Obesity is Crippling our Nation

For those of you that didn’t get to watch The Weight of the Nation on HBO, I pulled out some important information on Part 1 Consequences and Part 2 Choices. Part 1 looks at a study that started back in 1972 to prove that heart disease starts in childhood, the Bogalusa Study. This is the first study to autopsy children who had died from accidental and non-cardiac causes in search of heart disease. 20% of these children had fat deposits in their coronary arteries along with high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Of the 16,000 participants in this study, 77% of obese children remained obese as adults while only 7% of healthy children became obese as adults.

Nine of the top ten states for obesity are also our poorest. In some of these poor neighborhoods, children have a 1 in 3 chance of diabetes. African American or Latino children have a 1 in 2 chance in developing diabetes and, they say, at this rate most will die before their parents. Overall though, unlike in the past, obesity is affecting all classes of people, not just the poor.

I learned that a diseased liver has a huge role metabolically on obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, etc. Cryptogenic cirrhosis or non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is found in 13% of normal weight children and 38% of obese children during autopsies.  25% of adults have excess fat in the liver. This disease did not exist before, in adults or children. Doctors do not know the specific reason behind it but that it only exists in people that are overweight or obese. Researchers say this modern disease could be the leading reason behind liver transplants in the future.

The statistics of health problems behind obesity and overweight individuals are endless. 20% of cancer death in men and 14% in women are related to overweight or obesity. 66% of people with arthritis are obese. You are 83% more likely to get kidney disease and 80% more susceptible to dementia if you are overweight or obese.

Type 2 diabetes mostly affects overweight and older adults and accounts for 90% of people with diabetes. Currently 25 million people in the U.S. are diabetic, another 79 million are pre-diabetic and 5 million are walking around undiagnosed.

An obese person costs $1400 more a year to insure while a diabetic person costs $6600 more a year. It comes out to $150 million dollars a year to insure overweight and people with diet related problems with half of that money coming from state funding. That means everyone pays out of pocket for this epidemic. In North Carolina and Alabama these obese employees are forced to pay higher premiums to stay insured. Also the case in some private sectors, or they will just avoid the cost all together and move the jobs to India or China. When it comes to our military, 27% of people trying to get into the military cannot because they are past the weight requirement.

So to sum up Part 1, Consequences, the next leaders of this country are dying before their parents from diseases they shouldn’t have. The workforce is so unfit that companies are moving out of the country to fill jobs. Military, police, the men and women that protect this country are not only limited on new recruits by 27% because of obesity but 3-5,000 service personnel a year are discharged for being overweight. Never mind the whole in America’s pocket the health care cost is burning through.

As a consumer, a diner in a restaurant, a citizen of this country, you have a decision to be part of this problem or make some changes to be in the solution. As a chef, a restaurant owner, anyone in the feeding people business, we also can either keep on feeding this problem or make some changes to benefit our guest’s health.  This obesity epidemic is crippling our nation.

This is preventable. This is not one of those unfortunate acts of nature that we just have to accept. This is not the product of a tsunami.”-Jack Shonkoff, MD Director, Center of Developing Child, Harvard University

My synopsis of Part 2 Choices, will follow soon.

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How Much Do Chefs Really Need to Taste or Even Have Taste Buds?

Tasting what you are preparing and also the food being made by your cooks is a huge part of maintaining consistency and setting standards in a kitchen. Ideally, it is through your sense of taste, smell and ability to verbalize it all to another that a chef can instill the dynamic of their palate to their staff especially during the opening stages of a restaurant.

This constant tasting can burn out our taste buds, fulfill our cravings for different foods and leave us satiated before any real meal is consumed. Unless a chef is coming from a fast, which I recommend to avoid this gluttonous outcome, it would be rare for them to get a real deep craving for any type of food, sweet, bitter, sour, salty or umami. Although it might only be a bite here or there, it is enough to quench the palate.

So, how can a chef execute his dishes and maintain his palate and diet?

I recently read an article in the New Times interviewing Miami’s own celebrity chef Michelle Bernstein. The article was covering a story in Parade magazine titled How Top Chefs Stay Slim. I have yet to meet Bernstein but respect her as a chef and her involvement with Common Threads and bringing healthy vending machines into schools in Miami. I have to disagree with the statement she made in this article about chefs needing to taste to the point that they consume 800-1000 calories a day before having a meal. That is ridiculous and I will prove otherwise in a minute.

