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Healthy Cooking With John: A Conversation With Executive Chef John Nowakowski

I recently attended a health conference at the Regency Health Spa in Hallandale, Florida, and had a chance to meet John Nowakowski, the spa’s executive chef for the last 15 years. The author of Vegetarian Magic, John puts a healthy, vegan spin on everyday dishes and has been featured in the Sun Sentinel and Vegetarian Times magazine.

Roseann Marulli: Hi, John. Thanks so much for speaking with SuperVegan. You serve vegan food only at the Regency Health Spa. Is this the first vegan food establishment you’ve worked in? Was it a challenge to leave animal products behind?

John Nowakowski: This is my first vegetarian spa, but I was doing “heart-healthy” cooking for five years with Trust House Forte/Gardner Merchant Corporation. Prior to that I had a long and successful career with Marriott Hotels & Resorts as executive chef. It wasn’t a challenge to leave animals behind in my cooking. I just used the motivation to re-create meat-based dishes vegetarian style.

Roseann: Aside from animal products, what are some of the foods and beverages you don’t serve at the spa, and why?

John: In addition to the spa’s being a meat-free environment, because most guests come here to detox, we don’t serve alcohol, soft drinks, coffee or caffeine of any kind, and we don’t use enriched products, corn syrup, refined sugars or table salt in our recipes.

Roseann: Tell me about the spa’s infamous Detox Potassium Broth.

John: Our Detox Potassium Broth is served between meals and is a reduction of reverse-osmosis-filtered water and vegetables such as onions, celery, potatoes, carrots and cabbage. The sodium-free broth is a natural diuretic and a good source of potassium that helps muscle cramping and balances the body with low-sodium cuisine.

Roseann: And it’s delicious! I was surprised at how something so seemingly simple could be so tasty, too.

At the health conference a couple of weeks ago, speakers like Jeff Novick railed against the evils of oil, and you suggested sautéing vegetables in broth rather than oil, yet you used quite a bit of oil in one of the savory sauces you made. Is that something you serve at the spa? Why did you use so much oil?

John: There are societies that thrive using healthy oils such as extra virgin olive oil. I like to use oil only where it will benefit the dish and not be detrimental to our guests. As you mentioned, I use vegetable broth to steam or sauté certain recipes where it won’t be detected by the palate. However, the chef in me will use grapeseed oil if I find it necessary to sauté onions or garlic in a mushroom sauce, onion soup, etc. I mist the pan with just enough to get the job done. And when I use an emulsion of oil and herbs for roasted vegetables, most of the oil remains in the baking pan and isn’t passed on to our guests.

Remember, I’m in the entertainment business, and if our food doesn’t taste good, there goes our business! We try to emphasize low-sodium, low-fat, high-flavor foods.

Roseann: You teach nutrition twice a week at the spa. What kinds of things do you talk about, and who are your students?

John: I actually teach cooking classes on Monday and Friday and a Shopping Smart class every Wednesday. I also lecture quarterly at Nutrition S’Mart in Pembroke Pines.

At the spa, my classes are limited to our in-house guests and the people who participate in our day program. I prepare recipes from my present cookbook, Vegetarian Magic, and from my upcoming book, both of which focus on delicious, low-fat, low-sodium, easy-to-prepare dishes—from healthy cream soups and salad dressings to tofu, tempeh and miso, whole grains like quinoa and legumes, and, of course, low-calorie vegan desserts. The desserts are always a hit, as you can imagine.

Roseann: I don’t have to imagine! The cashew creme over blueberries and carob-ganache-dipped strawberries you made during your conference food demo were amazing! Okay, enough salivating…

According to you, not all peppers are created equal. What’s the difference between cayenne and black pepper? What about green peppers?

John: Black pepper isn’t used at the Regency. It’s an irritant to the stomach lining and intestinal walls, and after years of abuse, it may cause ulcers. Cayenne pepper, on the other hand, is not an irritant. It’s actually a natural body cleanser and an anti-inflammatory. It boosts the adrenaline system and is a source of the antioxidants vitamin A and C.

