This Chef’s Life

January 16, 2020

It’s been a long time since I was in a kitchen full time. Most of my days now are spent testing recipes, writing articles, planning and teaching cooking classes, serving on a number of non-profit boards, traversing the globe teaching and hosting groups.

I consult with restaurants on healthy vegan menu items. On those occasions…in the kitchen, I miss the action of ‘the line.’ I miss the heat, the stress, the camaraderie of the kitchen crew, the ‘family meal’ before service, the gorgeous plates, the decompress after an 18-hour day…all of it. Back in the day, I loved all of it.

I have lived a chef’s life for a long time and now I bring that experience to the teaching kitchens at Walnut Hill College working with young chefs to attempt to educate them and influence them about the impact of food on human health and the planet.

I love my students. Their open minds and hearts inspire me daily. I tread gently on their tender psyches taking care not to let the cynicism that is inevitable with time influence how I teach them. It’s a delicate balance of conveying experience and not stealing their wide-eyed wonder at this glorious profession.

I work to introduce them not only to plant-based cuisine and often unfamiliar ingredients, but to the philosophy of food I came to believe more than 35 years ago when I changed my diet to macrobiotics to save my life. I teach them that there’s more to food than food. We talk about the impact of food choices on wellness. We talk about the responsibility of chefs in the profession of feeding people. We talk about creating delicious food and how the customer just wants a great food experience, regardless of whether there’s meat on their plate or Brussels sprouts. We talk about how the customer speaks to the chef, not with words but with their body language. Do their eyes close in pleasure as they eat? Do you stop them in their tracks with flavor? And in all that, have you nourished their wellness while feeding them delicious food?

They’re big topics but there’s no subject we don’t tackle and that’s what I love about teaching in this chef’s life.

I remember working in pastry years ago where my only goal was to create decadent treats that made people swoon with pleasure. After my bout with cancer, I realized what I was doing. I was slowly but absolutely poisoning each and every customer with sugar, heavy creams, eggs, white flour and other ingredients that might have tasted great but were stealing their wellness with each delighted bite.

Regaining my own personal wellness empowered me to change the way I thought about food, but didn’t ever dim my excitement about food and cooking. In fact, it enhanced what was already considered (by most who knew me) my food obsession. I love the smell of food cooking. I love the sight of a perfect head of garlic or of vegetables glistening with olive oil as they saute. I love the power of food in creating wellness.

So why write about this now? It’s not a new topic for me, this lovely obsession with food and cooking. In recent times, I have been confronted with America’s obsession with not cooking and I feel sometimes like I’m tilting at windmills as I teach people to cook and make healthier choices. I’m not alone, of course in this crusade. There’s a small army of people convinced that food has an impact on our wellness and together, we are making changes.

But sometimes, just sometimes I feel like the not cooking camp is kicking cooking advocates’ collective butts. Advertising tempts us to leave the cooking to some fast food joint or manufacturer of food with promises of sensorial delight and the ever-seductive convenience of not having to lift a finger to satisfy our hunger. This article was prompted by a commercial I saw recently that showed a guy with his phone in an absolute frenzy over ordering from restaurants on an app. I can remember thinking that drive-thru lines were the beginning of our true downward spiral of wellness. We wouldn’t even need to get out of the car to pick up junk food. I was wrong. Now we don’t even need to leave the house. Food is brought to us in record time. No need for activity of any kind.

I was shocked to hear on NPR that only 3% of Americans live a healthy lifestyle. The article begins with this: “Do you get a moderate amount of exercise, eat right, keep from piling on fat and avoid smoking? Congratulations, you’re among the 2.7 percent of Americans who do so, according to a new study (although 75% of Americans say they eat more healthfully).

The researchers assessed how many people followed four general “principles of healthy living” — a good diet, moderate exercise, not smoking and keeping body fat under control.

“The behavior standards we were measuring for were pretty reasonable, not super high. We weren’t looking for marathon runners,” said study senior author Ellen Smit, an associate professor at the OSU College of Public Health and Human Sciences, in Corvallis.

In fact, the standards used in the study are typical of lifestyle advice given by doctors to their patients, Smit’s team said. People who adhere to those four behaviors can help reduce their risk of many health problems, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer.”

Wow, right?

In these modern times of information access, it shocks me that this is how most of us still live our lives. That fact that anyone smokes or vapes tobacco floors me. Each and every time I read an article or see a news item about some massive recall of a meat product due to contamination, I think: “now is the time people will wake up and avoid meat, chicken and dairy foods.” And then I’m wrong, again.

Each and every year people resolve (with all fine intentions) to live healthier, exercise regularly, make better food choices, quit smoking, lose a little weight and maybe not drink so much.  And by spring, many of those resolutions are forgotten amid the pressures of daily life.

Many years ago, my husband said something in one of my classes and I cringed. He said that we must put our health first in life. He said that without that priority, we could not be the best wives, husbands, fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, friends, partners, professionals, workers. We could not be the best at anything unless we put ourselves first.

I cringed because I thought that people would think he was advocating narcissistic self-absorption. But I wasn’t listening well enough. He was advocating for self-care so that we could be strong, healthy and ready to take on life’s adventures. He was right.

Look around. We live in interesting times. That ancient Chinese curse has come home to roost. How long did we think we could violate the natural order, abuse Mother Nature and these brilliant bodies we inhabit before the bill would come due? And it has. Climate change, epidemic levels of lifestyle diseases, more of us sick than well, economic inequality creating a divide like we have never seen.

And change? It’s hard to be an agent of change when all you want is to pull the covers over your head and hope for a better tomorrow because it’s all to overwhelming. Well, kids, while hope is great, it won’t create the change we need to make to save our lives and our planet.

It’s time to hike up our skirts and be grown-ups. And it begins in the kitchen, where our most primal needs are met…nourishment. We have to begin to cook whole, natural foods to nourish our bodies in the way that they function best, with foods produced by Mother Nature to give us life.

I feel sometimes like a song on “repeat.” Whole grains, beans, seasonal vegetables and fruit, nuts, seeds, good quality fats and sweeteners work in our bodies to make us strong and vital; awake and ready to serve others and change the world to create the planet we want to live on…and to leave to our children and future generations. I’ll say it until I’m blue in the face. I will never give up on us.

It’s time, my friends to live your best life. And that’s what this chef’s life is about for me.