Interview With Healthy Cooking Coach Rachel Matesz

Rachel_matesz A couple of weeks ago I was pleased to receive a comment to one of my posts and, as I often do, I visited  the commenter's website; when they have one. And what a find it was. After about three minutes of browsing, I immediately emailed Rachel to ask if she had time for an email interview to be conducted at our leisure.

I think we're really fortunate that she did. Before we get to my questions and answers, let's meet the chef.

"I teach people how to cook up healthier, more productive lives. From cooking classes to cooking parties and through cookbooks,  one-on-one coaching, magazine articles, and speaking engagements, I teach people how to improve the way they shop, cook, eat, and look at food –– so they have more energy for life!

"I am particularly skilled at helping people with special needs follow special diets, such as wheat-free, gluten-free, dairy-and/or casein-free, corn-free, grain-free, peanut-free, egg-free, or preservative-free diets. Do you have a child on the autism spectrum, with ADD or ADHD, or frequent respiratory infections? Do you have Celiac Disease, food allergies or intolerances, an autoimmune disorder, migraines, PMS, acid reflux, excess weight, or other health challenges you would like to deal with holistically?

"I wrote The Ice Dream Cookbook: Dairy-Free Ice Cream Alternatives with Gluten-Free Cookies, Compotes & Sauces (Planetary Press, October of 2008). I co-authored the award-winning book, The Garden of Eating: A Produce-Dominated Diet & Cookbook (Planetary Press, 2004) with Don Matesz. I also developed 130 recipes for two books by best-selling author Barry Sears, including Zone Meals in Seconds (HarperCollins, 2004)."


Can you tell us how you were led to a low-carb, paleo way of eating and cooking, if that's an apt description of who you are now.

I got into the paleo diet as a way to recover from more than 12 years I'd spent following various permutations of the macrobiotic diet, nearly nine of them as a vegan (dairy-free vegetarian).  I developed so many chronic nutritional deficiencies eating that way. Dissatisfied with the macrobiotic approach, my husband and I adopted a dairy-free, omnivorous whole foods diet. We experimented with a Zone-style diet and then with a hunter-gatherer (or paleo) diet. The work of Dr. Weston Price was a huge inspiration to both of us. We didn't follow a strictly low-carb paleo diet but it was a huge improvement over the a grain based diets we'd followed for years before.

Most particularly, did paleo (I use small-p to distinguish from Cordain) lead to to "chefdom" or was it the other way around?

First I was a natural foods chef, teaching and advocating a low-fat, low-protein, bean- and grain-based diet, then I advocated a similar diet with condiment-size portions of eggs, fish, and at times poultry or red meat. I've been teaching natural foods cooking classes, working as a nutrition educator, freelance food and health writer, author, and speaker, for almost 24 years. I've been advocating liberal use of animal products for about half of that time.

You've authored two food-oriented books and have a blog as well. Can you tell us about the books and your blog?

The Garden of Eating: A Produce-Dominated Diet and Cookbook draws on the landmark work of Dr. Weston A. Price, and the time-tested food ways of healthy preagricultural people. It's more than a cookbook. The Garden of Eating is a comprehensive guide that walks people through the whats, whys, and hows of eating a protein and produce rich diet. It contains nutrition information, tips for shopping, stocking the pantry, planning meals, carving out time to cook, time saving strategies, shopping lists, menus, and 250 delicious, nutritious, family-friendly, grain- and dairy-free recipes.

The Ice Dream Cookbook: Dairy-Free Ice Cream Alternatives with Gluten-Free Cookies, Compotes & Sauces focuses on naturally sweetened dairy-free frozen desserts made from coconut milk and gluten-free cookies, fruit compotes, and sauces. It contains information about the health benefits of coconut fat; tips for using stevia, a non-caloric herbal sweetener; charts to help people modify their favorite dessert recipes so they contain less refined sweeteners and less sugar overall. It contains more than 80 recipes with 200 variations.

I set my blog up as a way to show people how great taste and good nutrition can go hand in hand.  So many people think healthy and delicious food are diametrically opposite–––perhaps because so much of what is promoted as healthy doesn't taste great or satisfy people's taste buds or appetites (think non-fat, low-fat, meat-free, meat substitutes, butter substitutes). People who attend my cooking classes and demonstrations, eat at my house, or have cooked from my books know how delicious wholesome food can taste, even the vegetables. I've watched kids devour vegetables and fruits. If only their parents would buy more of them and learn how to prepare them to make them more appealing!

