By Devi Nampiaparampil, MD, MS (“Doctor Devi”)
For many of us New Yorkers, fitness is a priority. We climb countless subway steps, ride our Citi-bikes, and try to limit our calorie intake. “Jess was a typical New York City girl,” recounts Jordan Brown, CEO of Hu Kitchen, describing his sister’s habits years ago. Jessica Karp, co-founder of the Hu restaurants, added, “I ate 100-calorie packs-- I didn’t care as much about the ingredients. Then when I had my daughter—when she started eating food—I did not want chemicals in her food which in turn forced me to address the question - what am I putting in my body?”
Shortly afterwards, Brown, Karp, and Karp’s husband, Jason, teamed up to create Hu Kitchen, one of the few locations in the city that centers around paleo food. The paleo diet aims to mimic the diet our caveman ancestors might have followed. It emphasizes fruits, vegetables and meats while eliminating grains, processed foods, and dairy products. Typically, vegans and those with gluten-sensitivity can find satisfying food options in paleo establishments.
None of Hu Kitchen’s three founders had prior experience of the food industry beforehand. Brown had been working in real estate development. The Karps had a finance background.
About six years ago, Brown found himself in a Las Vegas airport looking for a book to read. He found Mark Hyman’s The Ultra Mind Solution, which introduced him to different concepts such as the relationship between gluten and inflammation. “I’d always thought I was healthy and athletic. I had never really considered the root cause [of our health problems.] I thought I’d try one thing—I’d cut out gluten. Within five to six days, I had reversed a skin condition that had I had seen several doctors for. It was pretty incredible! Just the removal of something for days eliminated something that had been a nuisance in my life for years. That rash disappearing is what opened my eyes.”
Several studies have highlighted the benefits of eliminating gluten to those with undiagnosed sensitivity. Many large studies support the health benefits of fruits and vegetables. In mid-May, a study of over 90,000 women suggested apples, bananas, grapes, oranges and kale can protect adolescent girls from developing breast cancer later in life. In the fall of 2015, the World Health Organization warned against the cancer-causing potential of processed meats.
A few studies have investigated the paleo diet as a whole. One suggested it might reverse metabolic syndrome and the cardiovascular risks associated with increased belly fat. Others showed that a healthy paleo diet could potentially lower your blood pressure, lower your triglyceride levels, lower your hemoglobin A1c (a measure of your average blood sugar), and facilitate weight loss. Together, these changes would presumably lower your risk of heart disease. Brown and Jason Karp avidly read books with dietary themes, searching for answers on how to cook better and feel better. “The two of them ambushed me,” Jessica Karp explained. “I said, ‘Give me something I can read on vacation—while I’m on the beach.’” They handed her Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food. “It changed my world. I really got on board.”
Brown added, “We created this restaurant from a place of pure fervor—on a personal level. We really saw results from it-- versus spotted a trend and latched on to it.” The team executed their vision. They used wooden tables and rounded edges to mirror the food concept of food in touch with nature. “We wanted people to feel like they’re a part of it.” The trio regularly changed the menu based on feedback from their loyal customer base.
About a year after opening the restaurant, Brown read The Paleo Diet by Loren Cordain. “The idea of not eating grains and not eating dairy was foreign to me, but I decided to try it out. Nothing worked better for me in terms of my energy and mental focus. I worked out the same amount with the same or better results. That really drove home the concept and I became a hard-core paleo.”
Hu Kitchen, short for Human Kitchen, has a hot plate section featuring organic chicken, a refrigerated section, and juice and smoothie counter. It features a Mash Bar for snacks. Almond butter often substitutes for dairy except on the coffee lines. Some critics argue that eliminating dairy products could lead to a calcium deficiency. However, paleo followers can substitute salmon, kale, and broccoli-- foods that are rich in calcium.
The restaurant developed its own vegan line of chocolate. The paleo diet does not specifically minimize fat in the diet. Instead, it incorporates fat from natural sources—such as coconut oil—and not from heavily processed seed oils.
No genetically-modified organisms (GMO) are used as ingredients in any of the foods. The Hu Kitchen founders decided their food would be prepared solely in coconut oil and olive oil. Brown and Karp are focused on honesty and transparency in food preparation. Describing some other vendors who cook with GMO canola oil, Brown explained, “They use a bit of olive oil so they can list the ingredient on the label. But that’s not the same as the cooking oil. Cooking with olive oil is something that’s far more expensive. This is something no one ever talks about in the restaurant industry. It’s not something the masses have asked about.”
Karp emphasized, “At the end of the day, we believe in clean and real food. Trust the food. Trust the ingredients. We take a lot of pride in our work, and we will never sacrifice the taste.” Coming full circle, Hyman, who authored the book that motivated Brown, has visited the Hu several times—as have other food luminaries who inspired the founders.
For those interested in sampling the paleo diet, Hu Kitchen has two locations—one in Union Square and the other on the Upper East side. For details visit www.hukitchen.com
Devi E. Nampiaparampil, MD, MS
Director, Metropolis Pain Medicine PLLC
Clinical Associate Professor, NYU School of Medicine
Medical Contributor, Fox 5 NY