Chef John Saxton's take on traditional Southern cuisine might make your granny clutch her pearls. His macaroni and cheese doesn't have one egg in it and his collard greens are cooked with smoked turkey, not salted pork. Saxton, who runs Urban Culinary Cuisine Cafe in New Tampa, is on a mission to prove that traditional soul food can be just as tasty without the side of clogged arteries.
"It's about helping them change their mind-set about food," said Saxton, 55, who runs the restaurant with his wife, Rose. "Food is something good, but if you don't eat healthy, you won't be able to do the things you used to do."
It's a timely message, but for many African-Americans who were raised on food containing high fat and sodium, it's a hard sell.
Heart disease and stroke account for 33 percent of deaths among African-Americans, according to the American Heart Association. And more than 40 percent of black adults have high blood pressure.
Doctors say maintaining a healthy diet is one of the best ways to fight those conditions.
The key is not to deny people of their favorite foods, but to find new ways to prepare those foods, Saxton said.
About a year ago, the chef began taking his "soul food done healthy" message on the road to church groups, health fairs and civic organizations. African-Americans were a target audience.
"We'd serve the kids grilled chicken strips instead of fried ones and they'd say 'Yuck I don't like this,' " said Rose Saxton, 54. "But after a couple bites they'd be back for more."
Bible-Based Fellowship Church of Temple Terrace, a predominately African-American church, was one of their stops.
"A lot of what we do as a people is based on tradition," said Lea Mathis, director of the culinary ministry at the church. "And we associate a lot of social functions around food."
"Chef John," as Saxton is called, prepared a menu of grilled chicken, salad with a tasty dressing and pineapple upside down cake done healthier.
The latter stood out as a crowd favorite.
The event taught Mathis and others, "we can still socialize with foods that are healthier," she said. "It's just hard to break those cycles."
Cooking soul food in healthy ways was the goal when the Saxtons opened the restaurant three years ago.
They coined the cooking style "urban essence." Dishes include grilled catfish smothered with crawfish and capers.
"I realized most of the foods our mothers and grandparents were cooking were actually good for us, but they had cooked all the nutrients out," said Chef John, who earned his degree in health education from the College at Brockport State University of New York before working at New York City's famous five-star Windows on the World restaurant.
The American Heart Association is dedicated to bringing the high rate of stroke and heart disease down among African-Americans, said Hiram Green, an AHA volunteer and director of community engagement at University South Florida Health.
Last week the association launched "Tying the Family Together," a four-week challenge that asks African-American families to walk 30 minutes each day. Chef John provided the food for a recent event launching the campaign at the Nielsen Co. in Oldsmar.
"Food is an important part of reducing these numbers," Green said about the high rate of hypertension among African-Americans.
The menu at the restaurant isn't all healthy. There are fried pork chops and red velvet cake. But Chef John tells his diners to let him know if they have health issues. He can tweak the recipe to suit their needs.
"We want people to walk in and have an experience," he said. "An enjoyable experience that won't kill them."