It's All About the Yum
The Huffington Post GREEN
by Zoe Helene

“I like to look at health, vitality and pleasure as the optimum self-care.” – Leslie Cerier

For 25 years, Leslie Cerier, aka The Organic Gourmet, has been teaching the art of healthy cooking at some of the finest eco-lifestyle centers and spas in the world. There's a reason her classes are so popular.

A lifetime of wisdom and expertise is part of it. Authenticity, warmth and passion also help. But as any participant will tell you, Leslie's classes are not only informative -- they are fun. People come out feeling inspired.

Leslie is the author of five cookbooks, including Gluten-Free Recipes for the Conscious Cook, Going Wild in the Kitchen and The Quick and Easy Organic Gourmet. She has developed recipes for leading food companies and been featured in dozens of media stories. Her gift for translating potentially dull diets and ideas into a bounty of flavor and satisfaction has made her a leading authority on healthy food.

I sat down with Leslie recently to find out her latest advice on eating for sustenance and sustainability. Here is what she had to say.

Your cooking class credits read like a wish list of eco luxury spas and retreats. What is it about these places?

They're about expansion and supporting authentic self. And they're so exquisitely beautiful that you just feel well. You get to that place of exhale -- coming home to yourself.

How do you see your role as teacher?

I show people that it's easy and simple to cook delicious food, and they can do it. It doesn't have to be super-complicated to put healing healthy food in your mouth. It just requires being stocked with some great essentials and knowing how to work with those essentials. Plus, people have fun in my classes.

Do you eat the food you make in class?

Of course! We make amazing food in class, and then we eat it together. At Esalen Institute in Big Sur, Calif., we eat outside on a deck overlooking the Pacific Ocean. How much better does it get? My friend Charlie (who used to be head chef) calls Esalen an acupuncture point on the planet -- and it's true!

You teach at Rancho La Puerta. Is it as beautiful as it looks on the website?

Yes, it is! Everything is first-class at Rancho La Puerta without being pretentious, and in my mind that's because it is earth-based. Same with Esalen and Kripalu in Massachusetts and Omega Institute in New York. Your whole heart opens. It's very special.

Is Kripalu more about yoga?

Kripalu is a center for yoga and wellness. The yoga is gentle and deep. They're renowned for their yoga. I've been practicing since I was a teenager, so I love that. Yoga is about unity and wholeness, and about being present. My way of teaching, cooking and eating is like that. Cooking and eating is a lot like yoga. It's all about the yum.

Is Omega more focused on integrating mind/body/spirit?

Omega was co-founded by a medical doctor who is a pioneer in the field of holistic medicine, so many classes are geared toward working with health practitioners. For instance, I taught "Thriving Gluten-Free" with a celiac nutrition expert, Melinda Dennis, and our workshop participants included biologists, parents, dieticians, spouses and others who have celiac disease.

My approach is about plenty. How can we find substitutions that work in place of what the person shouldn't eat? Even if you have serious restrictions with diet, there's still plenty. Did you know that there are even more gluten-free whole grains than there are grains with gluten? Plus, all the delicious gluten-free flours and pastas, too. If you can't eat dairy, there are lots of whole foods that impart a creamy and gooey texture; milks and sauces made from nuts and seeds, for example.

Can't eat onions and garlic? Plenty of other herbs and spices can season your meal. I love to teach folks how to substitute ingredients by color, flavor, seasonal availability, texture, cooking times and whim. Mix and match foods that are high in antioxidants, calcium, and iron and invent your own recipes.

These freshly harvested organic carrots are a super healthy and sweet.

How did you get your start in what we now call the 'slow food movement'?

One of the early breakthroughs in my creative life as a chef came in 1976, when I discovered an organic bakery on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. This discovery led me to begin shopping in health food stores and buying as much organic food as I could find.

When I joined my CSA back in 1987, I realized I could create whole meals by simply combining herbs, vegetables, and fruits that were in season. I loved going to the farm and getting inspired.

Do any of these spa retreats offer sliding scales for lower-income people, scholarships for people who apply, or work-study shares as a way of making the experience more affordable?

Esalen, Omega and Kripalu all have sliding-scale options for accommodation costs, as well as other ways to volunteer or barter.

Online Resources:

Rancho La Puerta, San Diego, CA
Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, Stockbridge, MA
Esalen Institute, Big Sur, CA
Omega Institute, Rhinebeck, NY

Photos by Tracey Eller

October 2012