First, I need to go back to another recent appearance that she made on NBC. Yes, I am following her. I am looking to get involved with like minded chefs here in Miami. I feel I could bring this “chefs promoting healthy eating” to another level, but obviously not alone. I may be nitpicking but was thrown off a little by the recipe she prepared while supporting the book Smart Chefs Stay Slim on the Today Show. It was the big old piece of stale white bread that she threw into her would-of-been healthy Romesco sauce. I actually got sad for a second and just thought… That sucks, she just hasn’t got that far yet.

Now, about the misconception that we must personally taste everything in order to produce and remain consistent. One example is chef and author of Life, on the Line, Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago. Grant’s remarkable journey is like no other. After opening Alinea in 2005 and a year later named best restaurant in America by Gourmet Magazine, he was diagnosed with stage four tongue cancer. Opting for the chemotherapy and radiation instead of removing the muscle and replacing it with another muscle, his tongue was burned, the lining of his esophagus shed and all of his taste buds destroyed.

Do you think the world renowned Alinea closed its doors? Hell No! What Grant did was train and put trust in his sous chefs and cooks to mimic his palate, as should all chefs that want to actually sleep easy on their day off. I highly doubt any one of the guests that continued to wait 2 months for a table here noticed that he was not the one tasting each of the 23 courses they were served. I could bet that not many of those final presentations were tasted by anyone. After the treatment, Grant’s taste buds did come back little by little and he now says, “It was very educational for me. I don’t recommend it, but I think it made me a better chef because now I really understand how flavor works.”

And the best example of this misconception is my own experience. To this day I have never told an employer that I only have half of my taste buds. At 15 years old I underwent my first ear surgery to remove a cyst that eaten away my whole inner ear on the left side, leaving me deaf in that ear as it made its way to the lining of my brain. In order to remove this malevolent growth that had branched out in different directions taking parts of my outer ear with it, they had to severe the glossopharyngeal nerve that controlled my taste buds. The whole left side of my tongue has no taste or sensation and never came back. Luckily they were able to implant a plastic hearing mechanism to replace around 30% of my hearing.

I had been in culinary school and working in the industry for two years at this point. I did not have any taste at all for close to three months after this and also for each of my two surgeries to follow in 1997 and 2006. In fact, everything tasted metallic for quite some time as I was journeying around the best restaurants in Boston and building my foundation as a chef. Gradually the right side came back after each surgery. I sure am crossing my fingers today that this reoccurring condition does not come back.

Not once during any of the phases of little taste, no taste and only tasting metal was my food thrown in my face by an emphatic chef for the flavor being off. Like I said I never told them and nor did they catch on in any of the demanding 4 star formal kitchens I may have been working in at the time.

The moral of this story is that a chef does not need to ingest anywhere near even 100 calories a day to just tasting. In the beginning stages of your career and while opening a restaurant, yes, you do have to taste quite a bit. But what does it take to coat your tongue, a half teaspoon? As chefs we train those around us to mimic our palate, God forbid we end up in a situation like Grant. And furthermore, if the food you were tasting were nutrient dense, clean and free of toxins, the calories wouldn’t be so bad anyway.

The Weight of the Nation

I have recently joined an organization called Make Healthy Happen Miami. This outlet will allow me to get hands on with the community and voice the message from a chef’s mouth. Last night, I had the chance to few the screening of, The Weight of the Nation. A four part documentary series confronting America’s obesity epidemic, that will be airing on HBO beginning May 14 and also stream online free of charge on HBO.com in English and Spanish.

I was gritting my teeth at the statistics. Two thirds of adults and one third of adolescents are overweight or obese! With those percentages, I will reiterate this message again and again. Diet is directly related to five of the top ten leading causes of death in America including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, stroke and kidney disease. 147 billion dollars a year goes to obesity related health care costs. Need I say more? A full press release is here

For the first time in 15 years, the Obama administration has gotten Congress to pass new changes in school lunch policy. All government funded schools will double the amount of fruit and vegetables, require all grains served are whole grains, limit salt, french fries and trans fat and also set a minimum and maximum daily calorie intake based on students age. Unlike some raging parents and potato farmers, I think this is a great idea. What does it mean to Americans? The government is stepping in where they can, regulating what your kids eat and not going to let healthcare costs continue to soar because of the poor food choices that are made.

