Chef Laura Pensiero

by Charles Platkin, PhD

Laura co-authored The Strang Cancer Prevention Center Cookbook (McGraw-Hill 2004; Dutton 1998) and wrote Hudson Valley Mediterranean: The Gigi Good Food Cookbook. Laura has contributed to numerous books, as well as national consumer and trade magazines, sharing her flavorful and practical approach to wholesome and healthy eating, including Prevention, Figure, Shape, Fitness Magazine, Real Simple, and Your Way.

Laura is the chef and partner of Just Salad, a collection of five healthy “fast food” salad restaurants in NYC. The May 2005, 5th Anniversary Issue of O, Oprah Magazine, named Laura among the “Five Most Giving and Gifted Food Professionals” for her work as a nutrition and culinary educator. She is also the owner and creative force behind Gigi Hudson Valley (Gigi Trattoria, Gigi Market & Café, and Gigi Catering). Laura’s strategy to help people make long lasting changes to their diet? Make it delicious, flexible, practical and fun.  

Location: Rhinebeck, NY


Diet Detective: What you do — being a chef and a nutritionist — is pretty amazing. My first question is really about your restaurant — do you only serve “healthy” foods? And what do you define as health food?

Laura: No, not at all. Gigi Trattoria and Gigi Market are not “health” restaurants, but most of the dishes happen to be healthy. Our portions are not huge, but they are “restaurant size,” so our servers are trained to guide clients to share and eat Italian-style… alla familia! The talented kitchen crew is very flexible about sharing, substituting, etc.

When asked to describe the cuisine, I refer to it as “Hudson Valley Mediterranean.” This means we use local ingredients to prepare traditional and innovative Mediterranean dishes. It is my opinion that the “Mediterranean Diet” is the most flavorful and satisfying way to eat healthy. Combine this with locally produced fresh food, and you have my definition of health food.

Diet Detective: On your web site you have a quote, “eat healthy, enjoy food, live well, never sacrifice flavor” — can you explain?

Laura: For many, unfortunately, “healthy” food implies sacrifice and a general perception of lack of flavor or quality. It certainly does not have to be this way. Simple, balanced, well prepared food leaves you sated and energized. Feeling satisfied and nourished is critical to making lasting lifestyle changes — let’s face it, if you’re not enjoying it, you will retreat to old habits.

Diet Detective: How did you get so involved with healthy cooking and nutrition? Was it an early passion? What was your motivation?

Laura: I’ve always loved to cook. When my parents divorced and my mom returned to the workforce, having a delicious nutritionally balanced dinner prepared was my way of helping out. I began to experiment and really enjoyed it. I definitely wanted to know more about what was in the food and what it all meant to good health, so I studied nutrition and chemistry in college. After passing the exam to become a registered dietitian and working for a number of years in an urban acute care setting, I realized that nutrition counseling was often coming too late — after the devastating effects of long term diabetes, hyperlipidemia,etc. This is when I decided to go to the French Culinary Institute and focus on prevention through cooking and education programs that involved nutrition and culinary components.

Diet Detective: Tell us the biggest secret that chefs typically don’t tell anyone about healthy cooking, but should?

Laura: It is easy and is not about reinventing food or cooking techniques. Most traditional diets are healthy. Look to ethnic cuisines. We do not need to invent new “phoods” or totally readapt cooking methods to eat healthy. Second, it is all about fresh quality ingredients — they make the dish taste great and you look good.

Diet Detective: Are you a big proponent of eating locally grown food? If so, why?

Laura: First of all, I believe in supporting members in agriculture and business in the environment where I live. I do this personally as well as via the purchases made through my businesses. From a health perspective, I believe that local products have more nutrients — I wish more studies would be conducted to prove this as fact. But it does make sense, fresher product, less travel, less oxidation of key nutrients and phytochemcials. What I do know, is that local products taste better. As a public health educator I feel much more effective in getting people to “eat more fruits and vegetables” when they actually taste like something.

Diet Detective: Do you believe it’s difficult to eat healthy and still eat locally grown? Aren’t your food choices more limited?

Laura: Yes. But I don’t preach an exclusive message telling people to eat 100% local foods. It is about eating more seasonal local products. I would never advocate narrowing the variety of fresh healthy foods in the diet to “eat local” or organic. The winter months in some areas certainly present a challenge too. I recently met the founder of an organization that flash freezes, pickles, cures and preserves local foods then makes them available throughout the Hudson Valley during the no-grow season. Very cool!

