The Power of Food

Nov 25, 2014 | Food & Food Justice

Food rules my life, no matter what: I feed people for a living, and I’m also raising and feeding two boys—much of the time, it feels like a lot more like feeding than raising. A lot of people find “that thing” at some point in their lives that dictates what they do and how they go about their daily business, and, well, for me, that’s food.

I’ve explained a lot about why it’s such a strong force for me, from my grandmother’s epic Provençal gardens to big-deal restaurants in NYC, but when it comes down to it, I’ve had three meals a day, give or take, for 40 years now, so it’s been a prolific, essential, and up-and-down journey to get me where I am today with what I eat. It’s also been a conscious journey, and one that works for me. Everyone, I’m sure, is different, but here’s what I’ve discovered.

In the past few years I’ve been happy to find a healthy diet for myself, but beyond that, I’ve discovered the ways in which food fuels my body to energize or deplete me. If we apply that age-old maxim, “You are what you eat,” then I can safely say that I understand what that means for me at this point in my life.

While I grew up deeply connected to local and seasonal food and understanding where my food came from, my daily diet didn’t always follow suit. As a child, my days would always start with some sort of milky beverage. “Chocolat chaud” was my all-time favorite, and then, feeling mature and sophisticated at 14, I graduated to “thé au lait” and, eventually, the inevitable café au lait. Tartines were de rigueur—always with butter and jam—and I never thought about starting my day with anything else, nor did anyone in my family.

I had a monster of a sweet tooth: I could devour an extraordinary quantity of croissants, pains au chocolat, apple turnovers, brioches, and, of course, any and all sorts of desserts. Looking back, I must say I was often sick as a child, with flu, cold, or stomach cramps galore—for some mysterious reasons, I was the child tagged with a “fragile stomach”. When I moved to the US at the age of 22, I did not change my diet much, and, in fact, expanded my exploration into the pleasures of decadence. I never thought about connecting my mood or general well-being to what I was eating. I considered myself healthy enough: I was never drawn to junk food, soda, candy, or anything processed, really. I was a good French woman, I thought, my diet was pretty good. I was healthy, but I was still sick pretty often.

The first big change to my diet came with the birth of my first child, and my realization of the enormous responsibility that came with feeding another human being, one who depended on my good or bad choices. I thought once again about the local and seasonal food I grew up with, and, in wanting that for my child, realigned how I approached sourcing food for myself and for my family.

The biggest shift happened later, though—my husband and I got a divorce, a few years after opening ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb) together. He left the country, and I was left with a restaurant, two little boys, and a life (and business) to put back together. It was the summer of 2008.

I now know that you have two options when you find yourself at the bottom: stay down there, or go back up, as high as possible. I chose the latter, and I have vivid memories of this incredibly difficult yet exhilarating time. For several months, I felt like I was moving through honey—I was under an incredible pressure, in emotional disarray, and just simply tired beyond belief. ICI was open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and I had two little boys, ages five and seven, who were going through quite a bit themselves. During that quest to put my life back together, I learned, quite organically, to gently avoid anything (or anybody for that matter) that could possibly deplete me any further (I also did not have a penny to spare on any front).

I started exercising a lot to get endorphins going, and my way of eating changed quite a bit: at that point, I was not making any very conscious choices or following any specific diet, just following my instincts. I started to really listen to how my body was feeling, and go for the food that was not just filling me up, but was nourishing me, because that’s what I so desperately needed.

As a result, during those summer months, I stopped eating wheat and dairy—my two passions!—and found an incredible energy, comfort and peace in mountains of collard greens, grass-fed steak, wilted dandelions, poached eggs, skate fish, and dinosaur kale.

For me these foods—beautiful, rich greens and clean proteins—were what I needed to feel truly nourished. I found my rhythm, and one plate of sautéed greens at a time, I was slowly healing. I remember my chef de cuisine, Armando, a lunch chef at the time, plating for me two, three, four skate fish and collard greens in a row, looking at me with his gentle smile, knowing even more than I did, the good I was doing swallowing all that food.

It took me a couple of years to realize that I was moving from eating on a whim to eating with real purpose. I still eat everything and anything—the whole point of this, after all, is that I just love food—but what I’ve found what works best for me is to pick my battles, or my pleasure. Will this cheesy, beautiful, crusty, decadent pizza feed me well in the bitter winter when I’m fighting a cold, and won’t have time to go for a run for two days? A kale salad for lunch would probably take me further. But that pizza is calling my name when I can handle that kind of burden without feeling dragged down. I will never give up a good pizza entirely.

I discovered that beyond pleasure, food is actual nourishment in the deepest sense of the term: it is sustenance for your body and soul, it can drag you down or lift you up. I think, if I treat myself well, I’ll always choose the latter.