Green peppers are unripened, more difficult to digest and lower in vitamins. We use fully ripened peppers such as red, yellow, orange and purple peppers. They’re sweeter in flavor, easier to digest and have 10 times the vitamin A and twice the vitamin C of green peppers. Of course, they’re more expensive, but they’re well worth the price.

Roseann: Your vegan Caesar Salad recipe appears in the current issue of Vegetarian Times. What other recipes did you submit?

John: I also submitted our Tempeh Tuna Salad and Tofu Egg Salad recipes, which are delicious.

Roseann: What’s your favorite vegan recipe?

John: To quote my friend chef Colin Cook, “If I picked one, the other recipes might get jealous!” But if you twist my arm, one of my favorites is Seitan Pepper Steak With Peppers and Onions. We slice and oven-roast the seitan slices, sauté some onions, garlic and ripened peppers, and toss it with a mango teriyaki sauce over quinoa or brown rice with edamame—delish.

Another fave is my low-carb Grilled Vegetable Lasagna. We prepare both of those dishes at the spa for home delivery.

Roseann: Are you vegan?

John: I would say I practice vegan 90% of the time but allow myself a piece of wild fish or seafood from time to time. I always avoid coffee, corn syrup, white sugar, dairy milk, refined flours and soft drinks. I’ve lived like this for the last 20 years and even more so in my last 15-plus years at the spa. When I had a bad blood test about 25 years ago, which showed high cholesterol, I decided to make better choices for myself, and I included my customers in that choice as well.

Roseann: Do you think you’ll ever go vegan? Do you find it challenging to cook delicious, healthy vegan food?

John: As far as being 100% vegan, I enjoy tasting other chefs’ works of art too much to ever want to limit my culinary experience. I still do some catering and entertaining on my own, and tasting is part of that career choice. However, more than anything else, I really enjoy creating healthy new recipes and reformulating unhealthy dishes with a vegetarian structure, so that they have the texture and taste of the original without all the fat, sodium and other nasties.

Roseann: You have your own line of vegan cookies. What are they like, and where can we find them?

John: I began producing vegan cookies about 12 years ago. We use only organic ingredients such as whole wheat pastry flour, oatmeal, peanut butter and vanilla extract. For the most part, brown rice syrup is our low-glycemic sweetener, and in a couple of recipes we use some organic raw sugar. Our best-seller at the spa is the Organic Dark Chocolate Chip Peanut Butter Cookie. The Oatmeal Raisin Cookie is our lowest-calorie cookie, with 68 calories.

Roseann: You put out a cookbook, Vegetarian Magic, and a DVD, Cooking With Tofu. Anything else on the horizon?

John: I’m in the process of self-publishing another, smaller book with about 75 new recipes. We’ll post information on our website and our Facebook page as it progresses. We’re also partnering with SlimGenics, a progressive weight loss organization based in Colorado and Minnesota. They’ll be featuring some of my healthy cooking videos and our spa cuisine product line.

I want to be very clear that at the spa we do not discriminate against people who are not full-time vegans. We want to help them go meatless more often, and once they start feeling healthier and losing weight, evolution into a more plant-based lifestyle could be the result.

Roseann: I know that’s what we all hope for! Thanks so much for your time, John. And best of luck wth the new book.

1 Comment

  1. Comment by

    Joan Smith

    on #

    With 16 million plus diabetics in America, I wonder if you prepare foods that meet a diabetic’s limit of carbs? e.g. for a man of about 175 pounds on insulin, a total of 165 carbs daily with 45-60 at breakfast and another 45-60 at dinner and a low carb lunch of 30 carbs. It’s flexible but limited to about 165 carbs daily. Calories between 1600-1800. What a joy it would be if I could prepare or buy foods in this range. I am a vegetarian, sometimes vegan myself.