Between policies like these and hopefully future regulations on the amount of advertising of unhealthy foods on television, this costly epidemic can be reversed. In the mean time, chefs have a choice. We can get educated on nutrition, if we are not, and be cognoscente of our own health and therefore our guests. What better than the hands and artistic talent of a chef to promote and educate a healthy diet even if it is just to their coworkers and guests.

Let’s open up our eyes as chefs, consumers and diners to what we are serving in our restaurants and spending our money on. The chef will adapt to the demand of his clientele if he wants to stay in business. Additionally, diners will adhere to the slight changes in dishes such as leaving white flour and refined sugar behind and enriching menus with nutrient dense whole foods.

The Diet of a Chef

     Has anyone ever muttered that phrase…ever?

     What would menus look like if the chefs writing them were practicing healthy eating habits in their own lives? By eliminating toxins such as white flour and refined sugar from their own meals wouldn’t they think twice before serving them to their guests? Could that simple shift in their own awareness impact those menus and therefore the health of every guest that came into their establishment?

     As chefs, indulging in everything edible in our own diets is culturally acceptable, yes.  I argue that this blind indulgence is also the easy way out. Developing flavor profiles purely based on taste and pairing them with the right wines is fun.  It’s also getting kinda old.

     What is all this attention aimed at the chef de cuisine while marketing a new restaurant? Is it just because he may or may not have a likable persona among the media and makes food that’s tasty and pretty in pictures?

     Some chefs, like anyone else I choose to spend time with and money on,  are inventive and witty, stand-up citizens of their communities.  They even do charitable work, and that’s all great. But the bottom line is, chefs feed people! At the end of the day, that is what we do. Nourishing or abusing the bodies of our guests with the dishes we create. Sometimes the same people two, three, four times a week. Some may have been eating under the same chef for 15 years and never once talked of or acknowledged the nutritional value of his or her dishes. Sad but true.

     It is like the chef has the guest mesmerized and under a trance as soon as they sit down across from a celeb and smell the aromas permeating through the dining room. As if their natural born human instinct to seek what will bring them optimum health vanishes and the dopamine rushes over them as they savor your succulent duck confit and waffles.

      I say it’s been long enough that chefs are using the excuse of longshifts and no time to neglect their diet. Unlike any other time consuming profession, we have all the God given nutrients we need at our fingertips. Regardless of your role in the kitchen, with a little planning and a routine, any chef, line cook or restaurant worker, could easily be maintaining a healthy diet. That concept should be a no-brainer but in the traditional lifestyle of a chef is nonexistent.

     To want to maximize your nutrient intake means to want to live. To consume toxins and eat empty calories is to invite that disease-riddled, very costly slow death. Chefs have a chance to impact all of those around them and collectively can make a change in how America eats. With just some discipline and a routine to maintain our diet and health, the effect can have a huge impact on what diners expect and how they eat.

     I am working on a book, The Progressive Modern Chef, and have gone in depth on this subject and how I make it possible in my own life. My intention for this blog is to build an audience and put this message in front of as many eyes as possible before the book hits the shelves.

Pictures above are from lunch at home the other day, my example of nutrient dense deliciousness: Pan roasted Salmon with Goji habanero coulis on Kale with toasted pecans and shallots and purple yams tossed with cheesy nutritional yeast. Kombucha Cocktail with Goji and orange puree, blueberries and chia seeds

Aside

Progressive Modern Philosophy

What are we left with after dining out? Whether a sandwich at a local lunch spot or a $200 seven course meal, all we really have is a memory, the bill and what’s left in our belly to nourish our body.

Is it fair to say that chefs have a pretty big impact on what the world eats and have molded what fine dining has become? Am I doing the unthinkable by saying we [the chefs]need to take responsibility for what we are putting in front of our guest’s and start incorporating the diner’s health into the equation at all levels of cuisine? Break down our menu by nutritional value and see what we are really feeding our guests. Wouldn’t our awareness collectively trickle down to the media and ultimately society’s idea of what to look for in a dining experience.

