October 10, 2018

Cooking up healthy ideas — and meals — at Kaiser Permanente

Spend a few minutes with Carl Pitzer, and you'll soon discover that a plant-based meal is much more than just swapping out some meat for tofu or tossing a handful of radishes into a bowl of mixed greens.

Known as Chef Carl, he serves up hot meals 5 days a week at the Atrium Cafe at Kaiser Permanente Interstate Medical Office Central in Portland, Oregon, where he's developing a reputation as part scientist, part artist, and part magician. He can build layers of flavor and texture with vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains, nuts, herbs, and spices.

Recently, the 15-year Kaiser Permanente employee created a remarkable riff on lasagna, complete with spinach, scratch-made marinara, and yes, even homemade "cheese" from plant ingredients.

The tasty benefits of a plant-based diet

Influenced by his daughter's interest in plant-based cooking, Chef Carl researched its dietary benefits (it's good for you), techniques (food prep takes time), affordability (plants can cost less than meat), and flavor (it's awesome!).

His culinary roots began in his native South Africa, where he worked at a hotel renowned for French classical cuisine, and later, as the owner and cook at several pubs and restaurants. Now, with about three decades of cooking experience, he can roast a chicken or grill a burger with very little effort.

For plant-based cuisine, however, Chef Carl knew that he'd need additional training. With support from his director, and tuition assistance from the Service Employees International Union, he enrolled in an online cooking school. After a year of classes, a couple of week-long workshops in Colorado to demonstrate his accumulated knowledge and skills, and an intense series of exams, Chef Carl earned a certification in plant-based cooking.

Endless opportunities

"The possibilities with plant-based cooking are endless," said Chef Carl. Consider, for example, two of his recent dishes: "chicken" wings from soybeans, and "chicken" nuggets from cauliflower.

Thanks to Chef Carl and support from his co-workers who help with meal prep, the serving table is filled with an assortment of plant-based breakfast and lunch offerings, as well as traditional meat dishes.

"We want to engage customers and help them improve their health by making it easy for them to choose a healthy option," said Sandra Kelly, director of Food and Nutrition.

Kelly notes that about one-half of the Atrium's customers are members and employees. The other half are residents from the surrounding neighborhood "who count on us for a hot meal."

Atrium customers are discovering that plant-based meals can be affordable, visually appealing, and tasty.

And you can try vegan “tuna” salad, one of Chef Carl’s recipes, at home.

This profile of Chef Carl originally appeared in Live Well. Be Well.