Research Project at the Culinary Institute of America
A few weeks ago I Had the incredible pleasure of attending a regional Italian cooking bootcamp at the Culinary Institute of America with my friend Stephanie. If you follow my blogs you know that I recently discovered the art of savoring and enjoying food. I began to theorize that a key component to overcoming and emotional binge eating pattern of behavior is to focus more on truly enjoying certain foods and eating only the best and most extravagant version of the foods we crave. If we make it a special thing, almost like an event or art, we may be more inclined to savor and less likely to inhale. I realized almost suddenly that in this society we lack much culture around food. There does'nt seem to be any love or pride in either the preparation or the eating. Our society seems to promote a binge restrict broken relationship with food while demanding physical perfection. Most of us have incredible guilt and shame around eating. Perhaps acknowledging and addressing the brokenness could offer more mastery than another diet could. My curious mind needed more information.
I spoke to my mentor about my thoughts. I spoke to clients. I spoke to colleagues. I began conducting my own experiments. I became involved in the joy of eating all over the spectrum. I paid attention to how I felt when eating more single ingredient or whole foods, my typical diet. I paid attention to how I felt before, during and after enjoying more lavish foods. I noticed that I wasnt experiencing guilt, that was interesting. Was it possibly because it had nothing to do with the food or eating ? Maybe it had more to do with this new mindset of savoring and my relationship to food.
Stephanie, has fond memories of cooking with her father, loves preparing food and uses it to express her love appropriately. I have pinned her as the queen of the savoring concept. She seems to have a balanced and harmonious relationship to food. She doesnt seem to struggle with physique, she eats healthy and enjoys. Around the time my savoring journey began, she had been reading the book, Taste, written by Stanley Tucci (whom I now regard as a food god) I borrowed the book and read it cover to cover. As I was reading I noticed that he seemed to regard cooking and eating as a beautiful expression of love and art. He had gratitude for every component of each dish, I was fascinated by this. Immediately after finishing his book, I binge watched his documentary series, "Searching for Italy" and felt as though I discovered a lost treasure. I recall an episode where he was comparing two types of prosciutto and as he was eating and describing this meat you could feel the love in his descriptions. Stephanie and I were in agreement that he was a culinary angel and we vowed to plan an Italy trip based on his show, (really, we just want that prosciutto). I wanted to feel what he felt when he was being artful with eating. I wanted to feel love and respect instead of deprivation and fear. Eating seems so shameful for so many of us.
Stephanie and I have been adventuring for a few months now but, we stay in a certain radius of home, we are still deep in the momming phase of our lives so we stay mostly accessible. She found this Regional Italian cooking bootcamp being offered at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park and signed us up. While she is a foodie and a culinary wiz, I am not, so I was a little intimidated but mostly intrigued. It seemed odd that my quest for understanding the binge and emotional eating habits of Americans had landed me at the Culinary Institute but, there I was. A tattooed bodybuilding fish out of water with acrylic nails, ready to research my theory on emotional eating and relationships to food.
On day one of our four day bootcamp we made our presence known, we were supposed to be there 30 mins early in chef pants , chef shoes, no nails, no jewelry and professional looking, (oops, we missed that email). Steph was rocking jeans and tall leather booths and I was in my uniform, lululemon leggings, converse, long nails and rings. Next came the obligatory introductions we went around the room and said who we were and what we were doing there. My time came and I put on my best awkward girl smile and explained that I was a trainer and a coach and wanted to learn more about peoples relationships to food. I strapped in and prepared to learn and explore.
Each day we would arrive in class for an hour of instruction about different regions of Italy and the foods that each region was known for cheeses, breads, fish, cheeses, meats, pastas. I noticed that each food had a sense of cultural pride and love tied to it. Everything had a reason and a purpose, no food was wasted, it was all valued and it brought people together. I could feel the cultural pride in the descriptions of the foods. The word silky to describe mozzarella or learning how prosciutto was aged and how each region had a different way of preparing their foods or naming them and they were very territorial. I learned about how bread soup came to be, it was a peasant soup, the region was poor and they didnt waste food If bread went stale it became soup. Foods were simple but hearty. In this country in contrast the foods we have if we are in a lower income bracket are highly processed and barely resemble food. Highly processed foods are also very easy to overeat which contributes to higher weight and health problems. there really isnt much love or art in that and the solution offered is just more highly processed diet food. I was envious, I wanted to be a part of this beautiful Italian culture.
After the lecture we would review the recipes for the day and prepare to go into the kitchen and fuck shit up. We were on teams, 4 people each on 4 teams, each team was responsible for 3 recipes. If you follow me then you know I am terrified of teams. On my team was Stephanie, a dog loving foodie named Marc (we worked together mostly) and another guy George, he was a chef already and seemed to enjoy working in his own space. The kitchen was just like the food network, It had everything. We were shown to our respective stations. We had 4 hours to make all of the recipes. It was time to just dive in.
