As a professional chef, I’m always thinking about food: Sourcing ingredients, tasting flavors, and getting creative with new dishes. But chefs are so busy feeding others that they often forget to feed themselves. When I was working long hours, a lot of my food was snacking on the go. I was basically not taking care of myself, and that was dangerous. Until I started to overhaul my sleep, I wasn’t thinking about how food plays a role in my overall wellbeing.
Learning to eat to help my sleep
There are foods that are said to promote sleep, but I can’t have them. I know my body, and have to be super mindful of genetics. I can’t do dairy because I’m lactose intolerant — I love cheese, but if I have it, I’ll cough throughout the night, which inhibits restful sleep. Nuts are promoted as a healthy snack and being good for sleep, but certain nuts don’t agree with my genetic make-up. If I do have nuts, it’s well before sundown. I don’t eat after sundown; if I’m hungry I’ll have a light snack, but nothing that will interfere with my sleep. I avoid teas with caffeine; I have chamomile tea, or I make my own turmeric tea using fresh turmeric.
I’ve also educated myself on what foods work for me based on my health goals. With my genetics, I have a history of high blood pressure and diabetes. Before I had a hysterectomy, I had an overactive thyroid. I had a hernia, anemia, low iron count… so I’ve had to be very intentional with what I put into my body to turn those things around. I grew up eating Cuban, Jamaican, and soul food — very rich and heavy food. Now, I might treat myself to a good soul food plate, but I have to think outside the box that I’ve been nurtured in and make good choices based on what my body needs.
I’ve also dialed in to how my body’s dietary needs are changing with age. I’ve got a big birthday this year — I’m turning 50 — so I’ve learned to tune in to my body and listen. I think having down time during the pandemic helped me make that shift. Working at the café, I used to be so annoyed with gluten-free and vegan people. I’d think ‘just eat the food!’ But I realized that gluten is not good for me; my body was responding to it all wrong. Now, my consumption of gluten is very minimal — I love granola, but I’ve had to switch to oat-free. I used to hate smoothies because you can’t chew them. But during the pandemic I started getting into them and using ingredients that promote good rest like chia and hemp seeds. I like avocado sprinkled with hemp seeds and great olive oil, too.
I’ve also started eating more plant-based, and playing with recipes, like a vegan tuna salad made from chickpeas. I eat a lot of salad, but I make my own dressing. I never buy processed dressings; it’s so easy to make your own! You can make a dressing with Dijon mustard or use jam instead of honey to give it a little sweetness.
I used to prefer savory, but one of the things that changed drastically for me is that I eat more fruit. I love grapes, watermelon, cantaloupe, papaya, even oranges and mangos. I’m from Florida where oranges and mangos grow in everyone’s yard, so it was hard to make the transition to paying for them! But I look at it as ‘you have to pay for it to take care of your body.’ I love putting the papaya seeds on a salad.
Of course, there are things that I crave and really want. But I’ve always had an ‘everything in moderation’ mindset. I love potato chips, but those are heavy, so if I treat myself, it’s a palmful, not the whole bag. There are these dark russet potato chips from Trader Joe’s with the perfect amount of salt on them — they’re so crave-able. I like popcorn as a snack but I’m intentional about my sodium consumption. So instead of salt, I sprinkle something else on it for umami, like porcini powder, fresh herbs, or if I’m cheating, gratings of Parmesan.
When I cook for friends, I make comforting dishes, but I keep it simple. Not long ago I made a salt-encrusted whole fish, which is incredibly flavorful. Depending on the flavor you want, you stuff the fish with lemons and caper berries, or lemongrass and makrut lime leaves. I serve it with a light dressing or sauce. My family and friends are always impressed by my homemade sauces, like chimichurri, made with parsley, cilantro, garlic, and mint, which adds freshness, or a harissa pepper sauce. Sometimes I make a CBD oil or an infused cannabis oil, especially if I’m using it for pain management. You can put it on eggs in the morning, in your grits, or drizzle it over fish.
Eating well depends on quality ingredients
Another thing I’m very intentional about is where I get my ingredients. When I go to the market, I want to know where my food comes from because the hands that handle it matter. Who raised this salmon? Who fished for it? But I don’t want to come off as preachy. I find that people, even in my family, have this idea about how economics come into play when we talk about taking care of ourselves.
Before we opened the first cannabis café, I was homeless. I was sleeping in my car in Koreatown, but I’d wake up Wednesday morning to drive to Santa Monica to get fresh, organic greens at the farmers’ market and pay with EBT (food stamps). I would get salad in a bag and season it with kosher salt, good olive oil, and balsamic vinegar. You have to be very intentional and care about your body enough to maybe spend an extra 20 or 50 cents for organic. Now I’ve started going back to those farmers to use their products in my café. It’s come full-circle. There’s a synergy between how I source at the restaurant and how I source at home.
I lead by example at work
My approach to eating at work has become more synergistic, too. I’ve made it a priority for my staff to sit down together for family meal, where we take turns preparing a communal meal before service. As a restaurateur, I know firsthand that if someone doesn’t take care of themselves, it translates into their work. They’re lackadaisical, they’re not cutting carrots properly, or they’re using too much mayo, or over salting a dish.
I want my employees take care of themselves, so it starts with me. I want to take care of them, then they take care of themselves, then they take care of the client, and the client comes back. What could be more nourishing than breaking bread together?
I also love that family meal allows staff to express their creativity or their culture. It gives me different alternatives to mind my health and challenge the norm — and it tests my talent. I love making shakshuka for family meal because it’s completely not of my culture. Shakshuka is a baked egg dish with a tomato base, onions, garlic, paprika, and different seasonings; I might add a twist and do it with short ribs, lamb, or goat meat. Or if I make paella, I make it with organic black rice instead of white rice — it’s nuttier and earthier. I love that family meal makes you intentional about what you’re putting on the plate. It says, ‘This meal is from my heart to you.’