Cooking and eating are two of the great pleasures in life. They are sensual in nature, vividly stimulating sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste as we participate in a process of transitioning Nature’s ingredients through the application of heat and seasoning. When cooking and eating add tradition and structure they become “dining”, an entirely new process that builds memory and organizes digestion into silos of recall, history, and correctness, but at their core – these two elements of life are pure pleasure. The smell of meat caramelizing on an open fire, the chew of crusty artisan bread, the creaminess of cultured butter, the crunch of a Fall apple, or the deep flavor of a warm July tomato pulled directly from the vine are heavenly to experience. Sweet corn with its plump kernels exposed beneath the protection of husk and silk, fresh pan fried trout plucked and eviscerated minutes before from an icy stream, the sound of a crunchy potato chip between your teeth, the bite of a tart and sweet strawberry harvested from a field in early June, the soft textures of a custard baked in a water bath and topped with a brulee of caramelized sugar, or the beauty of a perfectly assembled plate of food with an emphasis on color, texture, and balance are all wonderful to experience and nearly as wonderful to envision.
Centuries ago, nutrition was not a science, but rather the body’s divining rod pointing to specific foods that it required, and a stroke of luck. What was the basis for the Mediterranean diet but adapting one’s eating to the indigenous, available, and affordable ingredients of Italians, Spaniards, and Greeks? Why did poor Mexican families build a diet around beans, rice, and corn (protein complementation) except for availability and the affordability of plentiful indigenous ingredients? How did Native Americans decide to grow vegetables to accompany a diet of bison, deer, rabbit, and fish? Nutrition was not a science; it was innate with a heavy dose of luck.
In recent decades we have become aware of the science of nutrition. We know how the body acts and reacts, what it needs, and why it needs what it needs. We know full well that our health, how we feel, and our capacity to learn and grow are clearly tied to a balance of essential nutrients in the correct proportions. Cooking and eating are both pleasurable and now scientific acts. What we understand, we can control. Yet, with all that we inherently know, our free will and those desires for the sensual process of cooking and eating tend to reign supreme. We find excuses in those sensual pleasures and even point to “what we can afford” as reason to push aside what we know.
Is there room for sensual cooking, eating, and paying respect to the traditions and structures that make both an integral part of civilized living as well as the science of what our body’s need? It is a question that is rarely vocalized, but often considered by cooks and consumers when they make food choices. It is a choice that cooks have a responsibility to understand and address.
I had the pleasure of communicating with Dr. Deborah Kennedy, the CEO of Culinary Rehab – an organization focused on teaching kitchens and nutrition programs to change the health of populations. She holds a PhD. in Nutrition from Tufts University and has dedicated her career to helping bring nutrition awareness into our lives. We focused on the Power of Food to impact our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual being as well as effective ways of changing eating habits and attitudes. Having faced a critical health diagnosis herself, she has (in her own words)
“taken on the biggest journey of my life when I chose what my healing journey would look like 1.”
It became her mission to open others to this possibility.
As chefs and professional cooks, we have an opportunity and quite possibly an obligation to understand healthy choices in dining, implement effective methodologies in our kitchens, and demonstrate through our menus how “healthy food can be delicious and even craveable2.” So many diseases that plague humankind are linked to dietary choices: heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and certain forms of cancer can be controlled through healthy food choices. With this in mind, habit changes will not be driven by one sector, but rather through a unified effort including doctors, dietitians, cooks and chefs, family, marketers, and what Kennedy refers to as a “tribe of food coaches”. According to Kennedy, medical doctors have so much to learn that nutrition is often pushed aside. Her approach is referred to as Culinary Medicine where medical students are coached to practice “self-care” while they are learning about nutrition through their own practice.
This same approach, it would seem, has tremendous potential in all segments of the population where influencers are present. Cooks, chefs, restaurateurs, distributors, product developers, and marketers when properly coached about their own dietary wellness will intentionally, or unintentionally pass it forward. Dr. Kennedy hopes, with her organization, to support doctors through coached personal nutritional habits that would reduce physician burnout. The “coach” would be, as she puts it:
“the liaison between the doctor and the patient. The doctor and/or dietitian tells the patient to eat less fat or sodium as an example, and the food coach is there to show individuals what to buy and how to cook food in order to follow that advice 3.”
We discussed the challenges that people face in absorbing what they should be doing to practice healthy eating:
“people don’t like being told what they can and cannot eat. Each of us, on average, makes over 200 food decisions a day. Add to that the more than 150 dietary guidelines and that is too much for anyone to handle 4.”
One solution is to approach the results of our fast-paced society that has led many of us to eat at breakneck speed.
“Let’s show people how to eat a variety of healthful food; let’s show them how to slow down enough and become present when eating so they can feel when they have had enough to eat5.”
This should hit home with most cooks and chefs who tend to cram in a five-minute power dinner while standing up before those restaurant doors open to the public.
One question that every chef is wrestling with pertains to directions in food consumption. There are indications that societal pressures may move us closer to “plant-based” diets. This is not strictly for dietary reasons, but also drivers associated with the impact of livestock on global climate change. We wonder, how will we transition our menus to accommodate this and is this really a chef’s responsibility? Chefs have always lived by the mantra that our job is customer satisfaction; are we now charged with changing eating habits and saving the planet? Kennedy believes that change is coming – we have no long-term choice but to change. However, small changes can make a big difference.
“What I know is that each step down the plant forward path will have its own rewards and one does not need to reach the end of the spectrum (vegan) in order to heal themselves and this planet 6.”
Over the past three years, Dr. Kennedy has worked with a dozen chefs and forty nutrition experts from the U.S., Canada, and Europe to create “culinary competencies” so that a doctor’s dietary recommendations can translate into “what to buy and how to prepare it in order to promote health and healing”.
The result is a modular textbook reference for all who can become a change advocate – a culinary coach.
Cooks and chefs are important liaisons in the quest for a healthier community. We are on the front lines for change and change communication. Understanding is critical, but execution even more so. Our ability to dispel the misconceptions about healthy food choices and support the preparation of delicious and nutritious food can have a far-reaching impact on the wellbeing of customers, friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors.
Dr. Kennedy’s book should be on the shelf of in every chef’s office. It is an important tool.
THE CULINARY MEDICINE TEXTBOOK:
Footnotes: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 – Deborah Kennedy, Ph.D.
Interview questions – April 2022
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
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