a good food day

marco

This passage from Marco Canora’s brilliant new cookbook, A Good Food Day: Reboot Your Health with Food That Tastes Great sounded so familiar to Danny, after 2 decades of being a restaurant chef, that he laughed out loud when he read it in bed the night we returned from New York City.

“Amped by another cigarette and a final large cup of coffee, I head into service. Six hours of bright lights, heat, speed, and constant stimulation whiz by. Though I tasted dozens of bites and ingested a full dinner’s worth of calories, it never feels like they add up to a meal. Service winds down, and I’m thinking about relaxing with a smoke and a drink. After a few of each, I start to get hungry. I ate lunch at 4:30 pm, so now that it’s 1 a.m., I’m ready for dinner. It’s how plenty of people feel when they finish their day of work, but for most it’s 6 p.m., and for me and the rest of the working chefs it’s 1 a.m.

At this hour I’m not going home and whipping up a salad. I head to Corner Bistro for a few beers topped by a cheeseburger, or go to Great New York Noodletown for a late-night Chinese feast of roast baby pig. On the nights I don’t go out, I stop by the 24-hour bodega, order ham and cheese on a hard roll with mustard and watery lettuce, smash some potato chips in it, and nail that for my 1:30 a.m. dinner just before bed. I also make up for skipping the morning cigarettes by smoking ten in the last three hours of my night.

Remarkably, this was my routine for nearly twenty years. I was overcaffeinated, dehydrated, overstimulated, and full of starch, sugar, fatty meat, alcohol, and nicotine. Until my body started to stage a revolt.”

This is, of course, not a funny passage. However, Danny laughed because it so eerily, exactly matched his life before we met. “I could have written this,” he told me as we talked before turning out the light. “Thank god you came along.”

My life has been transformed since I received a celiac diagnosis in 2005. Everything in my life has leaned toward the light of good health, an impassioned discovery of good food, accepting imperfections, and a sense of belonging to a community in a way I never did when I was sick. What I have written here for nearly a decade has been a record of that transformation. But I rarely write about how fully Danny’s life has been changed by meeting a woman who could no longer eat gluten.

Like Marco Canora, Danny worked on the line in various restaurants for over 20 years. And like nearly every chef in the business, he lived on small tastes, gulped bread and butter, cigarettes, and late-night rushed meals. When we met, Danny was eating at a chain sandwich shop nearly every night after midnight, racing to get some food into him after six hours of dinner service and an afternoon of prep before that. He was smoking a pack and a half a day. (He quit pretty quickly after we met. Afterwards, he was amazed to realize that smoking was the only way he could step outside for a breath in that frantic world.) And his eating was haphazard and rushed.

Now, he hasn’t smoked in nearly 9 years. He quit drinking after Lucy was born. He eats breakfast on a daily basis. Off the line now, he spends his days thinking of ways to make our Thursday family taco nights more interesting every week — a new salsa, a marinade of lime juice, chile powder, chipotle pepper, charred peppers, cilantro, and olive oil for black cod, cabbage shells instead of tortillas. And he eats more vegetables than he ever dreamed possible.

When I first met Danny, and he was working six days a week as the head chef at a restaurant, his best tastes came from veal stock reduction sauces, slow-braised beef, mashed potatoes with butter and cream, and decadent desserts. These days, the man is fascinated to find every single way he can think to pull flavor from a carrot.

That’s why Danny — and I — are so excited about A Good Food Day: Reboot Your Health with Food That Tastes Great. It’s food that is meant to heal, created by someone deeply driven by a love of food. As Marco writes, “Food is the center of everything for me: my heritage, my family, social life, and entire career. In short, it’s a key player in my overall happiness. For just about anyone, the thought of overhauling your whole diet is a tough blow, but for me it fell just short of cruel. My diagnosis lit a fire under my ass to make some changes, but I knew I would be a miserable person and unable to stick to a healthy diet if I had to eat rabbit food for the rest of my life.”

