Conscious Cooking: A Chef’s Holistic, Healthy Ideals
By Carol Crenna
Global chef and nutritionist Francois de Jong has interesting views about preparing and eating food.
Francois has had a remarkably varied career: living in Hong Kong, he opened that city’s first organic vegetarian restaurant; living in the Bahamas, he was a chef for the blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean movies; he was chef at a Relais and Chateaux French restaurant in Greenwich, Connecticut; and he worked with acclaimed Canadian chef Michael Noble, and assisted Noble in the prestigious Bocuse d’Or Cuisine Competition in Lyon, France.
Francois now works in Nanaimo, BC as Food Programs Coordinator for Foodshare Society, which educates the community on sustainable, local food. It offers youth agriculture training, classes about preparing nutritious meals and how to connect to local farmers, and teaches the importance of food security and locally grown products.
CAROL: Organic vegetarian food means a lot to you.
Francois: I approach being a chef in a holistic manner, not only knowing how to cook, but knowing where the food comes from: how it’s grown, shipped, marketed, prepared, served, eaten. I feel there is a direct relationship between every aspect from the lady bug on the plant to the potter who made the bowl you eat from to the nourishment it gives your body.
I’ve become very interested in leading an “integral” life, following Ken Wilber’s writings. He put forth the idea of “four quadrant living” with a conscious respect for all things.
They include physical, (which is nourished by our thoughts and the food we eat), the exterior collective (that provides everything including the food), the interior collective, (values and world views), and the interior individual (where our thoughts manifest from and are turned into action).
When you consciously layer all quadrants in every part of life: family, friends, a spiritual practice, community, the environment, and care of the body, you have a full life on all levels. This approach gives me a clear view of how everything is connected.
By being conscious of this, I will not only improve my individual health of mind, body and soul, but I am confident that I can also play a role in changing views of all that I am in contact with by leading and modeling an integral life.
CAROL: How do you do this as a conscious chef?
Francois: By circumventing agricultural technologies, modern food processing practices and the fast food culture, and embracing the simplicity of the past. I’m learning about natural farming in a time when there was a direct connection between people, their land, their spirituality and their food.
CAROL: How did you apply this when you opened a restaurant (both in Hong Kong and in BC, Canada)?
Francois: It compelled me to take a closer look at relationships: I considered not only the food but everyone connected to it. How about the cook orchestrating the meal? Has she been working a 13-hour shift in a heated kitchen and under extreme pressure, or does she have the time to consciously put her love and energy into creating the food?
I considered how I managed staff, and instigated an equal profit sharing program so that when I got a bonus, because costs decreased and more customers came, everyone benefited. The extra income allowed staff to take courses or help their families to improve their lives.
Continuing down the staff line, the server is just as important; their dialogue can inform, enlighten and set the customer’s mood.
Then there’s the consumer. Have they physically, mentally and spiritually prepared themselves for the nourishment? Eating on the run may fill our bellies, but is it enough to fill our souls? Digestion and absorption aren’t words that we often associate with a social dining experience, yet they are keys to feeling truly satisfied by a meal.
Francois: Disney built a massive tank for the set, cutting a square section of the island out where the shoreline used to be, so they could have more control over the ships for filming (although many of the actors have still got seasick while on board). We were stationed nearby on land on a set much larger than most, with 550 cast and crew. The boat where Johnny Depp lived was moored just below me.
Filming took a year on one of the largest productions ever made. At one point, we hadn’t had a day off in almost three weeks, and I was working 18 to 20 hours a day because the kitchen staff had to feed two units filming day and night. We served dinners as late as 10:00 p.m. and breakfasts as early as 3:00 a.m.
It was inspiring, though, since everyone was away from home, excited to be working on the project, and were so appreciative of the food, which was important to keep them going.
CAROL: Were the stars of the movie healthy eaters?
Although it was not like working in a five star restaurant, the quality of the food was very high. Everything had to be imported. We offered a full gourmet buffet with organic chicken, organic eggs, wild fish, quality meat and vegetarian entrées every day. There was a full salad bar with every type of fruit and vegetable imaginable. But since people also craved it, there were lots of white flour baking, desserts and processed packaged foods, too. They made the choice how healthy they ate.
CAROL: You have worked at several fine dining restaurants. Do you consider the food really healthy?
Francois: They offer the highest quality ingredients you can buy, but choosing how healthily they are prepared is almost completely up to the customer. It’s about gaining the knowledge to become mindful about what you put into your body, and making an effort to know what is in the menu item before ordering. Asking for sauces on the side or having fish poached instead of fried are easy.
I loved it at restaurants when there was a special request because I got a chance to show my skill and flexibility; I enjoyed the challenge, and often the customer was more appreciative.
Francois: Organics is a very new concept there. I interacted with customers for feedback and also visited the farmers and importers to explain what I needed, having the opportunity to learn the entire cycle of a product. But we were starting from scratch so it was very difficult.
It’s one thing to open a restaurant, but having to source farmers and importers for every ingredient, and for them to understand the quantities we would need, was a real challenge. And I don’t speak Cantonese, Mandarin or Nepalese (the nationality of most of the staff).
I had to find the time, since I was involved in every aspect including kitchen design, hiring, training and managing staff, creating all vegetarian and vegan recipes and menus, food costing, and, of course, cooking.
CAROL: Were you successful?
Francois: We managed to make the restaurant completely organic, though farmers had only been selling organics for home deliveries before that. We found organic blue corn and ground it ourselves to make polenta; we found people in rural China who picked wild mushrooms, and found wild honey.
We used spelt flour and quinoa since the restaurant was almost entirely wheat-free, and had a variety of organic beans for vegan dishes.
It really took off, and another vegetarian organic restaurant opened within a year, run entirely by Buddhists who volunteered as a service to their faith. By year end, we had the restaurant, deli, retail products and special event catering.
We marketed the concept very differently there than in the West. In Hong Kong, people are most concerned that they are buying the best that they can get, whether it’s designer clothes or a top of the line car. We educated them by saying that this food is the premium product, and this was so because it is organic, rather than selling the healthy organic aspect.
The customers came in understanding what they wanted and why they had chosen to come there. They wanted to discuss the wheat-free and sugar-free items, and what was and wasn’t working for their bodies.
Article written by Carol Crenna originally featured in VISTA Magazine