'Weird' chef teaches what it means to eat healthy (just don't ask about cholesterol)
What can you possibly learn about food from a former Wall Street trader? Plenty, if you're talking about New York's Rob Endelman.
Tue, Jan 12, 2010 at 10:53 AM
GARLIC HARVEST: Rob Endelman didn't always have a green thumb. Before joining a farm co-op, "I had never put a seed in the ground." Now, if it's in season, he probably has it. (Photos courtesy Rob Endelman)
It is a sweltering evening in New York City and chef Rob Endelman's hands are full of groceries. Despite the heat, Endelman gives off a healthy, post-workout glow unlike the rest of the city's residents, who've been slogging through the late summer humidity. On the nose of seven, he raps on the door of an uptown apartment belonging to his latest clients: a couple who have enlisted his help to cook healthful food for themselves and their young daughter.
Stepping into the modern yet small kitchen (hey, this is New York), Endelman gets to work. "Quinoa is the mother grain," he says while unpacking the ingredients for the night's lesson, which includes an assortment of grains, beets, chicken, halibut and grass-fed beef. "It contains all the essential amino acids."
A Wall Street trader turned chef, Endelman is the founder of Cook With Class, which offers private and group cooking lessons that emphasize healthy eating. An avid fan of farmers markets, Endelman is known to arrive on his mountain bike, with one hand on the handlebars and another gripping a reusable grocery bag. "It can get a little dicey," he admits.
On this particular night, Endelman is on foot and before long, his blue-checked shirtsleeves are rolled up and chicken seasoned with salt, pepper and olive oil is sautéing on the stovetop. Wrapped in a white apron, Endelman chats easily with his pupils — Salil and Jenny — who pepper him with questions about the right oven temperature for roasting, the appropriateness of using a microwave, and how to improve the taste of leftover chicken. "By the way, is olive oil the healthiest?" asks Salil, also wearing an apron, as he peers into gleaming All-Clad cookware that has started to emit mouth-watering smells. "Coconut oil," Endelman says.
As the sun dips below the horizon, Endelman repeats a mantra for the evening. Don't take my word for it, he says, as he prepares one dish and then another. "Read the ingredients," he says. "Why would you eat something you can't pronounce?" He moves quickly in the galley kitchen, maintaining the athletic pose of a fencer as he stands, tongs in hand, over a sizzling pan.
Salil reflects on wanting to cook healthier since Jenny gave birth to their daughter. "Having a kid makes you think about some of those things," he says, describing how they've taken pains to avoid feeding their daughter overly processed foods or chicken and beef with antibiotics and hormones. "Then you're like, 'Why am I eating it?'" he says.
Ever ready with a healthful tip, Endelman chimes in: "The antibiotics don't stop at the slaughterhouse door," he says, rolling his eyes. "It’s so bad for us." A word Endelman won’t utter is "organic," which he brushes off as a "catch phrase" for the real villains: pesticides, herbicides, hormones, colorants and other toxins.
"We don’t have any food education in this country and that's unfortunate," Endelman says. "We have sex education in schools; why don't we have food education?"
Early lessons in nutrition
"Food has always been important," Endelman tells me a few days later when I ask how and when his healthy food kick began. Some people eat because they have to, he says, but he recalls trekking from Long Island to New York City's Chinatown as a child to sample new and exotic flavors.
Endelman says growing up, his mother tuned in to a nutrition call-in show hosted by Dr. Carlton Fredericks, whose show Design for Living urged listeners to supplement processed foods with vitamins and minerals. "My mom sort of took that to heart," he remembers. "She progressed over the years to cooking healthier."
After graduating from Columbia University in 1991 with a bachelor's in political science, Endelman spent two summers in Europe where he broadened his palate. "Everywhere I went, I just tried to eat the local foods," he says. "I remember eating tripe in Normandy because that was a regional specialty and eating in Galacia, just eating a ton of octopus, pulpo a la ferio, a very traditional dish."
Settling into a job at Merrill Lynch, he toiled as a senior equity trader for more than a decade. But in 2003, he knew he needed to do something else, he says. He enrolled in the Institute of Culinary Education and quit his day job a year later. Later, he worked at the four-star restaurant Jean George, and did a stint with Tom Valenti at 'Cesca. During the summer of 2004, he read an article in the New York Times about chefs who offered lessons in people’s homes. "So I decided to give it a try," he says.
Five years later, Endelman's private and group lessons focus on the nutritional component of cooking, or as he sometimes says, the "common sense of what we eat." In short, he says, he aspires to open people's eyes to help them live, eat and feel better.
'The Delicious Truth'
On top of the lessons, Endelman's blog — aptly titled The Delicious Truth — is a repository of recipes and food tips. Launched last year, it's also a clearinghouse for anecdotes from his life in Manhattan, such as a recently spied and seriously misguided advertisement for the snack food, Hot Pockets. In a recent blog post, Endelman bemoans a poster depicting a woman playing tennis while holding what appears to be a cheese-filled pastry. The slogan at the bottom reads, "Winners eat on the go. Losers stay put."
