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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Knife's Edge: 21 days later

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A few weeks ago, my wife decided after careful research, and I believe (in all honesty) after watching an episode of "Oprah," that she would embark on a lifestyle challenge: going completely vegan, no gluten, no processed sugar, no alcohol, and no caffeine for 21 days.

At first, I didn't think I would participate. Jazmin got started on July 1, along with her cousin Nicole who's interning with us. I decided as a show of support to follow along loosely. And I’d help cook at home, or guide their efforts in the kitchen. But my competitiveness came to the surface and I had to see if I could do it.

It may be important at this point to remind you that I’m a chef. Currently running a hamburger restaurant. Frying potatoes in a mixture of duck fat and lard. Pureeing Krispy Kreme doughnuts into milkshakes. You’re more apt to find me at a local coffee house than my own kitchen. And I do a ton of consulting for beverage and liquor companies.

This lifestyle challenge would be difficult if I were an accountant. But in my line of work, it seemed impossible.

On the other hand, it came at a good time. I work much more on the creative side at FLiP, so tasting there was in the capable hands of the executive chef. I had already made the decision to not drink alcohol a few months ago, and my busy travel schedule happened to have only a few appearances during the time frame — events where I wouldn’t need to prepare specific restricted items.

So I went for it. I’m not going to bore you with the extreme details and soapbox chatter. But I’ll share some of the inspiration I took from my experiment:

  • This type of challenge requires you to cook at home. Even as a restaurateur who wants you to patronize my restaurants, I'm going to say that cooking at home can never be a bad thing. What this meant for our family was much more time together. Even if that time is at the stove, it’s family time.
  • It dawned on me as we were purchasing brown rice syrup, agave nectar and stevia, that sugar is one of the last generic ingredients left in a kitchen. Sure, chefs employ different varieties of sweeteners. But many recipes just ask for sugar. In a day and age when even the semi-serious home cook has an arsenal of olive oils and salts, sugar still stands in monopoly over the rest.
  • Grains are good. Why did I have a personal issue with quinoa? Quinoa, I apologize. You are easy to cook, beautiful to look at, and indeed nutritious. I’m sorry.
  • Local, organic, green, grass-fed, etc. Coincidentally, during this challenge we viewed the movie Food, Inc. As a chef, I’m quite familiar with slaughterhouses and the fact that we eat dead animals. And the fact that we kill them. But it’s so easy for food, in turn, to harm us. Maybe because I'm a new father, I couldn’t bare to watch the story unfold of the deadly E. coli 0157:H7 and the lives it took, especially the young ones. I have since made even more of an effort to provide grass-fed beef at my restaurant and to make sure that we're cooking everything to health code specifications regarding temperature.
  • I’m not addicted to diet carbonated beverages anymore. I didn’t realize I was, but it was the only item I truly craved and missed for a few days. Once the experiment was over, I found myself at Dodger Stadium ordering a diet soda, and the taste was cloyingly sweet. Even the carbonation didn’t help to make it refreshing. I could feel my teeth decaying. And for the first time, I felt like I was tasting something for what it was. It was a revelation. I still enjoy a sip here and there. But it was an addiction more than a leisurely pleasure.
  • Rediscovering Atlanta’s farmers markets and restaurants. You'll catch me at Morningside on Saturday mornings much more frequently now. And places such as Dynamic Dish, which before were a bit off my personal radar, now offer a comfort that has made us regulars.
  • Creativity. I’ve always prided myself on treating anyone with dietary restrictions as important as everyone else. By walking in those shoes, I have begun specifically crafting items whose goal isn’t to appease a set group but to inspire. We have taught ourselves to create an amazing dish and say, "it happens to be vegan," instead of "here is our vegan dish."
  • While in Los Angeles (an epicenter for this type of eating), it was apparent that most restaurants with the aspiration of cooking healthy, vegetarian or vegan do so at the expense of design almost all of the time, and at the expense of flavor frequently. There are plenty of vegetable-friendly casual eateries, where you can chow on quinoa burritos while the incense burns and Bob Marley wails. But why can’t a restaurant take shape that is well-designed, fun, flavorful and hospitable ... that also just happens to be vegetable-centric? Suddenly, I have a burning desire to open such a restaurant. ...
  • As the experiment concluded, it revealed a new lifestyle for my family and me. I lost 14 pounds without trying. Well, I should say without sweating it out on a treadmill. I managed to spend more time with my family, and better quality time with my staff and business partners. It made me a more thoughtful person. A conscious eater. A better dad. Husband. Chef.

    Food is indeed powerful.

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