Andrew Weil, the world-renowned physician and alternative health guru, is in Houston attending a meeting of the American Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine, where he's speaking about the integration of Chinese and Western medicine. The trip also allows him to visit Houston's recently opened True Food Kitchen, his partnership with expansionist restaurateur Sam Fox.
All of the dishes at True Food Kitchen follow Weil's anti-inflammatory diet.
Weil tells CultureMap that friends encouraged him to open a restaurant, but "that never tempted me. I was smart enough to know that I knew nothing about the restaurant business."
That all changed seven years ago when he met Fox, the owner of Fox Restaurant Concepts.
"I think the food culture in Houston has come a long way in recent years."
"I proposed to him the concept of a restaurant that would serve delicious healthy food. He didn’t get it. He said healthy doesn’t sell," Weil recalls. After tasting Weil's food, Fox agreed to give it a shot with a location in Phoenix.
"We opened the first True Food Kitchen six years ago right when the economy went south," Weil says. "But from the moment it opened it was very successful. He was very surprised at how successful it was."
Houston is the company's ninth restaurant, and Weil says there are plans to grow to 20, including a location in The Woodlands, in the next few years. Although it only opened at the end of July, the Houston location is consistently crowded. Weil believes that now is the right time for True Food Kitchen.
"Houston is a prosperous city. It’s become really food conscious in the last decade," Weil says "It’s got a lot of really good restaurants. So I think the food culture in Houston has come a long way in recent years."
Even as True Food Kitchen has grown, Weil maintains oversight over the menu. All of the dishes conform to the principles of his anti-inflammatory diet, and he works with the company's chefs to develop new menu items. "I have final say whether things are on the menu or not," he notes.
"I hated kale growing up. I never would have considered eating raw kale, but this salad is really good."
While True Food has a healthy image, specific dishes may or may not be appropriate for people who want to lose weight. The restaurant doesn't provide nutrition information such as calorie counts for its dishes.
"We have chosen not to do that. First of all, I’m not a great believer in calorie counts," Weil says. "I think it’s more important is the quality of what you’re eating. We don’t serve things that are extravagantly rich . . . . We don’t serve sodas. We don’t serve many sweetened beverages. We’re low in a lot of the things that are making people fat in this country."
True Food Kitchen may revisit the issue in the future, particularly if it intends to open more restaurants in California, which requires restaurants with a certain number of outlets to provide full nutrition information.
Weil chuckles at the notion that TFK is known primarily for serving kale, but he admits it's one of the restaurant's signature items. "At the time when I brought it here, very few people in America had eaten raw kale. I think True Food Kitchen is one of the reasons why kale became this immensely popular food," he says. "I hated kale growing up. I never would have considered eating raw kale, but this salad is really good."
Asked about the chain's success, Weil offers a succinct answer. "I think it’s successful because the food is really delicious. People feel good when they eat here. I think the food is attractive, it’s beautiful, it’s tasty," he says.