Mar. 29, 2012Vol. 42, Issue 5

Chef Visits Chico

Two Entrées: Laura Stec Talks About Good Food and Good Health

Discovering the Joy in Healthy Food

Laura Stec ended her keynote speech at the This Way to Sustainability Conference VII wielding a knife. She showed a rapt audience in the BMU Auditorium how to peel garlic with a confident blow of a blade turned sideways. She demonstrated how to reduce an onion to small cubes, quickly, with fingers tucked into a neat claw. She shared a recipe for simple vinaigrette and explained how to amp up a meal’s flavor with spice blends.

Stec is a long-time chef and culinary advocate who has been teaching about the link between food and the environment since the 1980s, before Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, and Alice Waters became household names. She is the corporate chef for Pescadero Foods, Inc. and culinary health educator for Kaiser Permanente. In 1988, she founded EcoEaters, one of the first food and environment programs in the United States. She co-authored Cool Cuisine: Taking the Bite Out of Global Warming with atmospheric scientist Eugene Cordero (Gibbs Smith, 2008).

On stage March 2, she was a whirl of energy, visibly passionate about the importance of food and cooking. She made preparing a healthy meal look dead simple—and delicious. And her enthusiasm was contagious. The audience watched her cutting tutorial closely, wrote notes, and lined up to get a look at her “condiment plate” demonstration.

Did they go home to make their own meals? Stec hopes so. She is convinced that home cooking of the right foods will change the world.

“We need to feed mind, body, and spirit,” she said. “If feeding our stomachs were enough, we’d certainly be full by now!”

Stec advocated knowing the story behind our food—knowing about farmers and soil and how agriculture affects the environment. Knowing these stories, she said, feeds our minds and spirits and connects us back to the planet, enabling us to align our meals with our values. “We are eating the planet alive, so we want to be conscious of our choices.”

Stec talked in length about the environmental and health impacts of our food choices. She has dubbed the standard American diet the “global warming diet” and bemoaned the fact that half of what we eat today is refined grains, sugar, and fat.

But the best way to change our unhealthy patterns of eating is to bring joy into our food, she said, adding, “Don’t tell people what not to eat. Tell them what to eat.” This includes a plate half full of fruits and veggies along with good fats, whole grains, and high-quality meats.

“Taste and pleasure is the ultimate motivation,” she added, offering tips on how to boost both: Buy organic vegetables and caramelize them at 350 degrees or hotter—because vegetables grown with lots of fertilizer taste waterlogged, as do steamed veggies, and eating them becomes a dreaded chore. Eat grassfed beef—grazing brings an element of terrior to the meat, a distinct local flavor Stec described as “marinade.” She recommended doing taste tests of basic ingredients like salt and olive oil because it’s impossible to build a tasty meal on a tasteless foundation.

“We are hardwired for habit,” said Stec, adding that the best way to break out of our habits is to discover the joy in great-tasting, healthy food.

—Anna Harris, Public Affairs and Publications

A Glass of Wine with Laura Stec

Laura Stec portraitWe met at Johnnie’s to share a glass of wine and trace the path from a child’s dinner party to a career as an eco-chef. She ordered white zinfandel, which delighted me, as I love it but have been told is not a genuine wine. She disabused me of that notion, saying that what we prefer in food and drink and what gives us pleasure is our very own and not subject to gourmet ideas of what is in vogue or what is cool. Although her book, Cool Cuisine: Taking the Bite out of Global Warming, does define what is cool to her: food that is healthy for both humans and the planet and food that feeds the soul as well as the body.

Stec remembers her parents returning home from exotic places with spices and foods. She would take these things and create themed dinner parties for her family, with ethnic foods and colorful souvenirs on the table. It gave her a pleasure that has carried through to this day and has seasoned her own thoughts about the role of sharing food as both celebration and nutrition.

A peace walk from Mexico to Canada through California and Oregon in her early 20s brought her an introduction to food as a calling and cooking as service to humanity. The trek was pivotal in shifting her ideas about vocation from the telecommunication industry to pursuing a career in food. A friend of Laura's said to her once, "Laura, you may not want to mother children in this lifetime, but you will mother the planet"—a comment she took to heart and has fulfilled through cooking and teaching about the ecology of food.

After the trek, she returned to a macrobiotic kitchen in Arcata, where she apprenticed at the side of a master macrobiotic cook. She observed what she calls “grace in the kitchen.” The macrobiotic approach treats the arrangement of the kitchen and the preparation of the food as being every bit as important as the meal itself. And the food—strange and exotic to her in the beginning—was revered in a way she hadn’t experienced before. It also left her feeling “satisfied and level.”

Early in her career, while she was still in Arcata, she was at the center of a group that shared meals based on cooking delicious food with the best local and organic ingredients. Later, when she moved to the Bay Area, she organized another group, EEAT, or “Environmental Eating Action Team.” Like-minded foodies gathered to share “decadent dinners,” while practicing an ecological and informed approach to the production, marketing, preparation, and consumption of food.

Her next stop was Vega, a macrobiotic center in Oroville (no longer in existence), which introduced her to Butte County and its abundant supply of local food. She went on to the School of Natural Cooking in Boulder, Colorado, and then the Culinary Institute of America in San Francisco.

We finished our wine and moved on to Lentemente Due, a Slow Food event that was the result of collaboration between Slow Food Shasta Cascade and the 1078 Gallery. There, she had spirited conversations with local chefs, marveled at food art created by local artists, and sold and signed her book, donating the profits to Slow Food Shasta Cascade. She enjoyed it all with gusto—all of life, it seems, to Laura Stec, is like a fine meal: filled with flavor and tang and deep satisfaction.

—Kathleen McPartland, Public Affairs and Publications