Community is an important focus at Mindful Life Weight Loss. To that end, we love to connect with like-minded people in the community who share our goal of improving health. I am honored to have had the opportunity to interview Chef Leslie Woodward of Edenesque, local whole foods chef and entrepreneur. Here is our discussion, where we touch upon the topics of living your passion, mindful cooking, whole foods, local foods, food addiction, and more. This dialogue was an inspiring experience for me, and a great opportunity to speak in depth about the current state of the American diet.
KG: Many people who start their own businesses are looking to either solve a problem or to fill a void. What problem were you looking to solve, or what void were you looking to fill when you started your business? What is your mission?
LW: Edenesque started because creating with food is my passion and I cannot imagine doing anything else, and I wanted to have the freedom to be fully self-expressed which is afforded to entrepreneurs. This is my life work and creating Edenesque and nurturing this company is the only thing that I want to do. I got to a point in my culinary career where I lost sight of why I became a chef. My food and creations became flat and lacked vivacity. At that point, I knew it was time for a change and time to take a risk.
There are too few clean food products that are created with integrity and transparency. Many food products claim to be healthy; however, they are filled with preservatives, additives and are highly processed and lack the proper nutrition that our bodies need to thrive. Because we consume many of these food products the ramifications of our consumption is evident with so many Americans suffering from nutritive diseases – type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity, ADHD, stroke and cancer. One way to mitigate this problem is to create clean food products. Clean and delicious food products that maintain and celebrate the integrity of food that people can trust. My mission is to create clean, delicious and nutritious food products using earthly ingredients to support the wellness of my community.
KG: You mention the words “clean foods” which is a popular term these days, and one that I also use. I know people who define “clean eating” as Paleo and others as vegan, and still others who believe in raw foods—all of which are very different diets. For me, and it sounds like for you as well, “clean eating” means eating food as close as possible to the earth, without added chemicals, pesticides, and processing. And I like that you bring integrity and transparency into the definition. I think we consumers have a right to expect that from our food suppliers.
KG: What do you love most about your work?
LW: Cooking has been a form of meditation for me, and during some of the most stressful times in my life the act of cooking has given me the opportunity to be quiet, to decompress, and relax. Moreover, cooking has taught me to be present while giving me the opportunity to be self-expressed and creative – It is my gift to myself and to others.
KG: It is perfect that you mention cooking as a form of meditation. We try to help people bring that meditative aspect into their eating and cooking, but it is so hard in our busy lives. Do you have any advice for our readers to begin to make cooking more of a meditation?
LW: Michael Pollan said it best, if you are chopping onions, just chop the onions. The point is to just focus on the task at hand. While cooking you have to have intense focus because there are too many dangers that arise if you don’t. For instance, you could injure yourself or burn a dish or measure incorrectly.
KG: In my line of work, I see a lot of the damage caused by processed food. The pesticides, added sugar, stripping away of the fiber and nutrients, and the harmful additives…all of these things contribute to poor health and vitality, as well as weight gain. What is your take on this?
LW: This is one of the reasons why I started cooking and why I started Edenesque. In 2003, I became interested in holistic nutrition because I was concerned about the state of health of communities of color – African American, Native American and Hispanic communities. I read a book entitled, The Modern Nutritional Diseases by Alice and Fred Ottoboni, and the cause and effect of diet and health became real for me. This text scientifically discusses the American diet and the changes within the food supply that altered food consumption. By investigating questions about causation and prevention of disease the answers were already there, and unhealthy lifestyles and poor nutrition were the main causes to the health epidemics in America.
It is a troublesome conundrum. It is troublesome because there are many factors to consider and fully understand why people make certain food choices. Those factors include psychological, social, environmental and political and to delve into to each of these categories we will realize that there is a lot to understand about food choice and we as individuals are without full agency.
KG: That is a very good point about there being a lot to understand about food choice. It is far more complex than the public is led to believe. Many think it is as simple as choosing product A over product B. But as you point out, there are psychological, social, environmental, and political factors at work that influence what we choose, what is available for us to choose, and how the processed food itself affects our ability to regulate hunger and satiety.
