Monday September 17, 2012
American chef Koetke's story
By JANE F. RAGAVAN
An American chef on health, his story and the pursuit of happiness.
CHRISTOPHER Koetke suggests we abscond. “Can we take a tour? We’ll just go from one place to another. I can probably escape for a little bit,” he says.
It’s not as scandalous as it sounds. Koetke is talking about breaking off from this interview at Inti International College Subang to go try some Malaysian food.
The American chef had arrived in Kuala Lumpur from Chicago just the day before and had so far eaten a breakfast of roti canai telur at his hotel.
He describes it as “strudel dough with an egg in it, fried on the griddle” and when I tell him what it’s called, he enthuses, “Yeah, yeah. Wow, that’s good!” No wonder he is eager to try more.
But with a hectic week of lectures and workshops ahead at Inti’s campuses in Subang and Kuching, Koetke’s eating spree will have to wait.
And so he returns to the question that prompted the hawker stall-hopping idea: Do you think Malaysian food is healthy?
“I really can’t speak about it yet. I’m not an expert and really don’t want to say.”
Koetke may not know enough about Malaysian food yet to have an opinion, but in the United States, he has long been an outspoken advocate of healthy eating.
“We have a real problem with childhood obesity issues, and that of course is linked to Type 2 diabetes.
“What’s scary about that is when you do the trajectory – what that means to healthcare and the cost to healthcare, and the potentially serious problems later on,” he says.
Chicago’s Kendall College, one of America’s top culinary institutions where Koetke is executive director, works with a number of different initiatives with schools, nutritionists and chef organisations to raise awareness as well as come up with solutions.
Part of the problem, Koetke offers, lies in the huge disconnect most people have with food.
“I really think people don’t know how our food grows and don’t have an understanding of what is really good food,” he says, lamenting the general poor quality of fruit or produce in the United States.
“It may look beautiful, it may store perfectly, but it doesn’t taste good.”
Fruit is now grown out of season to meet year-round demand and so the quality suffers. Koetke says people don’t know what good fruit tastes like because they have not enjoyed good fruit.
“The nutritionist community says you should eat a certain number of fruits every day, and I say, but who wants to?”
Koetke believes another problem relates to how people – children, especially – are educated about food.
He says there are two concepts in food health that are critically important: that we do everything in moderation; and that we love our food.
“That’s a very important message for kids to learn. But I’ve seen a lot of times in school that the approach is a little more dogmatic.”
“In other words, ‘fat is bad’, ‘sugar is to be avoided’, but ‘eat green vegetables’.
“What kid wants to hear that?”
Using French fries as an example, Koetke says that children should be told that these potato snacks are really good, but it’s important to stress that there’s a time and place for them. This teaches them a healthy view of food.
“It’s a very different message to saying that French fries are bad and they will kill you.”
“Food is the thing that brings happiness, food sustains life ... we have to view it as positive,” advises this father of three.
Well, who better to educate the public on healthy food than chefs, especially the ones on television (like Koetke himself, who hosts Let’s Dish on the Live Well Network, the digital network of a group that oversees the owned-and-operated stations of the American Broadcasting Company).
“I think chefs have become rock stars and as a result, we have an added responsibility not just to the health of the people, but also in terms of food sustainability.
“Having said that, it’s a little challenging in restaurants, because when people see healthy items on the menu, nobody orders them because there’s a perception they’re not going to taste good.
“As chefs, our job is to make the food taste good without necessarily using a lot of fat or sugar.”
But, of course, there’s the tricky issue of supply and demand: if a customer wants something, the chef has to deliver.
“So on the one side we have to lead and be examples, and on the other, there are business pressures. There’s where it gets tough.”
‘I was a weird kid’
Koetke, 46, started cooking at around 12 and had his first catering job at the age of 14. He did the outdoor stuff like all the other boys, but he always felt comfortable helping his mother out in the kitchen, too.
“I was a weird kid. I had a book in which I pasted the pictures of all the food I made, with everything listed out,” he says as he illustrates page layouts with his hands.
“I made duck a l’orange at a very young age, and I remember making a beef tongue that my mum thought was disgusting.”
Koetke went on to work in some of the finest kitchens in the United States and France, and is well-known from his TV show. He’s also a celebrated ice carver, noted speaker and has won awards both as a chef and an educator. And that’s only a small part of his résumé.
But, no disrespect to the chef and his outstanding achievements, what bowled me over was reading that the boy Chris Koetke and the larger-than-life Julia Child had been penpals.
Starting the correspondence must have taken some nerve. “Weird, isn’t it?” he asks rhetorically.
“The Julia thing was incredible. When I was 15, I had a mentor, a wonderful woman who suggested I write to Julia, who was at that time the pinnacle of culinary fame,” he gushes.
“So I don’t know why, I write her and was completely amazed that she wrote back. We wrote back and forth for a couple of years.
“Now to put this in perspective, I grew up in a little town in Indiana, nowhere important, and I didn’t come from a food family. The fact that she took the time to respond, that’s the kind of person she was.”
Koetke finally met Child in person a year later at an event in Chicago he made his mother drive him to. He went up to her during a break and nervously introduced himself.
“I say, ‘Julia, I don’t know if you know me, I’m Chris’ and that’s about as much as I got out of my mouth, and she said, ‘Of course I know who you are’.
“And she put her arm around me, and we talked for I don’t know how long, and she introduced me to all these really famous people,” he says with boyish awe as if he is 16 years old again.
Koetke and Child remained friends through the years – he does quite a good imitation of her distinctive warble! – and when she passed away, he received one of the utensils from her famous kitchen which he displays in his office.
“It’s kind of neat,” he says proudly and with a tinge of sadness.
Inspired from within
Having been in the business for 30 years, Koetke has seen trends come and go. Now, he says, the biggest trend globally among chefs is understanding one’s own food.
“It used to be that everybody was looking outside their own culture, that somehow if you live in Malaysia the food outside Malaysia is always better. Why?
“Nowadays, many young chefs are asking, what does it mean to be a chef of my own country?”
“I went to France, learnt how to cook French, came back to the US, cooked French, and it was very good. But there was a little voice inside me that got louder and louder. I cook French, I speak French, I can very happily live in France ... but I’m not French.
“And that kept coming back to me. I’m an American from the middle of the United States, what does that mean from the food perspective? And slowly my career shifted away from French food to trying to understand what my grandmother cooked and what her grandmother cooked, and that led me on a really neat journey. And I learnt a lot.
“I see that same thing playing out all over the world,” he says.
Koetke says chefs are now looking at their own food for inspiration. For a world traveller like him, this means enjoying the best local food that a country has to offer.
“I don’t want to come to Malaysia and have an omelette for breakfast. That’s not interesting. But to have roti canai? That’s fascinating.”