I used to get offended when people would say, “Don’t trust a skinny chef.” I was thin, of the undernourished variety, fast metabolism; the little I ate didn’t stick. Some discipline, Crossfit and a good diet have allowed great changes to happen for me physically and overall.

Now it dawns on me… Who do people trust to cook their meals? Is it the constipated diabetic chef with the pot belly? Is that the image society has developed? Would you listen to a dentist that let his teeth rot out or an obese personal trainer? Unconsciously we are putting that trust in the men and women in that kitchen every time we walk into a restaurant.

I have grown to get excited when I see a coworker drinking a shot of ginger juice or gulping down a nice nutrient dense green juice that I gave them. Why is that? My love as a chef is to feed people and watch them enjoy my creations. Furthermore, it truly brings me pleasure knowing that you are eating foods that will benefit you physically and mentally for the long run.Image

I was not always this way of course. It wasn’t until I took some steps in my own life to bring harmony into my body mind and spirit that I started to have an epiphany of what dining should be about.

It is as if the guest is totally dependent on what we give them to recharge their bodies. We are so spoiled that we forget that food is our fuel, our medicine and stress reliever. Able to revitalize organs, cure disease and increase longevity if we just consume the right ones. I am going to say that most people do not consider that enough or are just jumping on what the next guy does.

Yes, I have a deep respect for the art of food and the many ways to prepare and present it. My feelings are like that of many; food is most beautiful when it is simply put in front of the guest the way nature intended. Minimal change needs to be done when you have quality whole foods to work with. I commend restaurants that pay the price for good product and believe in this philosophy.

No one likes to dabble in everything edible without any restrictions the way a chef does. Unless you’re a vegan chef in a raw restaurant you probably have never heard of substituting an ingredient because of its lack of nutrients. Adding something like maca powder to a veggie burger not for flavor but the simple fact that it is full of amino acids and nutrients and its ability to combat stress and increase stamina should not be uncommon. It would be expensive but these are the types of things I would like to see as part of the “progressive modern” high end dining experience.

Food Trend Starts with Progressive Modern Chef

Before I put the cart before the horse, I want to emphasize a few topics I would like to think most are tuned into at this point of our existence. The awareness of diet having a direct correlation with one’s health is a given, right? How about our many pushes at relieving stress from the dominating work load we carry? We do want to remain liable to our passion for the long run without sacrificing our well being, right? Good. And lastly, we have all heard the phrase, “You are what you eat,” (more like you are what you consume). Excellent. This is a good starting point for you to see where I am going with this.

I have been in the industry for 16 years and can count on two fingers the number of chefs, owners and co-workers that have uttered the words, body, mind and spirit in a non-sarcastic direction. Through 8 ½ years of hands on education I was never advised to eat right and exercise or seek organic (non-chemical) solutions to relieve stress. Bahaha!! That’s unheard of!

It’s no wonder that this industry has double the percentage of substance abuse and divorce rates over any other workplace in the U.S. You think that the awareness would be more vocal and therefore present more prevalent solutions. Front or back of the house, this has not been my experience.

Isn’t it the lifestyle of our leaders that we inherit and consider the norm? I am going past the farm-to-table, all organic with shaved truffle on top hype. It is not the caliber of a chef’s cuisine that will bring them good health and sanity. Don’t get me wrong, I am very grateful for the chefs I have learned from and do not feel cheated by their message or lack there-of. I truly feel that until I was open to it, I wouldn’t have heard them anyway.

Like most of my predecessors, I am also to blame for not wanting to inconvenience myself and just sweeping it under the rug when I had nothing to offer. Gaining humility and a willingness to think outside the box is the only way I could see the light at the end of that tunnel.

I have always known that chefs can impact those around them greatly. People are entertained by them, donate to charities that they put their faces on and read about them like local celebrities. Is it going too far to say that these chefs can impact much more by first taking action in their own lives? What could it do for the freshies coming into the industry or even the rising obesity issue in this country? Where would food trends go?

I say out with the old, in with the new. FIFO, first in first out. Break out of the old school mindset, if you’re up for it, and into the next progressive modern chef.