LW: The solution to many of American’s health epidemics is simple. If we just go back to the basics of eating and eat from the earth many of our health problems could be solved. Notwithstanding, it seems as if we have been conditioned to look at food and nutrition from a place of scarcity, or what we cannot have. This is due to our grocery stores being heavily weighted with products and constant advertisements of these said foods that are made with additives, preservatives, antibiotics, chemicals and hormones that and the whole foods aisles/sections seem small in comparison. Many of these technologically engineered items cause us to over consume and become addicted to these foods that are not nutritionally satisfying, but induces cravings entrapping our palates. Unfortunately, wellness has taken a back seat to capitalism in the food industry and using fillers and low quality food items increase profits. Fortunately, there is a movement in the food industry and food consumption is evolving. Many local artisanal socially conscious food producers are emerging, while, organic and whole foods are commanding space within our grocery stores and people are becoming conscious eaters.
KG: I couldn’t agree more. The issue seems daunting, but I tell people that every choice we make matters, regardless of how small. Every purchase from a farmer’s market or local supplier is an important step in the direction of not only health, but of transforming our food supply for the better.
As someone who deals very intimately with food—procuring ingredients and working with them as a chef—can you share what is different about fresh, natural food vs. processed, mass-produced food?
LW: Taste. When you purchase food from your local farmer and within season the taste is incomparable. When purchasing from our local farmers at our farmers markets we can be secure in knowing that many of the fruits and vegetables were picked within 24 hours of market and those foods are still alive having the most nutritious values. When food travels across the country or from other countries the produce is picked under-ripe which causes it to lose flavor and nutritional density.
Fresh food dances on the palate and your body becomes satisfied and sustained because you are giving your body what it needs: nutrient dense, authentic and alive foods. Moreover, I believe that you give the body what it needs when it needs it. Our bodies adjust to seasonality and nature provides what our bodies need according to our environment. It is all connected. For instance, in the winter time and living in the northeast, due to the cold weather our bodies need insulating foods, therefore, we tend to crave more root vegetables and our cooking methods change to braising and stewing. As we move towards spring, the earth provides other items such as peas and ramps and moving into summer we crave many fruits – we are more active. I believe we are connected to the earth and it will give us what our bodies need and when we eat organically, locally and seasonally. Food not only tastes better, but we feel better.
KG: Very true!
Do you believe food has spiritual qualities? Can you share a little something about your Ayurvedic background?
LW: I do believe that food has spiritual qualities from the standpoint that we are connected to the earth and everything our bodies need the earth has already supplied. Gabriel Cousens, M.D. author of Conscious Eating explains the power and sacredness of eating is “To experience oneself as interwoven with nature leads to receiving our food with more love and gratefulness. If food is eaten with a prayer of gratitude and respect for the life force it bestows and the sacrifice it is making for the survival of the human body, the food will carry the love of this prayer inside.” This appreciation and gratitude of food allows us to become more aware of our connection with nature and have an abundant relationship with food and become intimately connected with the process of how food becomes available for us to consume.
My background is not Ayurvedic per se, it is holistic nutrition and I became familiar with many forms of nutritional approaches. When assisting individuals with personalized menu planning I do in part rely on Ayurveda to help us understand body-mind constitution. I believe that we are eclectic souls and one plan does not fit all. It is important for me to have knowledge of many different nutritional approaches in order to find an approach, whether singular or combined, that would be best to meet and connect to individual needs.
KG: I’m glad you said that “one plan does not fit all.” Every body is different, and what is a healing food for one person, may not be good for another. It is important for us to honor our bodies and their unique needs.
If someone said to you “Why should I buy local?” what would your answer be? How can people start including more local food in their diets?
LW: Not only are you supporting your local farmers to bring the freshest and best foods to the marketplace. With that understanding, you are supporting yourself and building a stronger community and a stronger you. Because we are all connected and energy constantly flows, in some ways our bodies assimilate and consume the energy of how that food was produced and prepared. If we eat meat from a local farmer that has ethical farming practices and has the intent of care/appreciation, we consume that energy and this is one of the reasons why the meat tastes differently. On the other hand if we consume cattle that has been raised with a lack of concern for its well being, when slaughtered that cattle releases hormones which makes it meat take on a different texture and taste. You get so much more from eating foods that are freshly picked and when your farmer has a high consideration and appreciation of food and the earth.
KG: If you could give our readers one sentence of advice regarding weight loss/improved health, what would it be?
LW: If it does not come from the earth, don’t eat it!
KG: Great advice! Thank you so much Chef Leslie for taking the time to have this enlightening dialogue.