Why does this culture stubbornly believe that “healthy” food is bland, nothing better than steamed vegetables and poached chicken breasts? Why is pleasure divorced from health? Where’s the joy in celery sticks and nonfat dressing? Why can’t we eat great food, consciously, food that’s full of flavor from taking the time to make it right?  Why don’t we define a good food day as one where we truly savored every bite we took, instead of feeling proud of how few calories we ate?

We met Marco Canora when we were in New York a couple of weeks ago. He’s a mensch: impassioned about life, open and voluble, kind and ready to talk about food for hours. We sat at the window seat at Hearth (one of our favorite restaurants in New York) before it opened and talked about grain mills, chia seeds, and buckwheat. Marco listens, hard. And he talks fast, happy to learn more and share what he knows.

That’s the thing about good chefs: they just love food. Once they open their minds and hearts to the idea that food can truly feed us, and not merely be an act of creation, a competition, a thing of beauty meant to blow people away with its precision? Those chefs can change the way the rest of us eat. Lentil soup with tomatoes and Tuscan kale may not be as sexy as an expensive restaurant dish on a long plate with a swirl of something, a block of pork belly, a touch of lardo, dolloped with sauce. But it’s a damned satisfying dish. (I lived off this soup of Marco’s the week after New York, when Lu and I were down with the flu.)

I could have sat talking with Marco Canora all day long, but we had a dinner party to cook that night. He gave us some of his Brodo broth: I recommend the Hearth broth with freshly shaved turmeric. (This piece about the benefits of bone broth was published in the New York Times when we were there, the morning we met Marco. I highly recommend it.) Next time, I want to try the chicken with Calabrian chili oil. It’s clear that Chef Canora is jazzed about all the new discoveries he’s making, the foods he’s trying, and the good health he feels from the choices he has made.

It’s all clear in his new book, A Good Food Day: Reboot Your Health with Food That Tastes Great. Danny and I have been reading bits of it every day. I can feel Danny’s mind changing again, shifting more toward quinoa and kale, ways to play with umami tastes, creating homemade lemon confit and shaved fennel salads instead of  the pork feasts we used to make. There’s no end to what Danny and I still have to learn about food.

We’re enjoying the hell out of it.

 

32 comments on “a good food day

    1. shauna

      It certainly has. But he is still a chef, even if he’s not on the line anymore. He’ll always think like a chef.

      1. Marcia

        Thinking doesn’t make you a chef, heading up a restaurant line staff does. Words have meaning. He’s a home cook and a cookbook consultant. There’s nothing wrong with that, and calling him something he’s not implies that there is.

        1. Marisa

          Once a chef, always a chef. Unless you go back to the line and start over. It’s sort of understood amongst other chefs so it’s totally legit to call him that. Since kitchens are based on brigade systems, you don’t lose your ranking once you ‘retire’ Plus it’s her nickname for him. You people. Jesus.

        2. Sharon

          Once a chef always a chef even if you don’t work in the main stream of things. You never forget you training. I’m a pastry chef I no longer work in high end restaurants / hotels but I still consider myself a pastry chef. I haven’t forgotten all my training in fact I use it all the time at home and when I help out with various fundraisers.

        3. Gabby

          I don’t really care who is or isn’t a chef, it’s none of my business, but I am pretty sure he isn’t lacking work. I mean, starting a business requires all hands to the deck, and someone has got to be behind the scenes, getting the e-commerce site up and running, dealing with the co-packer, getting the rewards shipped, dealing with accountants and lawyers to get all permits and taxes in place, etc etc. Danny is going to be halling ass for sure!

    2. Kristy

      I think the transition Danny made is one many chefs now and in the future will consider… to work for themselves outside the confines of a restaurant. Thank goodness there are so many opportunities for chefs (and home cooks) to be creative and entrepreneurial! We all benefit when limiting titles and ideas are disregarded : )

  1. Deborah Dowd

    This sounds like a really great book and I love the idea of focusing on taste as well. Restaurant line life does not always lend itself to good eating habits!

