Natural Foods Merchandiser

Chefs spice up Expo West with star power

What could add more sizzle and spice to the thousands of free samples at Natural Products Expo West? How about the culinary skills of a natural foods pioneer, a "Top Chef" veteran and a "lite" Latin lover?

Mollie Katzen, the Moosewood guru who helped revolutionize the way Americans think about healthful vegetarian cooking, will be speaking, and?don't worry?she'll also bring along dishes to taste. Celebrity chef Tre Wilcox, a finalist on Bravo TV's "Top Chef," will be doing cooking demonstrations, along with Laura Diaz-Brown, aka Chef LaLa, author of Latin Lover Lite (Spencer Publications, 2004) and star of her own "U'LaLa" cooking show.

"We're really excited about the chefs we're featuring this year," says Dove Weissman, Expo West program manager. "Mollie Katzen, it goes without saying, is just amazing, a true pioneer in the industry. Chef LaLa, with her focus on healthy Latin cooking, is perfect to highlight the healthy ethnic foods section. Tre's got that celebrity allure. He's an up-and-coming star with a focus on global cuisine."

The lure of vegetables

For more than 30 years, Katzen has been one of the most enticing and powerful forces in getting Americans to eat their vegetables. From the vegetarian bible The Moosewood Cookbook (Ten Speed Press, 1977) to her most recent book, The Vegetable Dishes I Can't Live Without (Hyperion, 2007), Katzen's work has made her one of the best-selling cookbook authors of all time, according to the New York Times. In 2007, she was inducted into the James Beard Cookbook Hall of Fame. Health magazine named her one of "Five Women Who Changed the Way We Eat." She's a charter member of the Harvard School of Public Health Nutrition Roundtable and an inaugural honoree of the Natural Health Hall of Fame. But summing up her contribution to natural cooking with a list of honors is sort of like summing up Bob Dylan's contribution to music by listing album titles.

Katzen will be making a multimedia presentation about real estate. Not the housing crunch, but the crunch of produce. "I'll be addressing the real estate of the plate," she says, "looking at our dinner plates with a whole new sense of balance, getting away from that gigantic hunk of meat or vegetarian entr?e." She says she's on a soapbox?"not about vegetarianism, but about vegetable consumption."

She believes there's a way our plates can look healthier, and she'll show a few examples on a big screen, as well as on platters. "People don't have to give up the things they love; they just need to rearrange?move some stuff over and make room," she says. "I'll show the different sensual and very beautiful vegetable dishes that can be served to get the plate more garden-based."

One of the biggest challenges in getting Americans to eat their vegetables is entrenched in our culture, Katzen says. "In other cultures, like Chinese and Italian, they don't make a distinction between food that's healthy and food that's sensual and delicious," she says. But in our culture, there's a line. "If food is good for you, there's a finger wagging in your face. It's depressing to eat, but you'll be rewarded in the afterlife," Katzen says. On the other hand, food that's not good for you is "delicious, but will make you fat and ugly. God forbid you both enjoy food and have it be good for you." Part of Katzen's mission is to wipe that line from the American psyche like wiping an errant splash of balsamic vinegar off your placemat.

Katzen admits that changing perceptions about vegetables is an uphill battle. "You ask people what they had for dinner last night and they'll answer 'duck' or 'halibut.' But you ask my family and they'll say 'four kinds of vegetables and, oh, yeah, maybe a little leftover fish. I'm not saying, 'Thou shalt not eat meat.' Just that we need a shift."

To do so, Katzen promotes luring people to vegetables. "Don't push," she says. "To get vegetables into people's mouths, you have to draw them in with beauty and aroma." She'll give you a taste of how, both literally and figuratively, at Expo.

The passion of the chef

Tre Wilcox went from the kitchen of renowned Dallas restaurant Abacus to the living rooms of millions of American homes when he made it to the finals of the cooking reality show "Top Chef" in 2007. The 31-year-old self-taught chef worked his way from chopping poultry at Boston Market to chopping through preconceptions about cuisine, like mixing high-end ingredients such as truffles with staple items like potatoes. The spoon, he says, is his paintbrush. And he has an artist's zeal about his work. "Gotta Have Passion" is tattooed down his forearm.

Wilcox recently left Abacus to pursue some opportunities "Top Chef" has brought him, including teaching at festivals and schools across the country. "Teaching's an opportunity for me to show the other side of being a chef," he says. "It helps me articulate why I do what I do."

One of the things he's sure to do with each meal is use natural meat, fish and poultry. "I'm pretty particular about all my proteins being natural," he says. "It's important to me. First, as a chef, I can taste the difference. Secondly, it's always nice to know that what you're putting on a plate is hormone-free."

To Wilcox, cooking's like a drug. Though he's crisscrossing the country teaching and doing demos, "I gotta get some serious cooking in," he says. "I love to cook. It's like, 'C'mon now, I need my fix!' "

Ooh LaLa

Chef LaLa's fix is Latin and low fat. She grew up helping out in her family's Mexican restaurants, but started college on a track to a career in cardiopulmonary therapy. After realizing her true passion was in the kitchen, she switched to Le Cordon Bleu school, though promoting good health was never far from her mind. She lost three grandparents to complications from diabetes. Today, as a chef and certified nutritionist specializing in weight management, she's able to link her love for Latin cuisine to her desire to help people live healthier lives.

"I believe that I can make a difference?maybe even on a national level?by educating people about how to choose food that is actually good for them and tastes great too. That's my mission," she says on her Web site, "I've learned that you have to give people appealing choices for them to be willing to change. They don't want to know what they can't eat; they want to know what they can eat."

LaLa shows audiences what they can eat on her "U'LaLa" show, which has separate versions in Spanish and English. When she's not cooking, producing her show or writing cookbooks (she has three more in the works) she's teaching people that low-fat, nutritious Latin cooking doesn't mean low-flavor, lecturing to all sorts of groups, from Hispanic churches to the American Diabetes Association.

Shara Rutberg is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 2/p. 14

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