Emmanuel Verstraeten Makes Rouge Tomate Chelsea Pioneer of the Good Food Frontier

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From Brussels to New York

A decade ago, Emmanuel Verstraeten hopped the pond with blameless expectations. The United States is 50 states of junk food, he might have thought, where people spray pesticides like Chanel No. 5 and send factory farms sprawling across what little salvageable soil remains.

The Belgian entrepreneur heard tales through the esteemed European grapevine (higher quality than any such crop in the States!) which suggested that rather than USA, the acronym might as well be GMO, the only thing the whole country has in common. It didn’t sound like there existed an organic movement to speak of west of the Atlantic Ocean.

Emmanuel Verstraeten photographed at Rouge Tomate by Evan Sung for The New York Times.

You’ll notice I labeled Emmanuel’s expectations blameless, and this is because we can’t blame him. How can we blame anyone? At Change Food we’re the first to admit the shortcomings of our national food system (and shout it from the rooftop farms for all to hear!).

But Verstraeten made wine from the grapevine gossip. “I was surprised in a very good way,” he assures me. “When I came here 10 years ago, I found out there are as many, if not more, farmers’ markets here than I have seen anywhere in the world. I have seen passionate farmers, and the quality of their work and the love they put into their food is unbelievable. You can find the exact same quality of ingredients [in New York] as you can find in old Europe – and that was the thing that surprised me the most.”


Sanitas Per Escam and The Healthiest Person Alive

Emmanuel is the Founder and CEO of SPE Certified and two restaurants, Rouge Tomate Brussels and Rouge Tomate Chelsea, where the Change Food benefit dinner with RISE takes place this Monday (July 24th at 6:30pm, purchase last-minute tickets here!).

Since its inception, SPE has stayed true to the three words behind its initialism: Sanitas Per Escam, or Health Through Food. But where the company began as more of a dish certification, it is now a standard. Initially, Emmanuel explains, the SPE team reviewed and refined recipes from restaurants or hotels until they fit a healthful, delicious criteria. Now, an organization is SPE Certified based on a point system, the cuisine ranked with one, two or three stars (three being the charm) depending on the number of points they receive through satisfactory Sourcing, Preparing and Enhancing of the food.

Rouge Tomate Chelsea in New York City.

You might have heard of SPE during a visit to one of about 20 certified restaurants and institutions in New York City, like Fields Good Chicken or The Little Beet. Or, if you made the meal but missed the memo, you probably left with something of a powerful but inexplicable notion that you were suddenly The Healthiest Person Alive. Turns out, the explanation lies in Emmanuel’s mission “to combine very creative, delicious foods with maximum health benefits and energy, and to make sure it could also be beneficial to the environment.”

But if you’re looking for his brain-child, Rouge Tomate Chelsea, on the SPE Certified list, you won’t find it. It’s just that to include Emmanuel’s restaurant on Emmanuel’s certification would be sort of like allowing Beyonce’s mom to run the Grammy’s. No matter how worthy (indisputably, in the cases of Beyonce and Rouge Tomate), parents can’t nominate their children for awards.


Pioneer of the Good Food Frontier

But don’t be fooled, the restaurant fits the Health Through Food criteria. In fact, Emmanuel reveals, “SPE is the child of Rouge Tomate,” rather than the reverse. “Rouge Tomate, first and most importantly, is really the pioneer in the nutritious food movement.”

When the New York location opened, originally on the Upper East Side, the fresh paint barely had a chance to dry before Rouge Tomate accrued a Michelin Star. Emmanuel cites their focus on hyper-locality as one of their greatest strengths. “When you want to achieve your goal,” he has learned, “a big part is the sourcing. I wouldn’t even say seasonal. We are not seasonal, we are market-driven.” The Rouge Tomate team recognizes that with seasonal eating comes unpredictability, so even when the market is delayed or similarly affected, they remain constantly poised to creatively adapt.

At this point in our conversation, I’m thinking that for ravenous health nuts like myself, to dine at Rouge Tomate must be a dream. I tell Emmanuel so, and he confirms. The lengths to which he and his team go to ensure a memorable meal, equal parts healthy and drool-worthy, are not lost on customers.

Diners can rest assured that every menu item is healthy and delicious at Rouge Tomate Chelsea.

What Rouge Tomate does is relieve the pressure of that dreaded moment, you know, when the waiter approaches and you’ve yet to decide whether you’ll succumb to deep-fried fantasies or make a plant-based power move. Instead of burdening our fragile souls with the terrifying paradox of choice, the merciful menu offers only healthful choices.

“It works well,” Emmanuel attests. “Thanks to that, we were able to reduce the portion size. And sometimes people complain and say it’s a little too small. We say okay, here’s the thing. You think that you are still a little bit hungry, that you didn’t get the quantity, but we aim to give you the satiety.

“Listen and wait one hour,” he suggests. “When your body processes all those nutrients, you’re not going to be hungry anymore. You’re going to feel amazingly good! And if it doesn’t happen, come back and I will reimburse you the meal.”


RISE Up! Dine with Purpose at Rouge Tomate Chelsea

Emmanuel doesn’t find himself reimbursing many a meal. Turns out healthy food can be quite satiating, after all! But if it’s not the complete and total nourishing of your mind, body and spirit you seek, come for the sustainability. “Every single food that comes into the restaurant has to be valued in some way,” Emmanuel asserts.

Join Change Food and RISE for dinner at Rouge Tomate Chelsea on 7/24!

The best opportunity to verify the reality of such a utopia is, of course, at the aforementioned Change Food benefit dinner on July 24th. The meal features upcycled ingredients such as RISE flour, made from brewer’s spent grain, paired with beer from said brewers.

Emmanuel agreed to host the event at Rouge Tomate Chelsea for a couple of reasons. “I was excited by [RISE] itself, which I really think is very much in line with SPE,” he explains. “But to me it was also a nice way to support a dear friend of mine, Diane Hatz, and Change Food.

“Whatever I can do with my means to support Change Food, it is always a pleasure,” he continues graciously. “And I think this RISE flour is kind of cool.”

Carly Brand studies Sustainable Urban Nutrition at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Global Nutrition & Health at Metropol in Copenhagen. She looks to Change Food for future generations and loves to hear your perspectives at carlybrand11@gmail.com.

Change Food® works toward a healthier food system for people, animals & the planet.  Learn more about Plant Eat Share – planting food in public spaces. For free.