But the tag line causes Endelman to recoil: "This ad campaign is utterly asinine. It attempts to make eating heavily processed food on the go cool, while stereotyping eating at a table as something only blue-hairs do," he writes.
According to Endelman, there's a lot of incorrect information out there based on marketing and little else. A bacon double cheeseburger can be healthful depending on the genesis of the bun, cheese, bacon and ground beef, he says.
"I weigh 146 and I eat a ton of saturated fat," the 5-foot-11 chef says. "I have no idea what my cholesterol level is, it's just not important to me, because instead of worrying about calories and fat and other things, I try to counsel that people should eat real food."
In addition to the toxic hormones, antibiotics, and other synthetic additives that Endelman avoids, farmed fish and corn-fed beef are on a list of no-nos. "That’s my mantra: Just try to avoid those," he says. He points to a recent New York Times Magazine article by the food writer Michael Pollan that bemoaned the demise of cooking in the face of the Food Network's popularity. "Everyone's telling you to eat healthy, but what does that mean?" Endelman says. "These are the issues they don't talk about on the Food Network."
Michael Pollan: 'Like a god'
"What should we have for dinner?" is the question Pollan asks at the outset of his 2006 bestseller The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. The book, which traces the origins of foodstuff in America, focuses on processed foods and in particular, one utterly inescapable ingredient: corn.
Along with scores of foodies and other readers who gobbled up Pollan’s words, Endelman read The Omnivore’s Dilemma two years ago and says it changed his perspective on food. "That was the book that just set me going," he says one afternoon after his lesson with Salil and Jenny. "I read everything he writes. He's like a god."
Indeed, Pollan won the James Beard Award for the book, which serves as a guide to what's wrong with how Americans eat. "The cornucopia of the American supermarket has thrown us back on a bewildering food landscape where we once again have to worry that some of those tasty-looking morsels might kill us," Pollan writes in the introduction. Technology, he argues, maximizes crop efficiency but conflicts with nature's way of doing things. "Many of the problems of health and nutrition we face today trace back to things that happen on the farm, and behind those things stand specific government policies few of us know anything about."
'People think I'm weird'
Indeed, after Endelman read those words, he says, he "really became aware of the toxins that are out there." (His library also includes the 1930s book, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, and Randall Fitzgerald's The Hundred Year Lie, about how food and medicine affect health.)
These days, he is vigilant about what he puts into his body. "No, I don’t eat all organic vegetables. Sometimes it's just not practical. I'm not going to buy an organic red pepper for $4. That's crazy."
"People think I'm weird," he says. "The way I think about it, the people who eat packaged food, I think that's weird."
If Endelman's food mantra is like a religion, one convert is his wife, Liz Bazini. "I thought I ate pretty well because I would eat brown rice instead of white rice," she says. Although it took a few months, Bazini now says her body feels the difference if she ingests unhealthy food. "I'll say, 'Give it a rest,' but he's not wrong," she says. "People think it's harder than it is," says Bazini, who used to stick to grilled chicken on salad as a default, healthy meal. "Now, it doesn't even matter to me because the range of what I'm eating is so broad and delicious."
To be sure, her praise reflects a tenet of the couple's lifestyle: eating food items that are in season. In 2004, just as Endelman was jump-starting his foray into nutrition, he joined a farm cooperative on Long Island. "I had never put a seed in the ground," he recalls of his first patch at the East End Community Organic Farm. Each summer, Endelman grows an assortment of leafy greens, root vegetables, summer squashes and other things like tomatoes, peas, carrots and watermelon. He also composts on the farm.
'You know, I'm not living in a monastery'
Although he doesn't eat his own produce exclusively, Endelman sticks to what's fresh. "Cherries are finishing up," he tells me in mid-August, pledging not to eat them again for 10 months. On the other hand, peaches would soon be in season and he'd eat that for the next month.
Curious by nature, he learned his agrarian techniques from other farmers at the cooperative and figured out a lot on his own. "I remember that first summer I did it, the seed packet said, 'Plant one seed every half inch.' Literally, I was there with a ruler. I'm not kidding," he says, laughing. "Now, I just clear some soil, throw some seeds in, and the stuff grows," he says. "It's given me an appreciation for food in general."
For Endelman and Bazini, eating what's in season is also a way of optimizing something many think is missing from healthy eating: flavor. "You know, I'm not living in a monastery," Endelman says. "I love flavor." There's nothing like a good burger made with grass-fed beef and sautéed with onions and served with tomato jam, he opines. He waxes poetic about one of his favorite dishes, a cherry tomato-mozzarella-basil salad. "If you want to get crazier, sauté a good piece of country bread and put the salad on the bread. The bread soaks up all the cheese," he says, finishing off the description with "mmmm."
For the urban cook, Endelman assures me that cooking healthy is "easier than you'd think." He describes his home kitchen as "just a regular galley kitchen" on the Upper West Side. "You don't need a big kitchen to be able to cook well, though obviously it helps," he says.
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