Louisa Kasdon, a former economist, is also a former restaurant operator turned food writer and editor, most recently of Stuff magazine. And that’s only the short list. Kasdon is always busy, recrafting and reshaping her relationship with the topics she writes about and food — as much as it is changing in our culture.
A member of the Harvard School of Public Health’s Nutrition Round Table and founder and CEO of Boston’s Let’s Talk About Food Festival (in partnership with the Boston Museum of Science) , Kasdon has become a staunch advocate for public education around food and health. In conversation with iBeamforLife blogger Tracy Ilene Miller, Kasdon reveals how shifts in our culture are galvanizing forces in the restaurant world, departments of public health, the educational system and beyond, creating a movement worth watching — and joining.
How did you get into the restaurant business?
My husband, in college, with friends was starting a restaurant. I was the support. I started working in the kitchen, and watching the chef. That’s where I learned to cook. We were all MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] kids. It was French rustic cooking. Julia Child used to live a block away, and she came in all the time.
I put that away for a long time. I went to business school, got my MBA, had two kids, and was pretty thoroughly corporate. My husband [a banker] was older, and he needed to make a career change. He decided we would launch a chain of restaurants. He was the only banker who gave restaurants money – and he did it successfully. They all knew him. In 1990, we opened.
How did you go from restaurateur to food advocate?
After I left operating three restaurants for five years, I started writing about the food world, from the point of view of someone who is sympathetic. Over time, I became more sensitive to public health, obesity and sustainability. It seemed to me that food was a lot more than entertainment. I became captivated by the changes [in perspectives about food]. I was the first person here who started writing about chefs who were concerned about health. There was a shift in the culture, but there was also a shift in me.
What was the problem for chefs?
The problem for restaurants, when they want to be more responsive, for example to obesity, is the plate looks different, and consumers don’t think they are getting enough. For instance, in most cases, the protein is too big. But for the customer who has grown up on a 14-ounce porterhouse steak, a large protein and overflowing plates signify value. My older sister died, effectively, of obesity; it claimed her at 53. I started to understand and multiplied her, what obesity was doing to life and to the cost of health care.
Have there been notable shifts then?
Yes. Restaurants and chefs are feeling a sense of responsibility not just to make something delicious but healthy and authentic. One of the things I wanted to do [with Let’s Talk About Food] was pair chefs with nutritionists. Chefs have been trained to make something taste delicious, but not taught about nutrition. Traditionally, they think of portion control from a savings point of view — not caloric.
But over time there has been an education, not only of local and seasonal foods, but nutrition, to change what is considered an attractive plate. Chefs are much more interested in whole grains and vegetables. I think everyone is looking at obesity. Chefs have become rock stars, and they have celebrity power that they can bring to the conversation.
So, is the concern about food confined to a few rock star chefs and maybe the East and West Coasts?
I recently screened “Food Fight,” a great documentary and a big huge warm embrace of Alice Walters [owner of Chez Panisse in Berkley, California, and an advocate of the farm-to-table food movement]. But she could not have been the only person doing anything on this issue.
Clearly not everyone is [involved in food issues], but it is not just the elite. I look at the [Let’s Talk About Food] event in June, with 15,000 people there, and a lot of them were college and post-college students. And for them, food is a huge issue, like Earth Day was for us. The food movement is the social movement of our time, and people want change. Every movement has elites; things start with people who read and talk the most.
But all over the country people are organizing potlucks and farm dinners. I don’t think it is just little blocks of people with MBAs in Boston. In Kansas City, Montana, Birmingham, there are pockets of people who care about this issue. Physicians are concerned about obesity in young children.
For instance, school lunch has become a rallying cry. It’s an area that people can organize around. School lunches are a huge issue for young mothers and parents. Chop Chop, a magazine that has been around for a year and a half, and in its sixth issue is a healthy, fun cooking magazine for children. Original distribution is through pediatricians, and its printing a million issues, and in every state. It is all over the country.
What can we expect in the future on the issue of food?
I think food is going to get better. It took us 40 years to screw up, and it probably won’t take us as long to fix it. I think that the whole future is about not just what you put in your face, but about how it is grown, how to protect it and keep it safe — how we manage not to degrade the land and how we teach children to cook. I teach children to cook, and they don’t know how to cook. I paired a chef and physicist together, and the kids were like, “This is how you make spaghetti, what?” And all those Cs [carbon] and Os [oxygen] have to do with spaghetti? All that awareness is what I see for the future.
How will awareness make a difference?
I’ve run 25 events, and I’ve been writing about food for 15 years. What I know is, once you raise people’s awareness, they want to change. People can make choices about food, where, for instance, they can’t make choices about the debt crisis. It is an empowering movement to be part of — “I can make choices about what I put in my face.”
Is there one way to make a difference?
What I keep saying to people is everyone has a stake in food. I think everyone is concerned about food. Some people are turned on by cooking, some focus on obesity, local cooking, food justice, or safety — all of these currents run together.
Whatever seems to be most important to you, ride that ray of sun. Whether it’s writing about it, food security, or teaching cooking or buying at farmer’s market, the more people involved, the more people concerned about the quality of the food we serve, the better off we will be.
To get involved, stay in contact with the Let’s Talk About Food event, or experience one of the festival’s year-round events at the Museum of Science. And for your own personal journey in food and nutrition, iBeamforLife can be your guide and partner to a healthier, more vital you. Join us.