July 19, 2010
Interview: Chef AJ
Today's inspirational interviewee came by popular request. As a raw food chef who beat colon cancer, Chef Aj is sure to inspire us all to eat a bit healthier than we already do!
HH: First, the million dollar question. How long have you been vegan and what made you go vegan?
In September it will be 33 years. I would have done it sooner but my mom wouldn't let me go vegan until I left home. It started when a vegetarian friend of mine said, "if you love your dog so much, how can you eat other animals?" I never forgot that. Why was I choosing some animals as food but others as friends?
HH: For those who are unfamiliar with your work, tell us a little more about yourself professionally.
I am currently the Executive Vegan Pastry Chef at Sante restaurant and a consulting chef at Exsalus Health & Wellness Center in Los Angeles, but I have been teaching cooking classes and working as a chef for the past ten years.
HH: happyherbivore.com is committed to a naturally low-fat diet with absolutely no use of oil. You also abstain from oil in your cooking, what motivated this practice?
In 2007 I watched a DVD with Dr. Caldwell Esselyn (author of Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease). In the video he talks about how even eating a single meal with olive oil injures the epithelial lining [of the stomach and intestines]. I had my "aha moment" and stopped consuming oil and feeding it to others.
HH: Did you notice any changes in your health when you cut out all oil?
My husband and I lost weight immediately. My husband also had a benign tumor the size of a golf ball on his spine that shrunk to the size of a nickel within 7 months of being oil-free. If a diet without oil can do that to a tumor, I wonder what it could do for cancer?
HH: Although you are oil-free you are not fat-free. Tell us a little about that.
I promote absolutely NO OIL especially coconut oil which is 92% saturated fat (more saturated fat than in meat!). However, I do eat and encourage whole food fats like raw, unsalted nuts, seeds and avocados -- but I've also been a huge fan of Dr. John McDougall since the 80's. As he says, "the fat you eat is the fat you wear."
HH: So many chefs, vegan or otherwise, are very oil-heavy with their cooking. It's also a staple for many home cooks. Why do you think that is?
Most people are addicted to oil. Oil has a mouth feel they crave. Oil also makes food literally slide down your throat so you can eat more of it. People have also been indoctrinated that they need oil (just like they think they need milk or meat). Data from the Mediterranean Study has been misinterpreted and people are led believe oil is "heart-healthy."
HH: As you pointed out, many people are led to believe olive oil has unique healthy benefits. How do you combat this misinformation?
Even if you believe there is something magically beneficial you get from eating olive oil, there is nothing you can't also get from eating an olive. Oils are highly processed foods. They contain lots of empty calories and virtually no fiber, vitamins, minearls, antioxidants, phytochemicals or micronutrients. Eat olives and skip the olive oil, capish?
HH: Your speciality is raw food. Many raw foodists and raw recipes follow a high-fat diet. Why is that?
If someone is 100% raw it is very difficult to consume enough calories if they shun all fats, grains, starches and legumes. The average adult needs 2,000 calories per day. Green vegetables have only 100 calories PER POUND. Most people don't have the time to chew 20lbs of vegetables each day.
As a result, most raw foodists get their calories from what I call raw designer foods: coconut oil, olive oil, dried fruits and nuts. They don't eat enough fruits or vegetables to hit 2,000 calories and since they won't eat grains, starches or legumes they get their calories from fat.
HH: Do you follow a raw diet?
I was 100% raw for 2 years but I did not thrive. Now I think it's far healthier to eat some cooked beans and a sweet potato then get calories from oil and agave. Just because a food is raw does not mean it's superior or inherently healthy. Just think about all the varieties of mushrooms that are poisonous.
HH: You also abstain from flour, sugar and salt in your cooking. Tell us more about that.
I call sugar, oil and salt the "evil trinity" because that's basically what all processed food is made up of. If you look at what the acronym would be for these items, it would be S.O.S. which means help... and you'll need help from the medical profession if you continue to consume the majority of your calories from these sources!
HH: Why do people have a hard time giving up processed foods, especially oil?
Your brain chemistry becomes addicted. The more sugar, oil and salt you eat, the more you crave it. Most people can't break the addiction until they give up all three. For more information read The End of Overeating by Dr. David Kessler, The Pleasure Trap by Drs. Goldhammer and Lisle or Breaking the Food Seduction by Dr. Neal Barnard.
HH: You've had your own personal experience with how processed foods are bad for the body. Tell us about that.
Even though I went vegan for ethical reasons in 1977, it didn't prevent me from getting colon cancer from eating vegan crap like white sugar and white flour.
HH: Lastly, a lot of people view veganism as a lifestyle and not just a diet or dietary choice. When you're working with others and promoting the benefits of a plant-based diet, what do you tell them about veganism?
I never say the word vegan. People often see that as almost a religious term and I want to include, not exclude. I look at veganism as a three-legged stool. People come to this way of eating because they care about their health, animal suffering or the environment. I don't think it matters what brought you there first because as you start eating plant-based, you start caring about the other aspects.
Most of the people I work with are not vegan and most of the vegans I know don't seem to be interested in improving their own health. Especially not now that they invented Daiya cheese! ;-D but if Mike Tyson could become vegan, anything is possible right?!
HH: Thanks so much for sharing so much information with us Chef AJ! Where can we learn more?
You can friend me on Facebook or visit my website: www.chefajshealthykitchen.com