Meet the chef who cooks food like medicine

Meet the chef who cooks food like medicine

John Gordon cooks for over 2,500 people a day. As executive chef of Los Angeles-based Project Angel Food, a nonprofit that provides meals for people with serious illnesses, the batches of Mongolian beef, sweet and sour tofu and turkey chili verde that leave Gordon’s kitchen are specially designed for diners. nutritional needs. “It’s about food as medicine,” says Gordon. “So whatever category the customer fits comfortably into” – whether they have diabetes, cardiovascular disease, kidney disease or are being treated for cancer – “they receive a meal tailored to adapt to whatever he’s dealing with.”

Gordon’s and Project Angel Food’s efforts are part of a nationwide movement toward medically appropriate meals, or prescribed foods as medical treatment and intervention. For people with chronic conditions, advocates say, a precise balance of nutrients — not to mention services that ensure patients have access to good food — can keep people out of hospital and improve overall health. . For Gordon and the army of volunteers who power the PAF, that means a recipe can be written down, and then cooked, in a number of ways based on specific nutritional guidelines: people with kidney disease are given portions with less protein, for example, while people with diabetes receive meals. that focus on vegetables instead of carbs.

In the latest episode of Gastropod, co-hosts Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley address members of the Food Is Medicine Coalition and other experts who advocate meals as medicine. And read on for Gordon’s perspective on the logistics of bringing prescription dinners to hundreds of people every day. “I find it exciting,” Gordon says. “It’s a puzzle. It’s a challenge every day to say, okay, how can I make this happen? »

Portioned meals at the Project Angel Food kitchen.
Nicholas Twilley

Gastropod: Before the Food Is Medicine Coalition, who were Project Angel Food’s customers and what did the meals look like to them?

John Gordon: When I started, our clients were all HIV and AIDS patients; we made one hot meal a day for each client, seven days a week. Back then, the emphasis was on: getting their weight back, keeping the weight on them and making sure they had something to eat. For various reasons, customers simply did not have access to food. I heard story after story [from clients] where, once it was discovered that they were HIV-positive, people disconnected from them. So at a time when they needed it most [help], they had no one in their corner. And so, here’s Project Angel Food, like, hey, here’s one hot meal a day. Guaranteed. We have you.

When did the organization first become involved in medically appropriate meals?

Over the past five years or so we have turned to food as medicine, which means the recipes have changed. He went from “gain weight, eat, eat, eat” to “if you have diabetes, then these are the things you shouldn’t have, and these are some of the things that are probably best for you. ”

What is the process of creating one of these recipes on your end?

I come up with a recipe and send it to our nutritionist; she will review and make the necessary adjustments so that it is adapted to the categories of our customers. Then we will do the acid test in the kitchen. We are going to cook them all, line them up and taste them. All the chefs on the floor will come down the line, test the taste. Everyone will take notes, write down the pros and cons, likes and dislikes. Generally things tend to be bland, but that’s to be expected. The [challenge] is to give [each recipe] as much flavor as possible without compromising nutritional value.

What do you need to do to make a recipe fit all the different nutrient categories?

When you look at turkey chili, it all looks the same. But each of these five different [batches has] something slightly different about it. If we send in a recipe and they say you can’t use corn, we look for an acceptable substitute that wouldn’t compromise the taste. If we can’t find anything that doesn’t compromise the taste, we’ll try without the corn. Or we will gauge: Are we compromising it too much not to have this particular taste? When it comes to something like turkey, I know the protein itself will never go away. But lots of other things that add all the life to it, taste wise. And you know yes, it’s been stripped, but that’s what this particular client needs.

Do you have any tricks you’ve developed for adding flavor using things that fit medical needs?

With some recipes, yes. If it really loses flavor, I might ask, is it okay if we add a little more thyme, make it dance a little more? And sometimes [the answer is] Yes. Sometimes no, you can’t, for it to be nutritionally what it’s supposed to be.

We wanted to ask a few questions about the economy. Ultimately, food has to fit within a certain budget. So what are you shooting for?

From my side, it’s always from the angle of, what is it going to cost me in protein? Right now, of course, we all know the costs are out of control, and if the protein is way too expensive, then we’ll start dancing. What other proteins can we try? What other ingredients are $1.50 less per pound? Can we switch from beef to chicken, or from pork to fish? You really start to play with the recipes.

When cooking in bulk, you always want to keep that creative edge. I want to make sure the team is involved and stays in tune with their creative side. With this in mind, I always push [them] to keep coming up with ideas: if it’s doable, let’s try. Let’s see what we can do with it.

Has preparing these meals changed the way you eat?

He actually has. Not 100%, because there are some things I’m not ready to give up or change. But it definitely opened my eyes to the realities of what you eat and how it affects you, in so many different ways. For me personally, this prompted me to investigate plant-based foods. My mind is truly blown by the whole plant world and I’m falling deeper and deeper into plant-based cooking.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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