I want to debunk a lot of myths with my blog, like the idea that if you're into health you must be a vegetarian or on the road to becoming one. I've been there, done that. I found adding meat back to my diet improved my health, which is contrary to what most people hear through the popular press. So many people think that meat, eggs, butter, and coconut fat is bad for you and that grains, vegetable oils, and sugars are somehow healthier (which, as  you know, is a big fat lie).

I also want to teach people how to change their tastes, how to become better cooks, how to make it more convenient to eat well, and how to improve their lives by taking their diets and their health into their own hands. I see as a way to reach people I don't get a chance to meet in my classes and my daily life.

Yes, and about those cooking classes… Where do you hold them, in a single location, or do you travel? How about groups?

I'm on the faculty of Southwest Institute of Healing Arts in Tempe, AZ. I lead a five week Whole Foods Cuisine I and Whole Foods II course several times a year. I also lead classes in kitchen shops, in cooking schools, and in private homes. I've done half a dozen classes for an elementary school.

When I do private cooking classes and cooking parties I go to the client's home. Sometimes I work with a single person, sometimes a couple, a family, or a group of four, six, eight, or more people. For small groups I usually do hands-on classes. For larger groups whether we do demonstration or hands-on depends upon the size and design of the kitchen.

I also speak to groups about the impact of our food choices. Last week I spoke to a Crohns & Colitis support group about the paleo diet and the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD). Tomorrow I'm speaking to a group about Cooking for a Family with Food Allergies and about the problems associated with gluten. Tomorrow's class will include food samples, which helps. If people taste my recipes, they're more likely to be open to change. I show them how great taste and good nutrition can go hand in hand.

I can see from the many great food entries in your blog that you're pretty "paleo" oriented. So, how does that work out in your cooking classes, or, when just discussing food with those who've never heard of "paleo?"

I'd say I'm Practically paleo in my approach to cooking and eating. I encourage people to fill at least a quarter of their plate with healthy proteins (eggs, fish, poultry, meat), to fill at least a quarter of their plate with a starchy or dense vegetable or fruit, and to fill at least the other quarter, and ideally half of the plate with fibrous, non-starchy vegetables, and then to use good fats in cooking or at the table.  I show them how to eyeball the plate using their fist or by dividing the plate into quadrants.

Many of my classes focus on vegetable dishes and fruit-based or coconut-based (rather than grain-based) desserts because most people I encounter don't put much emphasis on these foods. They don't buy enough of them at one time. They don't eat a wide variety of them. They don't have many ideas about how to use them, or how to make them taste great. They're not very creative or they serve them so plain (without fat) that their family members don't want to eat them. I think of vegetables and fruits as the missing link in most modern diets. If people focus on protein (I do use animal products in a lot of classes), vegetables and fruits, they can eat more food (or the volume of food they used to eat) and still lose weight or more easily maintain weight. Plus if they do this they won't have room to eat all the starch and sugar they're used to eating.

I discuss the benefits of eating this way in my classes. Many people get it because they've  heard of the Zone Diet and many other low starch, low sugar diets that emphasize protein foods, vegetables, and fruits. In most classes I don't say the "P" word (paleo). I call it a plant-based produce-dominated diet that's vegetable rich but not vegetarian, or I call it a protein and produce-rich diet. I am starting to come out of the closet more and actually talk more about the paleo diet in my presentations to mainstream audiences. I think people are ready for it. Still, it depends on the audience and the focus of the class whether I get into that and how much. When I do a lecture presentation without food, with people who have health problems, it's easier for me to get into the history of diet, how our modern diets differ from the food ways of the past, Dr. Weston Price's work, what anthropologists have found in studying past and present day hunter gatherers, etc..

As you know (because we've discussed a few of the dishes I've made on my website), I rarely work from other people's recipes, preferring to come up with my own. I also tend to make my dishes a bit or a lot different each time I make them. As a professional at creating recipes, can you think of and describe a few fundamental cooking principles that, if a person got them down solid they might be able to make a good go at teaching themselves how to be creative in the kitchen and create their own recipes?

