Claire Criscuolo, owner of Claire’s Corner Copia, talks about her restaurant, her commitment to health and her involvement in the New Haven community.
Claire’s is famous for its organic and vegetarian dishes, but things weren’t always this way. Did you change the menu in response to a rise in vegetarianism among patrons, or were you trying to start a trend?
I just heard from friends, family and things I read that people were eating too much meat. So we decided to take it off the menu. It forces people to eat more fruits and vegetables. It was a radical move. I’m sure we lost a few customers over it, but it was just the right thing to do.
As a restaurant owner, do you feel a certain responsibility for your patrons’ health?
We serve about 400 people a day. We have an obligation. Sometimes people say, ‘Well, you sell Coca-Cola,’ and if I thought for a minute that I could not sell Coca-Cola I wouldn’t, because it’s one of the biggest wastes of calories I’ve ever seen. But, it gets people to come in here and eat their broccoli or their salad. I hold firm on this — there is room for indulgence in every healthy diet. It just wouldn’t be a healthy diet if it were filled with indulgences.
What are your guilty pleasures?
Definitely potato chips: Terra or Cape Cod brands.
Many people at Yale and across the country swear by low carbohydrate diets like Atkins. How do you feel about the recent anti-carb craze?
I think that the Atkins diet is such a foolish idea. I know that he was a doctor, and I’m not. Still, whole grains are so healthy for you. Fiber is so good for you. Carbohydrates are a wonderful source of energy. Vegetables and fruits are important because of their antioxidant value. On a high-fat, high-protein diet, you might as well take your kidney out right now. It just doesn’t make sense. People don’t remember that 3,500 calories equals one pound of fat — any way you slice it.
Do you apply the same principles you use at Claire’s to cooking in your own home?
I don’t cook meat at home. I won’t have soda in my house. I do like to use organic ingredients. I’ll have canned beans in the house, but only if I’m desperate. I have plenty of fruits and vegetables. I like eating like that. As crazy as it sounds, I don’t think I do it only because it’s healthy.
Who inspired your approach to nutrition?
My mother. When you get married your mother usually gives you sage advice. My mother’s advice was: Never buy chickens on sale; never shortchange your stomach. At the time I wanted something more profound, but she was right.
That can get to be expensive advice. Do you think cost of high-quality foods might be a factor in the increase of health-related disease across the country?
It’s heartbreaking. It really is. Frankly, I grew up very poor, so I know what it was like. It’s terrible that money will divide people in their ability to buy health. I stand at the register in grocery stores sometimes and ask people what prevents them from eating five to nine servings of vegetables a day. Some people — especially the elderly — tell me, ‘I can either spend a dollar on what I’m getting, or I can spend a dollar on a tomato.’
When you’re not running Claire’s, you’re very involved in the New Haven community. What are your biggest projects?
I like volunteering, and I don’t feel quite connected if I don’t. I’ve been on the board of the New Haven Project for Battered Women. I’m also involved in Cooking for CASA [Court Appointed Special Advocates], which was a wonderful collaborative event with the community. Over the course of the past five years we’ve raised over $100,000.
Do you have any personal long-term goals?
After having worked with CASA, my big goal is to open a children’s home or some sort of children’s center one day. Once you hear about the foster-care system in America, you have to get involved.
Have you seen Yale as a positive contributor to the New Haven community over the years?
Claire’s could never have survived without Yale. When we first opened, Yale kept its gates locked. The city was dangerous, but kids would climb over the gates to come to Claire’s. Yalies are very involved in this community in so many ways. It seems that almost everyone does some sort of volunteer work. New Haven is an exciting city, and it just keeps getting better. n