  2. Karl Alexander

    Great post, and it made the book sound pretty fun – I’ve spent a little time as part-time cooks here and there so while I can’t sympathize 100% with Marco’s plight, much of it sounded awfully familiar to me.

    I especially agreed with your point about our culture perceiving healthy food as ‘bland’. Lately as kind of an experiment I’ve tried to go gluten-free (mostly to see if I can, partly to impose tougher dietary rules on myself) and a lot of my friends have been pretty surprised at what I’m still able to eat. Gluten-free beer tastes fine, for example, and there’s a lot of fast food/local restaurants that offer gluten-free dishes that taste just the same if you know where to look. Sure, gluten is a far cry from the “tofu and bean curds” stereotype of typical health food, but I’ve seen people surprised by my diet all the same. Kind of a shame how far we have to go, health-wise, in this country.

  3. Patti Cheatham

    BAM! Love it, perfectly said! BAM again!
    “Why does this culture stubbornly believe that “healthy” food is bland, nothing better than steamed vegetables and poached chicken breasts? Why is pleasure divorced from health? Where’s the joy in celery sticks and nonfat dressing? Why can’t we eat great food, consciously, food that’s full of flavor from taking the time to make it right? Why don’t we define a good food day as one where we truly savored every bite we took, instead of feeling proud of how few calories we ate?”

    1. Cristina

      This way of thinking, that healthy=deprivation, is really stuck in the early 1990s. The world has moved on and SO many professional chefs, TV “chefs”, and bloggers have taken it upon themselves to bring good healthy and tasty food to people that comments like these seem irrelevant now.

      1. shauna

        I’d have to disagree. Of course I agree that there has been such great work done around food in this country. It’s much better than it was in the 1980s. But I still see plenty of recipes and suggestions for “healthy” eating that seem to be mired in the idea of deprivation. Heck, there are plenty of articles about gluten-free where registered dietitians warn that bleached white flour is enriched with B vitamins, so those of us who are gluten-free are in danger of being nutrient deficient! And nearly every restaurant I visit has the “healthy” option as an egg-white omelette with steamed vegetables. In standard American culture — away from the world from those of us who read food blogs — I do believe there’s still a false dichotomy between “fun” food and “healthy” food. I see it everywhere.

        1. Cristina

          I see what you’re saying, and I agree that the notion still exists. I think the main perpetrators are food companies who market their products as “guilty pleasures”. They market their foods “sinful” to make them more appealing. Perhaps strands of Puritanism still remain here, though I don’t know how this relates to food (not a cultural historian!). On the other hand, I still hold that there are many options out there for healthy and delicious food, but you have to work to tune out the noise.

  4. Nina

    You must have been reading my stomach. My dinner last night was a pile of sautéed vegetables with ginger-gf tamari marinade on a bed of quinoa. Marco’s book sounds fabulous, as does his soup… but when you write, Shauna, you make everything sound delicious and satisfying. You are umami, my friend.

  5. Patti Cheatham

    I’m a Chef. I’ve been one since walking out the doors of Northwestern Culinary Institute over 40 years ago! I have worked the line, not worked the line and worked the line again. Started my own food business, yep still a Chef, took a break while fighting cancer, yep still a Chef, worked in my home kitchen developing recipes, yep still a Chef, I’ve worked as an Event Planner with the focus being the meal portion of the events, yep still a Chef. I am now a Consulting Chef (part time), yep I’m a Chef. Danny has more than earned his Chef title. To think otherwise is like saying a Doctor who is now also teacher is no longer a Doctor!
    Please forgive my need to reply to the comment from one of your readers. It really hit a nerve for me.
    Grace and love to my very favorite Chef’s!
    Patti

