Chef Marcus Samuelsson and Arianna Huffington cross paths on eliminating stress and obesity

TAMPA

On the face of it, Greek-born author and syndicated columnist Arianna Huffington might have little to chat about with Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised chef Marcus Samuelsson. But halfway through the Republican National Convention the two sat down in the Huffington Post's Oasis, a zen-like retreat temporarily erected in Aja Channelside. While credentialed convention-goers availed themselves of yoga sessions, massage and time spent in the EnergyPod (don't ask), Huffington and Samuelsson got down to it.

They wanted to figure out ways to reduce stress and restore balance and everyday euphoria in our lives. For Huffington, this meant exhorting people to relax, get enough sleep, even meditate. Samuelsson, on the other hand, saw the answer, unsurprisingly, in food.

"We have to start looking at eating and cooking with a different lens. It's about getting food as a higher priority in the conversation. It's about eating with a spiritual compass."

Esoteric stuff, but the celebrity chef who got his start at New York City's Aquavit and went on to nab three stars from the New York Times and a "best chef" award from the James Beard Foundation, has a plan. And statistics:

• "Seven percent of American kids were obese in 1980, now that's 20 percent."

• "The cost of obesity is $150 billion a year."

• "We throw away 33 percent of the food we buy."

• "Only 6 percent of us eat enough vegetables."

In jeans rolled just so, a rumpled red and blue plaid shirt and chunky hipster loafers, Samuelsson tossed out his working theory on just why this last one might be the case.

"I think it's because we don't know how to prepare them."

Yes, Chef (that's the name of his new memoir, published at the end of June), but what do we do about it?

Meal times and sleep

The 42-year-old dynamo is a busy man. In addition to penning the recent memoir as well as four cookbooks, he owns Red Rooster Harlem in New York and five other restaurants, he won the Bravo's Top Chef Masters series in 2010, he started a line of cookware for Macy's and in general has turned his name into a hot culinary brand.

But he still has time to think about how we could make better choices about the food we eat.

We need to stop making a distinction between healthy food and tasty food, he says. We should do away with corn subsidies (although healthy food subsidies seem like a good idea to him). Portion sizes need to shrink and we need to find new sources of protein.

He thinks we need to expend efforts to stamp out food deserts, citing things like the use of DJs at the farmers market in Harlem to entice more people because, "you have to meet people where they're at."

So far, this sounds like the broad prescriptions many chefs have espoused. But then things get interesting.

"Immigrants are a key here. Snacks were a meal period I wasn't raised with," he says, referring to his own childhood in Gothenburg, Sweden. He sees Americans' propensity to eat between meals as a serious problem. In addition, he points to problems with when we eat what we eat.

"Our clocks have changed. Now breakfast is a small meal, and then at night we eat a big steak and a martini, and then go to bed." Historically that formula was inverted, the early part of the day frontloaded with calories to fuel a day's activities.

And this is where Huffington's pet agenda intersects: Eating a big meal late in the day may lead to less restful sleep. And sleep deprivation has in some studies been linked to obesity. With the RNC heatedly outlining the GOP platform just steps away, Huffington and Samuelsson discuss Americans' need to, as the chef insists, "learn to make time our ally," as well as just where the American diet has gone off the rails.

As Samuelsson sees it, "Food is an American issue, not just a Democrat or Republican issue. My point is, I don't know a lot about politics, I know a lot about food. And it's patriotic to ask questions."

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293.

Chef Marcus Samuelsson and Arianna Huffington cross paths on eliminating stress and obesity 09/18/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 18, 2012 2:23pm]

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