I recommend people start by measure and following recipes. Good cooks, like good carpenters and draftsmen, use the tools of their trade. Measuring cups, measuring spoons, scales, appropriate pots, pans, and knives are just some of the tools a good cook can use to her advantage. Think of it this way: a skilled craftsman starts with a plan. He measures, follows step-by-step procedures, draws on knowledge of proportions and works methodically carrying out each step in the proper order. This also applies to cooking.

If you start without a plan and you don’t use recipes or follow tried and true proportions, your results will be erratic, or inedible!  Imagine what our nation’s highways, bridges, and buildings would look like if the engineers and draftsmen decided to just wing it—if they didn’t measure and follow a blueprint which is nothing more than a recipe. If a recipe comes out too watery, too oily, too dry, too sweet, sour, bitter, salty, or spicy, how will you avoid making the same mistake next time? How will you know what to do differently? If it comes out great, how will you repeat your success, and share the recipe with your family and friends? When you’re working with new foods the difference between following and not following a recipe can be the dividing line between dinner and compost.

By practicing following other people's recipes you can learn a lot––learn basic skills, ratios, techniques, what ingredients go well together. Read food magazines or recipe articles, browse cookbooks, read cooking blogs, watch cooking shows if you have a TV, which I don't. Practice trying one, two, or three new recipes each week. You'll get ideas by doing this. The next time you make that same recipe, you can make substitutions and variations for recipes and have a better sense of what will work.

Being methodical is the key, for me. When you set out to modify a recipe, write down what you plan to do before you enter the kitchen. If you plan to cut the recipe in half or to double it, write the new amounts in the margin or on a piece of paper so you don't lose track and forget where you're going with the recipe. If you make additional changes as you work, write them down. If possible, make small changes in a recipe and avoid changing too many variables at once. Now you'll see how it comes out and you can gauge what you need to increase, decrease, or otherwise do differently next time to create the result you want. If you love this recipe, it can become part of your repertoire. Eventually you can memorize more and more of it and have it come out great without looking at the printed page.

I don't believe in the myth of the gift, that some people are destined to be good cooks and others not. Many people get the idea that good cooks just wing it. Some do, but I'd bet those are the cooks who are more likely to be overweight or have digestive problems from constant tasting at the stove. Measuring and following recipes allowed me to drammatically improve the quality, consistency, and enjoyability of the food I make. It gave me the foundation to modify recipes with confidence and produce better results. I consistently measure even if I've made a recipe a dozen or a hundred times. By doing this the recipes I use most become etched in my brain like the phone numbers I dial most. I can pull together dishes and meals more quickly and have predictably good or great results. I can create variations on my recipes or other's recipes with greater success. This reduces stress and makes it possible to share my recipes with others and have them get great results. 

I'll bet you've seen some body and health transformations from people who've adopted your methods. Can you recount a favorite story or two?

I have several favorite stories that are more about transforming habits and lifestyle, which set the stage for transformations in health. 

A woman I worked with who had celiac disease took some of my classes and started cooking from my book, The Garden of Eating. She said, "When I found out I had celiac, I was lost. The medical field had no knowledge of foods that were even allowed. With Rachel's help, I now enjoy eating again. Rachel taught me about foods I’d never heard of and how to use them. My entire family enjoys her recipes, even the kids! Now I don't have to cook two different meals. What a relief!" That was a huge success for her because it gave her more time, support, and encouragement to stick with a gluten free, produce and protein rich diet. 

Another woman who had struggled for years with her weight and dieting attended some of my group cooking classes, a couple of private classes, and I coached her in her kitchen, teaching her how to turn her fridge into a healthy salad bar and deli. After a couple of months she said, "I am loving cooking for the first time in my life! Rachel made it fun for me, and healthy. I love cooking for more than one meal–the leftovers are even more tasty. Now, we have healthy, delicious food in the refrigerator at all times, so I'm not tempted to eat junk. I'm conscious of colors and textures on the plate, and my husband is helping me in the kitchen because he knows the end result is worthwhile. Rachel introduced us to flavors we never knew existed. We hardly go to restaurants anymore because the food we're making is so good!"

I worked with another woman by phone who had tried different diets, had several food intolerances, and fared poorly with low-fat diets. Using my cookbook, my recipes, and coaching tips, she dropped from a size 12 to a size 6 in 4 months, eating nourishing produce and protein-rich whole foods meals 3 times a day, along with a healthy intentional snack. She reported felling better almost overnight while enjoying a wider variety of delicious food. You can imagine how thrilling this was for her!

