Let the White Space on the Plate Be A Reminder to Breathe

June 6, 2016

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with Jet Tila (TV Food Network’s “Cut Throat Kitchen”); James Beard Award-winning Chef Virginia Willis; Rafi Tuherian (Yale University) at UMass Amherst 2016 Chef Culinary Conference, “Food is Medicine, Food is Love”

I never really know how an audience is going to react to what I share.  Over the years, I have become a vegetarian (and vegan for months at a time). I don’t necessarily advocate this lifestyle, but I do know that I feel better than ever. I breathe better. I have more energy than ever, and so I can only speak from my personal experience. I’ve been in the food business for decades, approaching it from various angles as a chef, consultant, cookbook author, editor, and holistic health and nutrition counselor.

Perhaps the most important way for me to approach the subject of food, life and love, today, is from a spiritual point of view.

I am here at UMASS Amherst as a presenter for the “Food is Medicine, Food is Love” 2016 Chef Culinary Conference. Alice Waters, Jet Tila, Diane Kochilas, Virginia Willis, Joanne Weir, Alexander Ong, Steve Petusevski, Suvir Saran, Arlin Wasserman, Mai Pham, and so many more food professionals are here to present on the subject. Words like “health,” “sustainability,” “love,” are being thrown about. This is unlike any food conference I’ve participated in, to date. There is a definite shift in focus in our industry, and a most important one, given the current state of our collective health.

There is an on-going epidemic in this country (and the world) relative to obesity, cancer, diabetes, heart disease and life threatening illnesses in general. At this point we are all too aware, but what are we doing about it? Many just keep on doing what they’re accustomed to doing, which is nothing. We are still very far from practicing prevention because changing old habits is difficult… but not impossible.

As a food professional, I have a responsibility to showcase food that is both delicious and healthful. It’s a moral duty I have. I just about stopped eating meat and seafood because I couldn’t trust the sources in general. This is not to say that I trust our produce either, but on the whole, fruit and vegetables are safer and far more nutritious than any meat or seafood protein on the market. What I can get in meat and seafood, I can generally get in vegetable protein. Something that I have personally considered in the choices I have made over the years is that the more vegetables and fruit I eat, the better I look, and therefore feel inside and out. Today, I feel better in my forties than I did in my twenties. It’s been an amazing journey, going back to basics, because sometimes that’s just what we need to do to understand how we’ve gone wrong.

I see too many overloaded plates with piled on food that makes no sense. If it’s a mess on the plate, it’s a mess in the stomach (and the mind) and who the heck wants that? Not me. Nor should you. I find it abusive to the senses. It’s certainly not love. It’s food I don’t want to look at, let alone eat. We need room to breathe. That need to breathe translates as white space on the plate. When a plate is overloaded, we can’t see anything. Give it some white space and now you start to engage your senses, because you can actually see the ingredients. So leave some room to remind yourself that your stomach needs that space to work effectively in digesting your meal.

Going back 7000 years is the Indian Ayurvedic principle of 1/3 food, 1/3 water, 1/3 air. The Chinese also have a saying, “70% full,” which is much like the Japanese idea of “80% full.” All of these principles are the same. In other words, the number is not as important as the message it holds. AIR (space, or room) is needed for proper digestion. You should never eat until full, but until satisfied, which is very different. Once satisfied, walk away from the table with bounce in your feet, because that energy that you have will allow both solids and liquids to churn effortlessly. When we fill up, it makes it difficult for this natural process to happen. Not only that, but all sorts of health issues start or continue to develop until we hit rock bottom. Don’t go there!

Balance means having a plant-base diet, dotted occasionally by meat and seafood proteins, if desired. Indeed, in Asia, animal proteins are merely seasonings. The shear amount of animal protein we eat in this country is mind boggling. When did this happen? We eat excessively and we can’t seem to stop. We’re never satisfied and as a result we have lost our way in more ways than not.

Developing sweet, sour, salty, spicy, and bitter notes in every dish you prepare, or at the very least every meal helps us to organize our plates. Our taste buds also require these flavor characteristics. We need all of these to feel fully satisfied. Sugar, salt and fat alone are our worst enemies, unless they are complemented with spicy, bitter, and sour foods.

We don’t need science and statistics, we need to practice common sense and be accountable in the kitchen and at the table. We need to stop eating convenience food, and eat nothing but fresh food instead. We need to look in the mirror and ask ourselves if we are satisfied and happy, but then not ignore the answers and address them instead. However difficult it may be at first, it becomes easier with time. We need to learn how to eat (and therefore live and love) all over again, appreciating and celebrating real food. It takes time, which we ALL most certainly have.

“Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.” Hippocrates

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