On day one On day one we learned about Central Italy (Abruzzi, Latium, Rome, Marchi, Toscana) We studied the geography, environment, population and economy. Stephanie made some insane platter of lamb with gorgeous fennel, peppers and shaved Parmesan, she was having a blast. I made stuffed zucchini boats, I picked a super simple recipe after noticing that I had quite a bit of anxiety about trying and preparing new foods, that anxiety can be an obstacle for me and for many of my clients. We stay boxed in and dont explore. Trying new recipes and foods is like traveling but we dont have to pack a bag, we can explore while staying still. We can be as outrageous as we wish. I gained a little confidence, it was a great vibe. I found my groove. Things started to make sense. I was working my way around the kitchen, I watched each team as they created beautiful dishes, risottos, polenta, lamb, gnocchi, pork, beautiful vegetables. We were learning how to infuse love into the food, this felt like mindfulness, being grateful and finding value in the foods we were going to eat.
After finishing in the kitchen came my favorite part of each day, the critique. This was so much fun. What started with a lecture became a lesson and then an experience and now we were using our senses to close the loop and fully understand everything we learned. A long table would be set up in our classroom with bread, deserts, wines. Once we completed and plated our dishes in the kitchen we walked down the hall to the classroom and set the dishes we prepared on the buffet, each day the table was more beautiful than the day before. The presentation of everything was lovely, gorgeous vibrant colors and smells like nothing I have ever smelled, Stephanie had to take my word for it, she got covid last year and still cant sell, poor queen. I am historically a picky eater, I have spent most of my life not allowing myself to eat most foods. After introductions Chef Aaron asked if I would be able to eat anything (because bodybuilding) and I said of course ,but I kinda wondered if I would have an internal struggle but, I absolutely didn't. I was all about this experience. I have this new attitude that says I deserve it. I am allowed to enjoy, I deserve to enjoy food, there is nothing shameful about enjoying food. I think of myself as an explorer of only the finest things.
On day two, I walked in, still full from all I explored and tasted the day before, ready to tackle the region of the day, Southern Italy (Calabria, Campania, Basilicata, Naples). We studied the geography, tourism, population and economy. We made pasta, gnocchi, tortellini, garganelli (more pasta). This was a big pasta day and I really wanted to learn about it so I hung out and made friends with everyone who was making pasta. Nobody was perfect, most people were nervous and everyone was laughing and okay with it, I invited my inner perfectionist to leave for the day, I am really getting sick of her anyway, she cramps my style. Stephanie made pork chops, Marc and I made polenta with creamed morels, I may or may not have messed it up but we repurposed it into something else, it was actually quite delicious.
On day three, my favorite day, Chef Aaron demonstrated mozzarella being made, filet mignon being prepared, artichokes being created. Simultaneously, we were all going around offering tastes of what we were each cooking and asking for suggestions on what we thought each dish needed. There was this woman in the class, Amy, she was a chef, super amazing energy, she started the vibe, truly joyful, I became immersed. She came around with this pot of lemon simple syrup that she was making for a polenta cake and offered us a taste, it was glorious. My partner Marc and I asked for her feedback on this tuscan bean paste crostini thing that we were making. And then the chef came to offer help to Stephanie. All around this huge kitchen were smiles, people were bonding and sharing joy while cooking. Marc and I finished our dish early and had an hour to kill so we got a little brave and decided to make another dish. We asked one of the instructors, Tom, I called him the Zen Chef, if we could make another recipe and the joy dialed up. Zen chef got into it, he handed us some ingredients with some lose instruction and said basically do what you feel, which is why he became zen chef. Before you know it Steph, Marc, two chefs and I were creating a little cooking community. Anytime I glanced up from my station I saw relationships forming. I hadnt expected any of this. This was love but it wasnt finding love in food it was expressing love through the the art of creating and sharing food. It wasnt dirty or taboo, huge delineation from what I knew.
Day four, the final day, I didnt want the experience to end. I was learning invaluable information plus, I loved all my new culinary friends. That day in the kitchen was a celebration of sorts. We used up everything we had, nothing went to waste. The chefs had some fun creating dishes of their own. Someone made beef tare tare, everyone was raving about it but, you couldn't pay me to eat that, I am keeping my picky eater status. Zen chef made this chicken stuffed with a pesto made from pistachios, dried apricots and garlic topped with rosemary and goat cheese, it was one of the best things I have ever eaten. The experience was truly enriching, the coolest research project I have ever been a part of. I left convinced that peoples lives could be changed and struggles with diet could end by discovering the art and the love that lives in this space.
Nutrition has a new definition, it is the process of learning to love yourself through the art of eating and preparing food. Eating is in an act of self love. We may love our body by eating in a way that gives us more energy and fuels our training. We may also love our bodies through enjoying and exploring more gorgeous foods, they are two points on the same line. On my savoring quest I have discovered that while we may think of eating richer more calorie laden foods as unhealthy or taboo it's not actually the food that is taboo, its our relationship to it, how we perceive it. The same rule applies for "cleaner" foods or foods we consider to be "healthy". They arent any better. Food in and of itself has no emotional value. We place value or judgement on food. Our labeling foods as either good or bad based on their caloric content breaks our relationship to food and doesnt allow beauty , love, art or culture to flow throw that channel. We are therefore not only making our disconnect to food bigger through our perceptions but we are missing out on so much beauty.
Food isnt just a thing that makes you skinny, ripped or fat. What has happened to me weight or body through my research? Basically nothing, I am transforming on the inside but the outside looks the same. I didn't lose control and nothing crumbled. I notice that on days where I eat more calorie dense foods I am less hungry the next day so I intuitively eat less, no need to impose a struggle. I would encourage everyone to find the beauty, discover the art, express some love, explore new worlds, savor some life.