CHEF WILL ARTLEY of the Evening Star Cafe anxiously peeked out of the kitchen, trying to see the expression on a very important diner’s face as she sampled his newest creation: a twist on a traditional lasagna. He didn’t need to worry — the 5-year-old girl enjoyed her meal at the Del Ray eatery so much she devoured half of her plate and took the leftovers home in a doggy bag.
“When there’s a critic, it doesn’t bother me, but I was nervous,” says Artley, who was debuting his revamped kids’ menu. He used to offer younger customers chicken tenders and fries, grilled cheese and fries and the like (also with fries), but for the past week and a half, he’s instead been dishing up meals packed with nutrients, whole grains and only low-fat dairy.
That lasagna, for instance, boasts whole-wheat pasta and a marinara with way more than just tomato. “I added broccoli, asparagus and carrot juice. And I pureed peppers into it,” Artley says. His baked fish sandwich comes with a tartar sauce made from fat-free Greek yogurt rather than mayonnaise. His sloppy joe is ground turkey, not beef, on a whole-wheat bun with a red sauce that also includes other invisible veggies.
It’s a sneaky tactic, but Artley’s goal was to create dishes kids would actually eat. “Are we going to be able to give a kid a plate of broccoli, asparagus and spinach? No,” he says.
But Artley recognizes the importance of instilling healthy eating habits at an early age. For proof, the 32-year-old needs only to look in a mirror. “There was never any education growing up. When I was 12, I weighed 255 pounds,” he says. He developed liver problems, was warned repeatedly about diabetes, and then, just over a year ago, he was diagnosed with sleep apnea. “I was 345 pounds. My doctors told me because of my weight, I might die in my sleep,” he adds.
The wake-up call kick-started a new chapter in Artley’s life. More than 70 pounds lighter, these days he’s a triathlete who avoids processed foods, bakes his own bread with organic flour and insists on sourcing produce locally.
When it came to kids’ meals, however, Artley never gave the issue much thought until he visited the White House and met with chef Sam Kass. As the group discussed the problem of childhood obesity, he got embarrassed thinking about what he was serving.
The meeting inspired his menu makeover, and he’s still toying with other ideas. “I’m working on making crayons out of vegetables,” he says. He’s also hoping to offer cooking classes for parents so they can learn from his kitchen experiments.
Maybe it’ll inspire them to eat better themselves. Evening Star Cafe (2000 Mount Vernon Ave.; 703-549-5051) might offer only healthy meals for youngsters, but fried brie remains popular with the grown-ups.