Diet Detective: You’re involved with Sustainable food movement? Can you give us a brief explanation of what that is, and why you’re involved?

Laura: Sustainable means enduring, lasting. Just like we want our agricultural land and traditions to last and continue for generations, we want lasting healthy lifestyle practices, not diets. This does not mean a lack of development. It means smart well planned development.

Diet Detective: Can you tell us one strength training myth that we probably have not heard about? Or that we would be surprised to learn?

Laura: People that rigorously train do not require enormous amounts of protein. They do need more than the RDA (.4 g/pound body weight), but this can easily be made up by food rather than expensive supplements. Nancy Clark, MS, RD is among the most respected sports nutritionists; she recommends approximately .7 g/pound body weight for weight trainers and .8 g/pound body weight for runners. This extra 65 grams per day (for a 160 pound individual) can be consumed via: 4 extra ounces of lean poultry, fish or meat, a yogurt shake/smoothie, and a couple of tablespoons of peanut butter. Sounds tastier to me. Plus you get all of the other nutrients in these foods.

Diet Detective: Now a few more personal questions. If you could eat one unhealthy food whenever you wanted without gaining weight, what would it be?

Laura: French fries are a downfall. I love them and have a hard time stopping at just a few. The upside is I don’t like the kind cooked in sub-quality fat or fry oil. It leaves a horrible aftertaste and is totally unhealthy. But crisp French fries cooked in, say, peanut oil….

I also love just about all cheeses. I certainly would not call rich creamy cheeses unhealthy, but it is definitely one of those “eat moderately” situations.

Diet Detective: What’s your favorite breakfast?

Laura: I’m a bad nutritionist in this way. I often miss the most important meal of the day. Lately I’ve been trying to eat a locally made yogurt with fresh fruit and homemade granola from Gigi Market.

Diet Detective: Do you have time to exercise? What do you do?

Laura: I make time for Pilates twice a week. It helps me feel strong, balanced, and able to keep up with a very active life, which includes the restaurant and market, Chef4Life, gardening, and taking care of my old farmhouse.

Diet Detective: What’s your favorite healthy ingredient? What’s the one thing you’d suggest people keep in their kitchen if they want to cook healthy meals?

Laura: Again, it is hard to stick to one ingredient. I like having dried legumes, a variety of whole grains and dried fruits in my pantry. I can always make a soup, salad or pilaf.

Diet Detective: What’s the one kitchen utensil or tool that you can’t live without?

Laura: My micro-plane zester. Adding citrus peels to marinades, dressing, soups and salads freshens and heightens flavor. You get intense aroma and flavor without the acidity in the juice, which you may or may not want. The peels of citrus fruits also contains d-limonene, a phytochemical that offers protective activity against certain cancers and heart disease.

Diet Detective: What do you consider the world’s most perfect food?

Laura: A fresh farm egg.

Diet Detective: What person do you respect most, or who motivates you?

Laura: John Storm, a dear friend and the superb General Manager of Gigi Trattoria, Gigi Market and Gigi Catering. John’s competence and cool under pressure allows me to own two fast pace food establishments and still run Chef4Life and the many projects related to health and cooking that I love. He totally gets the service industry and is a smart and motivational manager to our fabulous staff.

Diet Detective: What do you do to reduce stress/relax/center your mind? Do you participate in an organized relaxation activity such as yoga, meditation or tai chi?

Laura: No, nothing so organized. I know when it is time to take a long walk with my dog, and there are so many incredibly beautiful locations to do this in the Hudson Valley.

Diet Detective: If you had to pick one healthy cook book to recommend (or two) which would you choose?

Laura: Jacques Pepin’s Simple and Healthy Cooking (or any of his books for that matter). The recipes are simple, they work and taste great.

Diet Detective: Do you have a Calorie Bargain?

Laura: No. I don’t focus on calories or carbs. While preparing or seeking out a healthy meal or snack takes a little time, it provides a really immediate emotional boost — in this busy life we should all make time to take care of ourselves and the ones we love. It is part of nurturing.

Diet Detective: What’s the most bodacious chance you’ve ever taken?

Laura: Putting my French Culinary Institute education on a credit card, and getting into the restaurant business — I was terrified.

Diet Detective: What was your worst summer job?

Laura: Waiting tables at a seasonal surf and turf place. The food was terrible, and so was I! It is amazing that I have spent the last six years on the floor of Gigi Trattoria. I’m a good host, but I would still be a horrible server.

Diet Detective: What did you want to be at the age of five?

Laura: No idea. I really think my confidence to do “anything” has been a slow burn.

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