Going Low-Cal in SoCal

by Rebecca Cohen
Antoinette Bruno
July 2014


We’ve all used the excuse I’m on vacation to indulge to our hearts’ content, but Los Angeles Chef Marius Blin is changing the way guests at the Beverly Hills Sofitel peruse a menu by eliminating the internal battle between indulgence and restraint. Taking a cue from the luxury hotel’s French health retreats, Blin offers carefully calibrated low-calorie breakfasts, lunches, and dinners at Estérel.

It all started back in 2011, when the chefs of Sofitels across North America came together in response to an initiative from the French flagship calling for them to redefine their brand identity. “We’re known for food because we have a French branded company, but oftentimes French food is also linked to fine dining, to long, heavy meals,” says Blin. “It’s not the perception we wanted to have.” Taking a page from the book of Sofitel Thalassa—which comprises several luxury health spas along the Mediterranean coast—Blin began developing 500-calorie, three-course lunches and dinners, in addition to an array of health-conscious breakfast items. But don’t expect to see bland privation here—dishes like hay-roasted guinea hen, juniper jus, and spring pea purée satisfy guests’ sense of culinary adventure along with their appetites.

Seared Diver Scallops, Carrot Harissa Puree, Faro Taboule, and Grape Seed Oil Gremolata

Seared Diver Scallops, Carrot Harissa Puree, Faro Taboule, and Grape Seed Oil Gremolata

Seared Diver Scallops, Carrot Harissa Puree, Faro Taboule, Grape Seed Oil Gremolata

Seared Diver Scallops, Carrot Harissa Puree, Faro Taboule, Grape Seed Oil Gremolata

Seared Diver Scallops, Carrot Harissa Puree, Faro Taboule, Grape Seed Oil Gremolata

Seared Diver Scallops, Carrot Harissa Puree, Faro Taboule, Grape Seed Oil Gremolata

Chef Marius Blin of Estérel- Los Angeles, CA

Chef Marius Blin of Estérel- Los Angeles, CA

 Twice Cooked Soft Egg with Roasted Sunchokes, Buratta, Proscuitto, and Wild Rocket

Twice Cooked Soft Egg with Roasted Sunchokes, Buratta, Proscuitto, and Wild Rocket

Porcini Agnoletti, Sage Pecan Brown Butter, Caramelized Corn, Kale, and Roasted Squash

Porcini Agnoletti, Sage Pecan Brown Butter, Caramelized Corn, Kale, and Roasted Squash

 

A native of Normandy, with a history of working in French haute cuisine, health food wasn’t exactly Blin’s forte. “I’d never counted calories before,” he says. “At the beginning, it was not my cup of tea.” A three-day crash course with Thalassa chefs and nutritionists launched him on his journey, and his natural zeal for culinary problem solving took over from there. “It’s about looking at a dish in a whole different way. Along with my staff, I went back to the drawing board and said, ‘This is what we want to achieve. How can we get there?’ It’s interesting to look at the techniques I used way back and see how else I can do it.”

Blin draws primarily on the warm weather traditions of Southern France, Spain, Italy, Greece, and the Near East to achieve his healthy ends. There the cuisine emphasizes fresh produce and seafood, rarely straying into the rich reductions, fried items, and heavy red meats of northern Europe. Strategic use of a pantry overflowing with potent herbs and spices also adds layers of complexity without upping the calorie count. Seared diver scallops with carrot-harrissa purée, farro taboule, and herb gremolata exemplify these imperatives, all on a budget of 190 calories. 

Pastry proves a bit more challenging, as nondairy substitutes don’t behave the same way as butter; and sugar plays an important role in texture, stability, and shelf life, not to mention flavor. The traditional butter-rich pâte sucrée tart shell has been 86’ed in favor of a layer of angel food sponge, slowly baked until dry and sturdy. Blin has also experimented with soy- and almond-based ice creams, but finds that seasonal sorbets are often more compelling and satisfying.

“It’s important that the techniques we use bring value to a dish,” says Blin. Casting out gut-buster preparations, such as confit, and all manner of frying, he must draw on other aspects of his technical arsenal to impart flavors and textures that please. Sous vide cooking, as well as broth-poaching, are useful for infusing flavors deep into foods. And Blin doesn’t underestimate the value of simply searing proteins on a flat top to develop complexity and texture—courtesy of the Maillard reaction—elevating modest seafood and poultry to their most glorious forms. The casual atmosphere of Estérel also works in Blin’s favor, as guests aren’t expecting the spectacle and “fluff” of fine dining, in which extraneous components, garnishes, and sauces can quickly escalate the caloric value of a dish.

Blin maintains accurate calorie counts through a scientific approach to menu execution. “Every time you create a new dish, you have to dissect it. Whether it’s raw or cooked, it’s about quantifying everything. It becomes much more like a pastry recipe, in a way, because everything has to be much more precise.” Blin calculates caloric content by scrupulously breaking each dish down into rigorously measured quantities, each ingredient has a known calorie count. It’s a methodology learned during his time with the Thalassa nutritionists. This type of exactitude has the happy side effect of reducing waste, and ensuring portions are cost-effective. The only area Blin concedes slightly higher costs is in pastry, where experimentation with unfamiliar products (butter substitutes, soy, non-sugar sweeteners, etc.) requires increased labor.

In response to the success of Blin and other Sofitel chefs around North America, Sofitels worldwide have rolled out their own health-conscious menus. Recently, in the interest of incorporating a few previously black-listed items, Blin has decided to raise the cap on his dinner menu to 700 calories. But he continues to provide innovative, virtuous options that meet the needs of his guests’ appetites, as well as their health.