An invitation to a five-course lunch that was also "calorie neutral" sounded too good to be true, but Miele, an upmarket German domestic appliances brand, promised me that I would leave its pop-up restaurant in London having burnt off all the calories I consumed at the meal.
Thoughts of endless lettuce and celery went through my head, but luckily Miele drafted in former Chef of the Year Frederick Forster to demonstrate that food cooked with a pricey Miele steam oven can be tasty and varied as well as healthy and low-calorie.
Just round the corner in Covent Garden from the brand new London outpost of Keith McNally's well-known New York restaurant Balthazar, Steam opened its doors yesterday for one day only, treating four sittings of twelve guests each to a free meal. Around half of the diners were journalists and food bloggers, and the others were chosen from applicants who had heard about Steam from listings magazines.
They say there's no such thing as a free lunch, and for this meal the guests were made to pay in sweat. After a welcoming green tea to stimulate the digestion, we were lured downstairs to a basement workout studio, where we were put through a "body balance" class.
The yoga-like moves were designed to burn off 300 calories, and our heart rates soared as we found ourselves unexpectedly doing the downward dog, the crab and the plank, as well as a series of twists and turns designed to open up the digestive system.
Despite having been warned to wear clothing that wasn't too restrictive, nobody was expecting a full 40-minute workout. By now it was 2pm and we were all starving. We were escorted back up to the ground floor, and the pop-up restaurant – all white decor, Philippe Starck ghost chairs and red accessories to match the Miele branding – was unveiled.
At our seats, we were promised an "interactive dining experience" to help burn even more energy and offset our calorie footprint. Our glasses were regularly topped up with iced water to raise our metabolic rates, and the chairs were fitted with vibrating pads to help us use up an extra 48 calories per 30 minutes.
The food, introduced by Mr. Forster, was exquisite. We enjoyed quail egg cocotte [shown at left] with mushroom and leek fondue, scallop and chorizo brochette with cucumber and ginger dressing, prawn stuffed lemon sole with herb butter sauce, beef fillet with bean sprout salad and a dessert of banana cake with confit pineapple and creme chantilly.
It sounds like a high-calorie feast, but the total intake was just 573 calories. However, it wasn't only the steam cooking that kept the calorie count low – the portions were canape sized. This must be what meals are like for Victoria Beckham, I thought, exquisitely delicious and very small. My fellow diners talked about grabbing a sandwich on the way back to the office, and I admit I was soon hungry again.
Throughout the meal we were reminded of ways to burn up extra calories. Laughing for 15 minutes burns up 40 calories, apparently, and there were a few chuckles, but with a group of strangers it's hard to get outrageously amused. Eating burns up 57 calories in 30 minutes, and if anyone was really worried about not burning off all their food, table tennis (40 calories in ten minutes) and punching bags (59 calories in ten minutes) were on offer.
To get us tweeting about the experience, we were reminded that playing with our phones burns up 132 calories an hour. As an extra incentive talk about the event on social media, we could win a Miele steam oven if we used the hashtag #MieleSteam. (Miele steam ovens cost about $4,000).
Miele marketing director Dominic Worsley was there, too. "We looked at the trends, at what's going on in food and we came up with this idea," he said. "We had 1,500 applications for 48 seats, and it's been so successful that we are looking at developing the idea. It's a great way to get people to interact with the brand and see it for themselves. Miele needs to be more accessible and we want to put on more events."
Miele is also supporting its range of product launches with ad campaigns by two regional U.K. agencies, the Brand Nursery in Leeds and DNX in Surrey. "We use smaller agencies because a lot of the work is also done in house, " Mr. Worsley said. "You need to live with the brand to really understand it."
Mr. Worsley said that sales of steam ovens are just beginning to take off, even though Miele has been making them for 30 years. "It used to be that we watched cookery shows while eating microwaved meals, but now people make a big effort to look at what they're buying and where it's come from, and the logical next step is to steam the food so that you preserve its nutritional value, taste and color."