The Danger of Chef as Dietician

Dreamstime nutrition
In my (completely unqualified) opinion, if a food can be balanced on a dumbbell then it is healthy. Problem solved.


It should be relatively straightforward. Dieticians tell us what to eat. Chefs tell us how to eat it.

But nothing involving humans is ever simple.

In Australia at the moment, celebrity chef Pete Evans is currently enjoying a somewhat troubled moment in the sun. Evans rose to fame as one of the kindly judges of the hapless home-cooks on My Kitchen Rules. (He also keeps tight control of his image, so I can’t post it here, but if you’d like to gaze upon his preternaturally white smile you can do so here.) You wouldn’t think to look at him that he’d be able to generate much controversy, let alone howling hatred. But generate it he has.

Evans’ nickname is ‘Paleo Pete’ and, when he’s not consoling people whose soufflés have fallen on national TV, he is vigorously promoting the Paleo diet. The diet is based around excluding food groups with the aim of returning us to a pre-Industrial level of health. Evans has been accused of advocating food in place of prescribed medicine; recommending bone broth instead of infant formula; and generally speaking too authoritatively on the issue of nutrition for someone who is not, in fact, a dietician.

Though Paleo Pete is advocating a diet that is a bit more controversial than most, he is part of a proud lineage of chefs turned nutrition crusaders. The most prominent is of course Jamie Oliver, who has done battle with everyone from hamburger-clutching American parents, to new mothers who don’t realise just how easy breastfeeding is. In fact, chefs and food writers have been at it for centuries, with most Victorian-era cookbooks including a section on ‘Invalid Cookery’.

It’s made me wonder just who has the right to publically give nutrition advice.

These questions have arisen because, in my challenge to learn every technique in Leith’s Technique Bible, I’m currently up to the section on nutrition.

Leith’s states that it is the cook’s responsibility to know the basics of nutrition, in order to provide a nutritionally-balanced meal to the people they serve. This duty is the same regardless of whether they’re cooking for family, friends, or a corporate buffet of 200 at the Hilton.

Cooks – either of the home or Hilton variety – need to know that a lactating woman requires more calories, a diabetic should have less carbohydrate, and that no one in the world needs a savoury dish that contains a whole carton of double cream. But should they ever publically advocate these positions, and in doing so represent themselves as an expert in human nutrition to a credulous public?

It’s clearly not practical to make every food professional take a vow of secrecy upon learning any health information. However, cooks and food writers (including bloggers like myself) need to take precautions when talking about nutrition.

  • First off, we need to make sure we actually know what we’re talking about. That means finding out what the scientific consensus is, rather than going with our ‘gut feeling’.
  • Secondly, we need to ensure that our training or expertise is clear. In case you’re wondering, I score a ‘0’ on both counts.
  • Finally, we need to link back to sources written by actual dieticians.

As a consumer, if the blogger or chef you’re reading isn’t informed and transparent, then consider if you should listen when they tell you to cut out dairy.

Easter Contrition

Dreamstime mortified dog
I am more embarrassed than this dog who was dressed as the Easter Bunny for a stock photo.

A long time ago, I said some shameful and judgemental things.

Okay, it was yesterday, and the thing I said was that hot cross buns should be made to a strictly traditional recipe. Because the universe has a habit of instantly smiting me whenever I take a judgemental turn, on Good Friday I made hot cross buns with toffee topping, by accident. Let me explain.

At the moment, we’re neck-deep in Konmari – the Japanese art of getting rid of all you junk so your place doesn’t look like something off Hoarders any more. Marie Kondo, the expert behind Konmari, suggests to get it all done in six months. That gives me two and half more weeks to find a loving new home for all of my unwanted possessions. Which turns out to be most of them. So, a pretty big task.

That’s why I found myself arranging to sell a large bookshelf to a furniture dealer on Good Friday morning. The hot cross buns were on the oven and the glaze was on the stove, when a cheerful middle-aged woman with in a tiny van turned up to collect the shelf. She loaded it up like the professional she was, and I managed to sell her an antique magazine stand in the process. So far so good.

As she was leaving, my parents turned up to eat the buns. I took a momemt to mentally switch gears from “E-commerce” to “Special family time”. Suddenly, I was beset by the feeling that I’d forgotten something. Something important. Then I smelled caramael.

Racing over to the stove, I saw my sticky bun glaze was now very sticky indeed. It was, in fact, toffee. Panicking, I drizzled it over the buns, and apologetically took them to the table. But instead of disappointment, I was greeted with excitement and admiration for my innovation.

My mind flew to yesterday’s post where I’d lambasted anyone who would dare to add so much as a choc chip to this time honoured dish. And what had I made – toffee hot cross buns!

It got me thinking about all the reasons people might deviate from tradition.

There might be people who are intolerant to one or more of the main ingredients – yeast, lactose and gluten are all common allergens. There may be others for whom the traditional bun is tied up in terrible childhood memories, but adding some banana makes it just different enough. Perhaps you’re part of a marginalised community and you don’t feel included in this particular tradition.

Maybe you were just selling some furniture at the wrong time.

My lesson this Easter: food traditions beong to everyone. That means that everyone is free to use them how they are able to, and how they like.

Can I Photograph Your Meal?

Dreamstime food phtography
“Just give me a moment to take this picture with my zoom lens, then I’ll scoop your dinner off this cloth and back onto your plate.”

Picture this:

You’re sitting at a casual dinner party, relaxing over a good meal and a nice drink. The diffuse evening light coming through the curtains bathes everything in a soft glow. The conversation is low-key but amusing. You could happily sit at that table for the rest of your life.

Then, the host comes up. She’s holding her camera, and you think she might want to take a photo of the guests to remember this time forever. Instead, she asks slightly awkwardly, “I’m a food blogger – can I take a picture of your plate?”

Yikes! Who wants to be that host? Not me, as it turns out.

I recently ran into this problem for the first time when I was mixing work and pleasure by testing a dinner party menu for the blog on a few unsuspecting guests.  We’d issued an invitation to MJ’s aunt and uncle weeks before I found out I needed to write a post on entertaining, but it still seemed crass to try and get those two birds with one dinner party stone.

It left me pondering if there is any polite way to photograph food that you’re about to serve to guests?

Photographing the meal secretly in the kitchen seems like the obvious answer. But it isn’t an option for me. MJ and I live in a farmhouse cottage that has been converted to have a single cooking, dining and living space. While I love being included in the party while I’m cooking, it makes it impossible to snap a sneaky pic of the plates before they go to the table.

This means I need to ask. But asking seems to imply a hidden motivation for the gathering. The last thing I want is for my guests to feel like they’re props, or that the event they viewed as a fun get-together is actually just part of my work.

On reflection,  it seems to boil down to honesty.  Having invited MJ’s family over for dinner,  we were socially and ethically bound to provide hospitality – including a relaxing atmosphere. That wasn’t going to happen if I was fiddling around with the placement of their sticky beef ribs to get the perfect picture.

In the end,  I couldn’t bring myself to ask MJ’s venerable uncle if I could take a few shots of his fried okra. The food went to the table un-photographed. My blog post ended up with just a few pictures of dishes that I’d prepaped earlier.

The only solution seems to be to include the question when I extend the invitation. It would mean coming out of the food blogger closet, but at least my friends and family won’t feel like they’re dining under false pretences.

Would you feel offended if your host whipped out a camera and zoomed in on your plate? If you’re a food blogger, what is your personal code of ethics for taking photos in social gatherings?