Chef Gator and the Cuisine that Nearly Killed Him

  At Bleu we are all about telling stories. We look to find the untold. Recently, our PR intern Alisha Yuhanna was working with a client, Fenix, a supper club in San Rafael California, when she met the talented Chef Gator. Inspired by his love for cooking, big smile, and even bigger personality she decided to interview the chef to see how the man in the kitchen came to be.   Chef Gator has built a cult following in the Bay Area, learning under renowned Chef Paul Bertolli at Oliveto and then making his own name as a chef-owner at several restaurants from San Jose to San Rafael; he currently presides over the kitchen at Fenix. He is beloved for both his gregarious personality and unique mastery of Southern cuisine. We spoke to Chef Gator about his journey into Southern food and how that journey ended with an enlighteningly healthy twist: You’ve always loved Southern food. Where did this love come from and tell me a bit about your childhood? “Every Sunday after church, my family and I would have a big family dinner. The entire family would be there and we would eat together Southern-buffet style. On the table were mac & cheese, yams, chocolate sauerkraut cake, roast turkey, fried catfish. “My grandmother inspired me to cook. She always knew I’d become a chef. Going way back. You know what I’m saying? For example, I remember when I was eight years old I snuck downstairs at midnight to make spaghetti. And yeah, I got busted for that. I got the ass whooping of a lifetime. But while I was getting yelled at, I could hear my dad back in the kitchen in the background calling out, ‘Oh my. Did you taste this?!’ It tasted good.” Now, I understand something happened to you that inspired a change in your approach to food. Healthier food, to be specific. Can you tell me a little about it? “I went traveling to explore the roots of Southern food. Instead of the big fancy restaurants, I went to the smaller places down South. Unfortunately, along my journey I found myself pushing 460 pounds.I was on my death bed and my blood pressure, sugar levels, cholesterol was way up. That was 2006. There was a family decision for me to get gastric bypass surgery at Stanford, because I needed to change.” And this inspired a change in your philosophy? “I woke up after my surgery and that is when I knew I wanted to change. It was the cuisine I loved that almost killed me. And I wanted to change us both. You know what I’m saying? “People don’t know how to eat healthy. It’s a commitment. You can’t have an organic salad one day and then a burger the next. It has to be a lifestyle change. For two years, I researched how to cook healthier. And I developed a new approach. I called it ‘Gator’s Neo-Soul.’ The way I researched food was by going to farmers’ markets and gathering an array of foods and spices. Then I went into the kitchen and cooked it. I learned how to use the right fats, not the low fats. Today, I weigh 272 pounds. Cholesterol is now 92, down from 300. “The doctors down at Stanford were impressed. They wanted me to write a cookbook. Maybe I will. For now, I incorporate my healthy recipes into every menu.. I want to help people live healthier lives.” Congratulations! But this alternative approach to Southern recipes is easier said than done, is it not? How does one make Southern food healthier and deliver all the flavor people expect? “The flavor is in the ingredients. I changed the oils and used healthier oils, but the flavors are still the same. You have to make sure to season your food. And salt is not a season—it enhances the flavor, helps you taste the many flavors of your food.” Can you give me some examples of your transformative recipes and some of the special things you’re doing in the kitchen (without giving anything away, of course)? “Saturated fats from the food creates flavor. The right fat gives you the right flavor. For example, I use rice oil, grape-seed oil, coconut oil. “A transformative dish that I’m working on is a pan-seared filet mignon with red onion marmalade, black eyed peas, and wild mushroom compote. The red onion marmalade is made with a red wine reduction which creates a really rich flavor. I create a clean demi-glaze, no preservative and antibiotics. It’s clean. You have to come in and taste it to get the real flavor profile.” But what do you do that’s different? What makes Chef Gator Chef Gator? “The flavors come alive in everything I do. My mind is a Rolodex of flavors. And it’s connected to my heart. That’s where it comes from, you know what I’m saying? It’s my passion to intensify flavor for people that come and eat my food. It’s part of understanding the many flavors to use, but also knowing how to enhance them that plays a role.” Now I know you mentioned the story behind the name, Chef Gator. Do you mind telling it once more? “Oh yeah, sure. I was in the military in St. Petersburg and a bunch of us went to an illegal alligator wrestling place. I had intention to wrestle. I was just there with my buddies. Then I had 16 shots of tequila. “I trained for one hour with a guy who had his arm bitten off. So I knew to pay attention to what this guy was telling me. Then I went in and didn’t waste any time. I got behind the gator quick, held its mouth closed, and got his arm. Flipped us both onto our back. And when a gator’s brain hits the top of his head, he passes out. “So then everyone was chanting ‘Gator, Gator, Gator.’ Later, I met a publicist who learned the story and implored me to go with name. And it stuck.” What do you want people to take away from the food? “Flavor. Flavor. Flavor. I walk into the kitchen every day and deliver food that is flavor-FULL.” Fenixfoodcolloage _____________________________________________________________________________ Chef Gator is now down to 220 pounds. His cholesterol dropped to 92 and he’s now healthier than before his Southern eating spree. His doctors were so impressed, they made him the spokesperson for Stanford’s Bariatric Surgery and Diabetes Program and they still want him to write a cookbook.   Interview by Alisha Yuhanna Photos by Britt Goh    

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