I certainly can. The paleo universe now seems awash in such stories of rapid health improvements and I think it's only going to grow. One of the observations I've often heard from people embarking on a paleo eating path is "wow, I like vegetables, now." On the other hand, many have also complained that they don't like beef, or pork, or fish or whatever. Can you think of a rather neutral but tasty recipe — either in your book, on your website, or both — that people might try with a view to changing their perception about a food category they currently don't like?

Beef: Herbed Meatballs (PDF) p. 288 of The Garden of Eating. This recipe also works well with ground lamb. It has pleased kids (to the surprise of their parents) and adults. You could serve it with or without the barbecue sauce.

Pork: Use a pork butt roast or pork spare ribs, cut into 1-inch chunks in Caveman Chili — page 300 of GOE; add sea salt to taste after cooking.

Poultry: Honey Mustard Chicken (PDF)

Fish: Broiled White Meat Fish Fillets wtih Garlic & Pepper (page 247 of GOE) or Sauteed Fish Fillets (page 249 of GOE). Knowing what I know now I would suggest doubling the amount of oil used.

Vegetables: From The Garden of Eating, I suggest Crudite Platter of Season Vegetables (PDF), p. 335 with Spicy Peanut Sauce (PDF), page 416 or Macadamia Dill Dip (which also works with cashew or cashew-macadamia nut butter, since pure macadamia nut butter is now difficult to find), p. 413.  The veggies also pair well with guacamole.

Hands down this vegetable recipe and the two dips have been the favorite recipe of my cooking students, coaching clients, and former personal cheffing customers. The technique and flavor and texture are very different from steaming; the leftovers look and taste great the next day. It's been a hit with children and picky eaters alike! People can download the vegetable and peanut sauce recipes and others from The Garden of Eating website.


I want to extend a very sincere thanks to Chef Rachel for taking the time and being so generous with her advice, as well as access to some of her published recipes.

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  1. Kathleen Conway on June 15, 2009 at 07:05

    Great interview, Richard. I bookmarked Rachel's website. I'm looking forward to more interviews with paleo-minded chefs and authors.

  2. Aaron Blaisdell on June 15, 2009 at 07:21

    What an excellent interview! I can also attest to liking vegetables much more now than ever in my life. Since going Weston-Price/paleo-ish, I also really enjoy cooking–something I thought I would never like to do! And without even thinking about it, this skinny guy built upper-body muscle mass and definition but went down a belt size. In the morning I typically weigh in at 139-140 pounds (I'm 5'11").

  3. Robert Chon on June 15, 2009 at 07:52

    Rachel's road to where she now stands nutritionally is very interesting. She appears to have always had the same goal, good diet > good health, but clearly her methods have shifted diametrically. As always Rich, thanks for adding more meat to the bones.

  4. Lute Nikoley on June 15, 2009 at 10:39

    One thing about vegetable. I never ate any of the vegetables when we went out to eat at a restaurant. Now I consume nearly all the vegetables, and for some reason they even taste good (after I add some seasoning, of course). I rarely order potato with my meals anymore. That's probably why the veggies taste so good. I also ask for butter to put on the veggies to improve taste and also get the extra fat.

  5. Carl on June 15, 2009 at 14:47

    Does anybody have her cookbook or has anybody read it? Is it any good?

  6. Tin Tin on June 15, 2009 at 15:04

    Richard, good interview and nice format. Agree with Kathleen above. Hope you can get a few more paleo practitioners to share their day-to-day cooking and exercise advice/experience in the future!

  7. Patrik on June 16, 2009 at 21:20

    That is really an interesting observation. Now that I eat Paleo, I too, enjoy my vegetables much more. Probably eat more of them as well.

  8. Lisa on June 17, 2009 at 06:05

    I have her cookbook. I had taken a cooking class from her when she lived in Ohio and was eagerly awaiting the cookbook even before it came out. I highly recommend it.

  9. Richard Nikoley on June 17, 2009 at 07:50

    Thanks for ringing in on that, Lisa.

    Typically, and interviewer reads or, in this case, _uses_ a book prior to an interview, but this was more about Rachel's wider offerings, philosophy and whatnot.

    I'm getting the book myself. And, as soon as I get back home, I'm definitely going to try that crudite plate & sauce. There's a story behind why (other than the obvious reason) that I'll recount then.

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