” said Birk, who also spoke of the importance of eating right.
After the winter beets, the beech, king and crimini mushrooms, the steamed dumplings, the grouper with heirloom tomatoes, the compressed plank pineapple and miniature pineapple upside down cake, Feraco brought his entire staff, all Kensington employees, out, and the guests responded with a vigorous round of applause.
The series will continue on Feb. 6 with Naples Lakes Country Club Chef Robert Saalfeld, with upcoming dinners prepared by chefs including Amber Phillips of Sage Events and Brian Roland of Crave Culinaire.
For more information, go online to www.greaternaplesymca.org.