Andrew Weil remembers when the term “health food” was distasteful. Tempeh, sprouts, soy protein — all had negative connotations.
Before he teamed up with successful Arizona restaurateur Sam Fox, 45, to open a chain of restaurants that would revolutionize the way Americans eat, Weil tended to run into trouble when he ventured out to dinner.
“Most of the restaurants I’ve gone to that advertise themselves as being healthy are either boring or weird or both,” he said in an interview.
Though he recently started eating fish, Weil, a bestselling author, has been a vegetarian since the 1970s and found that he could cook better, healthier meals at his home southeast of Tucson.
You could say that Weil’s palate is broader than most, though — he developed a knack for cooking while in medical school and has since traveled extensively throughout Latin America, Asia and Africa tasting exotic foods to integrate into his now popular “anti-inflammatory” diet.
So when business partner Richard Baxter introduced him to Fox, founder and CEO of Fox Restaurant Concepts, Weil, now 71, had a thought.
“I proposed him the idea of a restaurant that serves food that’s delicious but also good for you,” he said.
That sounds like a novelty now, but seven years ago it was almost unheard of.
“Sam was very skeptical of the idea. He said, ‘Health food doesn’t sell.’ Don’t think about health food, think about good food and have it be healthy for you.”
It wasn’t until Weil invited Fox and his wife over for dinner — curried cauliflower soup, vegetarian Caesar salad, salmon cakes and a lactose-free dessert made with cashew milk — that Fox started to come around. He realized that health food doesn’t have to mean tofu hash and spongy veggie burgers; it can mean farm-to-table fare.
Fox phoned one of his star chefs, Michael Stebner, 40, an Arizona native who had spent a large part of his career cooking in San Diego. Stebner was known for his knowledge of seasonal ingredients and commitment to sourcing fresh produce from local farms.
The story goes that on one of Stebner’s visits to Weil’s home, Weil took out a glass of sea buckthorn juice, an extremely sour shrub that grows on the beaches and desert sands of Europe and Asia, and asked Stebner to whip something up.
The result: Orange vanilla sea buckthorn sorbet. Weil was enamored.
“It’s just kind of a synergistic formulation between the three of us, and really has blossomed from there into what we have today,” Stebner says.
“We weren’t going to let the ‘be healthy’ get in the way of us having rich flavors. And what we really discovered was, if you start with really good-quality ingredients that are in season, you don’t have to add a bunch of unhealthy stuff to make it taste good.”
Many of the items on the menu at True Food Kitchen in Phoenix look like they could be at Wildflower in Tucson or one of Fox’s other restaurants: miso glazed black cod with bok choy and Asian mushrooms, red chili shrimp with sesame noodles and gai lan, butternut squash pizza.
Like Weil’s new cookbook, “True Food,” the menu draws from the flavors of Asia and the Mediterranean, where nutrient-rich olive oil and miso paste are more common than butter. Aside from the option to add grass-fed steak to your street tacos (Fox’s suggestion), there is little meat on the menu.
And it has been hugely successful. The two Phoenix-area locations have been packed since opening night, with many customers frequenting several times a week. There are seven True Food locations today, and the team plans to open up a total of 20 stores throughout the country in the next few years.
And although Weil begrudgingly admits they need to focus on larger markets for now, he says Tucson will be store number 21.
But to Weil, Stebner and a growing number of Americans, True Food is more than a restaurant, it’s a lifestyle choice. Weil’s newest project is working with the team at University of Arizona Medical Center to develop a healthy menu for inpatient meals and the cafeteria, thankfully putting his stellar tomato and spaghetti squash casserole into the mix.
When Stebner isn’t working the line or overseeing the opening of a new restaurant, he cooks simple dinners from his home garden.
“I like working in those parameters where I can’t just throw butter at something because it doesn’t taste right. I have to think a bit outside of the box. And it really gets my creative juices flowing,” Stebner said. “I don’t get a lot of freedom or joy out of cooking that way anymore. So I need to cook this way.”