Breaking out the “Progressive Modern Chef” (Pro-mo)

I have honestly taken too much time deciding what my first ever blog should be and what will catch your attention and keep you reading. So I’m going to do what I’ve learned to do best. Keep it real. Before I go and share a message I am titling a “Progressive Modern Chef,” I will simply share my present day with you.
Let me fill you in on a little about me. Long story short, I have 8 years formal culinary education between high school and college and have worked in the industry since I was 13. From Boston Market in high school to 4 star hotels, I was a sucker for a position next to the “celebrity” chef in that award winning spot. I have also been the valet guy that you left my tip still lit in the ashtray of your Lexus for and the attentive waiter that served you that $120 plate and just spilled a round of Heinekens down that guy’s back. I plan to tell about that Beantown journey in future blogs but for now back to South Beach.
Currently I am a sous chef working in a newly named hotspot hotel on South Beach. Although this is a “4 star” hotel, the venue that I operate in is a make-shift kitchen under nothing more than a retractable tent. There is no gas, minimal electricity mainly from extension cords and some mats covering the deck under my feet. I have one microwave, one panini press and a 20”x14” griddle. My two cooks and I produce in excess of 20K a week in food from the now revamped scratch menu we mostly prepare 17 floors below. Without going into detail, if you’re in the business you may see the challenges we face.
I began working in my current position two weeks after moving here in 2009. After just 9 months with this growing F + B Company, I was hand-picked by the previous corporate chef to open what was at the time, the largest venue in the company. A month into this life sucking task, I was the last one standing next to him. The Chef de Cuisine he had hired who had brought our entire opening crew with him, walked out along with the one other sous chef a day apart. What do I do? I try to convince the big dog to give me the top spot of course. His plan instead, “Move to New York, not sure where yet but I need you there!” I refused the cold weather high-cost life I was brought up in without a significant pay raise.

Now, I am asked to come back to the hotel and bring some new blood to the hip party scene on the rooftop. The menu is thoughtless and sad. Two poorly executed sushi rolls, four senseless sandwiches with two on the same bread, a couple of salads and a short rib slider at outrageous prices. I first bring a positive energy to my cooks and the FOH and more-so the same consistency I brought to the recent venture. I create a workable space knowing I will be spending some time here. I replace the rusty home fridge we are using with a double door I find in the basement.
Being given free rein on this poolside bar menu I let my surroundings talk to me. First, take off the sushi that sits in the sun as you’re in the pool and I bring a Miami flare to comfort food. Mostly tourists…Miami Beach…Duh. House smoked pork slider, lime shrimp with habanero glaze, tuna tartar with mango, chili and scallion, Jamaican jerk chicken salad to name a few. Homemade honey roasted almond-peanut butter and strawberry jam on cranberry walnut bread is just me  sliding in a sweet option for the ecstasy popping kids at heart. This Miami flare seems to trickle down and soon all of the menus are fit for this location.


Without a smoker I convert a broken hot box with a Bunsen burner and a cast iron skillet. I smoke the pork butt for 8 hours before slow cooking it at 180 in an alto sham overnight. Top it with a citrus bbq sauce and brine my own pickles too. I am making that peanut butter little by little in a robot coupe and vita-mix as well as a pecan cherry brittle sprinkle over an arugula goat cheese salad. Dressings are made from fruit and wine reductions and I’ve convinced the a.m. baker to make focaccia for my prosciutto and vegetarian paninis.
My direct boss second guessed me and all of these labor inducing upgrades as many around also may have. Being able to measure your own work capacity with those next to you and the equipment, time and space to execute efficiently is a skill that should come naturally with hands-on (not paperwork-on) experience. The ability to train the staff around you is acquired, in my opinion, through humility and patience.
“Why would I bother and go so far out of my way with all of this scratch cooking if my direct boss doesn’t care either way or even give it any recognition?”
I am still a passionate chef at the core whether I’m suited in a well equipped kitchen or sweating in a t-shirt under a tent. I know no other way but to put my face behind the food I serve. I have been put in many challenging situations in life and have grown from all of them. It boils down to where my ego is and how I am living when I walk outside of that hotel that determines my state of being.
My intentions of, “The Progressive Modern Chef,” is to shed light on the lifestyle of chefs and restaurant workers and share a solution. My ideas on bringing the health of the guest into the thought of upscale service is a topic I feel strongly about and plan to express. Think nutrient dense sanity and spread the word.

Fun with Food