Healthy 2.0: The new sweetgreen menu

Because we’re on a mission to make America healthy again.

Today, we roll out some changes to our core menu — we’ve removed bacon and Sriracha, and we’ve added warm portobello mix and roasted steelhead to our everyday offering, with the Hello Portobello and OMG Omega bowls. These changes are the result of over a year of work by Chef Stebner and the food and beverage team, and much feedback from guests at our Dupont Test Kitchen in Washington, D.C. We wanted to make our menu more nutritious and delicious, but it was important to keep it simple, so we iterated every day. Here, Chef Stebner explains his overall approach to food and the sweetgreen menu.

Chef Michael Stebner in the kitchen at sweetgreen Rittenhouse

I grew up in Oregon, where we did a lot of hunting and gathering. We picked our own berries, and went to the local farm, which was actually closer than the grocery store. I grew up with the mentality of “starting at the farm” — it wasn’t cool or chic like it is today, it was a necessity.

Once I started bussing tables at a hotel when I was 16, I found myself gravitating toward the kitchen. I wanted to be with the guys who were making the food, and it dawned on me that I could do that for a living. I set off to become a cook, and the chef at the hotel took me under his wing. Keep in mind, being a chef wasn’t a mainstream thing at the time.

I love learning about food and have always had an appreciation for where food comes from and how much better it can be depending on its freshness and where it comes from. The best example of that is a tomato — everyone knows the difference between a good, homegrown tomato compared to the one you get in January at the grocery store. I’ve spent the last 15 years of my career essentially exploiting that idea, cooking with produce from local farms. And I spent most of my career in Southern California, where I could go to local markets year-round and develop relationships with the farmers who grow the food.

As a chef, there’s always a desire to make things better, you want to up the ante. But in the last 10 years, chefs started relying less on the quality of the product and more on their culinary wizardry. The issue I took with that was that it often meant adding sugar to something like tomato sauce to make it sweeter, instead of relying on the natural sweetness of the tomato. And that’s not necessarily the right thing to do for the guest coming into your establishment. There’s a trust factor when you go out to a restaurant to eat — you’re trusting that whatever that chef is doing in the kitchen, he or she has your best interests at heart. That notion started weighing on me 10 years ago as I was adding butter, sugar and cream to recipes where it wasn’t necessary, but it had become the norm.

You have a situation where unassuming consumers go to a restaurant, order spaghetti and meatballs and wonder why it’s the best spaghetti and meatballs they’ve ever had. And they have no idea that the reason it tastes so good is because the chef added sugar and cream, which is not something you would ever do if you were making it at home. You think your homemade version tastes bland, but it’s really just all those additives the chef threw in and didn’t tell you about to make the dish richer. So that chef-guest trust is undermined, in my opinion.

With that realization, I made a conscious decision to move away from defaulting to sugar and cream and butter, so I could let the food speak for itself. A lot of chefs consider themselves to be artists, but I consider myself less of an artist and more of a craftsman. Because my job is to source the best ingredients and exercise restraint and let those ingredients speak for themselves. I’m piecing ingredients together into something bigger and better than the sum of its parts.

When I think about “farm-to-table” eating, which has become so popular, I think about all the work that goes into it. These farmers have to get up early and pick the food, they have to grow it, they have to feed and nurture it, they have to deal with inclement weather. They have to make sure that when something comes off the tree or the bush or the vine, it’s perfect. And a lot of times, consumers are forcing them to load it into a truck and bring it into town so we can roll out of bed and get it at the farmers’ market around the corner from our home — often for cheaper than at the grocery store.

The farmers get forgotten about more than anybody else in that process, yet they do the most work. If you eat an apple right off a tree, of course it’s the best apple you’ve ever had. My job as a chef, or a craftsman, is to capture that essence on the plate. I get the best apple and I don’t mess it up or compromise all the work the farmer put into it. All I have to do is cut it into pieces and throw it in a bowl.

I’m not adding a bunch of junk to your food, I’m starting with the best and then leaving it alone — that’s our food philosophy at sweetgreen. This kind of food is inherently healthful and nutritious, and your good health is an output of eating natural, simple food like that.

With this latest seasonal menu, we made a few changes to our signature menu. We’ve replaced the Avocobbo with OMG Omega, and the Wild Child with Hello Portobello — which means we have warm portobello mix and roasted steelhead as toppings on the line every day. Our updated signature menu is a dynamic lineup of dishes featuring freshly cooked healthy food, like roasted chicken, baked falafel, roasted tofu, roasted steelhead and roasted portobello mushrooms. They help us transcend the “salad” category and move us into category of hearty dishes that satisfy hunger and nourish the body at lunchtime and nighttime, and we’re proud of the diverse range of flavor profiles they afford our guests. Our proprietary umami seasoning adds the fifth taste without added sugar, and we’ve reduced 70% of the sugars in our beverages, which are now sweetened with just a touch of agave or honey. As the signs in our stores say, we’ve gone “less sweet and more green.” And I couldn’t be more proud of the progress we’ve made.

When I came to work at sweetgreen two years ago, a lot of chefs I knew scoffed at me, You’re the chef at a fast-casual?! There was a notion that it was a step down. Why did I come here after working in full-service restaurants my whole career, including one that I owned? Because we serve thousands of meals a week, and we’re growing. We’re going to change the way people in this country eat. We’re going to change the way restaurants in this country cook. Because of the access and footprint we have, we’re on the biggest soapbox there is. That’s why I came to work for sweetgreen, that’s why I’m here. Because I want to stop cooking for myself and start cooking for the world. Because it’s time to make America healthy again.

Your Chef,

Michael Stebner

Chef Stebner does a cooking demo with the kids from Seaton Elementary School at Shlagel Farm in Maryland.