  6. Lise

    As a Registered Dietitian who is also GF, let me add that there are more RDs out there nowadays who understand that eating well on a GF diet is not only possible but not nearly as difficult as people once thought. Generally speaking, while I enjoy some packaged GF goods (some of your sponsors make very tasty goodies) for the most part, processed food should fall low on the priority list. Learning how to cook, using a lot of fresh ingredients and learning to understand hunger cues are the same principles I would teach any client. GF people have to develop an extra skill set, but it’s learnable! It’s good to see more and more restaurants and bakeries teaching their staff how to address clients’ needs too! When I first started teaching GF diets over 15 years ago, it was definitely more challenging!

    1. shauna

      Thanks for charming in, Lise. I know plenty of great RDs out there, doing good work. And I absolutely agree, as you can gather from this site. The key for me to living gluten-free joyfully is to embrace food, good food, plenty of vegetables and lean meats and interesting grains and mostly the finest quality fresh ingredients we can afford. That’s what Marco’s book is all about.

      1. shauna

        And of course, I meant CHIMING in! I’m sure you’re charming as well, but that’s a funny typo I didn’t intend.

        1. Lise

          “Charming in”…that’s quite funny! Thanks. I’ll keep reading and good luck with all your ventures.

  7. Shelly

    Hi Lise, as I’m beginning on my gluten free journey, that’s the first time I’ve hard someone comment about how learning to interpret hunger cues is a part of a gluten free wellness strategy. (Whether medically required or not) Can you tell me more? I’m pregnant as well, so I have hunger cues coming at me thick and fast right now. Thanks, shelly

    1. Lise

      Hi Shelly

      Many celiacs and gluten-intolerant individuals have been technically ‘starving’ for years. They may also be accustomed to being quite skinny and eating ‘whatever I want’ because they malabsorb. Now you start eating more wisely and healthily and BANG! The body starts to make up for lost time. Some celiacs gain a lot of weight after getting healthy and this can become problematic So while it may not be ‘medically required’ to learn hunger cues, I consider it essential for any practitioner to consider the patient’s emotional relationship with food as part of an overall ‘wellness’ program. Some gluten intolerant individuals may even be tempted to go back to eating gluten because even though they feel lousy they want to lose weight (I’ve seen this happen with type 1 diabetics too, they stop using insulin and essentially pee out their calories….I don’t recommend it!). Additionally, if you’ve been made so sick and so often by food, it can be hard to overcome that ‘food as enemy’ feeling. One of my very good friends went undiagnosed for a very long time and developed additional food intolerances to corn, beans, many fruits and vegetables. She came to associate eating out, parties, dinners and the like as unpleasant events that left her drained and in pain. Once she went gluten free she felt so much better, and over the years was able to start tolerating many more foods again, but it was a slow and scary process for her. I was not her dietitian but she did work with someone with a lot of good knowledge and she was happy that the internet had a lot to offer. Sorry to be long winded, this is a passion of mine!

      1. Lise

        I didn’t really answer your question did I? Ask your OB/GYN how much weight gain is recommended, bring in a food log for the staff to review and get on a good prenatal vitamin. You may want them to run blood levels of various B vitamins and D to see if you’re deficient.

  8. Tammy

    Two of my worlds collide! Several years ago, just as I started working on A Good Food Day with Marco (I’m his co-author), I went gluten-free. Yours was the first blog and among the first (and my favorite) cookbooks that showed me that being gluten-free is not the sad sentence I thought it would be. So happy to read this post and see your enthusiasm for A Good Food Day!

  9. VE

    I just wanted to say that I LOVE this cookbook. I had read a brief piece with a recipe of his in Food & Wine and thought it looked great, and when I read your blog post, Shauna, I decided to get the book. I’ve made several recipes from it in the last couple of weeks and they’ve all been dynamite – packed with flavor and nutrition both. Thanks for sharing!

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