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Caveman Chic: Paleo Diet Gets Fine Dining Makeover

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Photo by Krista Simmons/LAist
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Unless you have been living in an actual cave, you've probably heard something about the paleo diet. The caveman regimen, which has been around since the 1970s, has seen a resurgence due to its popularity within the also-booming Crossfit community. This way of eating is becoming so popular, in fact, that restaurants are starting to cater to this group of protein-loving athletes, and one fine dining establishment, Patina, is even offering a fully paleo tasting menu.

The paleo diet models itself around the hunter-gatherer diets that man had 10,000 years ago. It's centered on commonly available modern foods, and consists mainly of fish, grass-fed pasture raised meats, eggs, vegetables, fruit, fungi, roots, and nuts. It excludes grains, legumes, dairy products, potatoes, refined salt, refined sugar, and processed oils.

Some anthropologists propose that this way of eating has very little to dowith the way paleolithic man actually ate, but nonetheless it's becoming quiet popular within the fitness community. And it makes sense. Nose-to-tail eating and gluten-free diets have gained a lot of popularity as of late, and this is a natural transition.

Patina in Downtown Los Angeles isn't the only one catering to the Crossfit crowd. In addition to their paleo menu, which launched in July and features dishes like beef tongue a la plancha and braised pork belly, Mignon does a paleo Sunday roast with with grass fed tri tip and sweet potatoes. There are even CSA-type services for people keeping paleo. FarmboxLA also partners with local Crossfit gyms, offering a weekly delivery box of veggies tailored to caveman eaters.

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But what is the process like integrating paleo into a high-end kitchen like Patina? We decided to talk to Chef Charles Olalia about why he launched the menu, and what this means for him as a chef.

LAist: Tell me about how this all got started. How did you get hooked up with the Crossfit gyms around you?

Chef Charles Olalia: A lot of my friends had joined Crossfit Main Street, and I’d seen it walking by. Finally I enrolled in the gym, and it’s great. It’s a great little community of professionals that like to get in shape.

After class people are always talking about their diet. They’re really particular, and I asked them where they eat when they’re dining out. Even though they were living down the street, they didn’t know about Patina. So I spoke to the owner [of Crossfit Main Street] Ronnie Teasdale to find out more about paleo, and then created a menu. It was a way for me to do a service to the community, and a way for me let them know what Patina was.

I’ve always wanted to draw in a younger crowd, and this is helping. It's very hard for me to go into a dining room of 65- to 80-year-old men. It’s a big push to get younger people in here.

It seems sort of underground though. The printed paleo menus aren't distributed to diners when they are seated along with the standard menu. How do people find out about it? Are a lot of diners coming in requesting the menu?

It’s mainly disseminated to the Crossfit gyms. It’s a word of mouth kind of thing. For me, if you know about it then you’ll definitely order it. If you don’t know about it, you won’t order it. Robbie put it on his website and blog, and since then I’ve gotten people from gyms in Hollywood to Santa Monica to Pasadena coming in.

How many diners on an average night request the menu? Is it a small nice audience?

I’d say there are about 10 people per night. The highest we’ve had is 20 in one night.

Just by reading the menu, it seems that cooking paleo might not be as big of a challenge as something like vegan or vegetarian. Can you elaborate a bit?

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The paleo diet is based on high protein, high offal, and high fat diet. When animals hunt, they always go for the organs first. These are the first things to go first -- the heart, the liver, the intestines. So the diet is geared towards that because it’s high in vitamin A, B, and E.

For me as a chef, being trained in French cuisine, all these offals are a lost art. Growing up in the Philipines, these were normal things to eat. Street food in the Philipines features things like blood cakes, grilled intestines, beef tounge in mushroom sauce. Being able to reconnect with this was very exciting for me.

But you have to make sure you're cooking with organic vegetables and grass-fed meats. There's also no grains, it's gluten-free and there's no manufactured sugar. That is a bit of a challenge.

Do you think there’s any additional training that needs to come along with having a menu like this for your staff? I was offered bread multiple times while doing the Paleo Menu at Patina. If I were on a diet, and kept having that temptation, I'd cave for sure.

I'd say about 30 percent of people might be there on cheat day, so they opt for the bread. Every time there’s a paleo menu, there shouldn’t be any cross-contamination. The reason why we’re a fine dining restaurant is because we take those extra steps.

Have you yourself tried eating paleo? What role does this play in your personal life?

Since I started Crossfit, I’ve been able to stop smoking. I don’t really eat a lot of sugar. It’s hard for me to keep paleo though because I’m working in a kitchen 6 days a week.

Are there any shortcomings you think the diet might have in its principles?

I think for the diet to work there has to be high output as well. You’ve got to be very active. Imagine eating all that fat and not working out. Some people eat a pound of bacon a day. These people work out like crazy. It’s really high intensity. It makes sense to eat all that fat because of the way they work.

Do you think this is just a trend that’ll pass, just like many other diets and workout regimes in L.A.?

I’ll keep cooking it as long as people want it. It really is a way of life. It all depends on your passion.