Unearthing the Root to Wellness
By Elizabeth Orr
When Chef Gisele Barber cooks a meal, she is helping to build healthy lifestyles.
Versed in the healing qualities of foods, Gisele, a colon cancer survivor, has earned a reputation for being a culinary magician who has alleviated chronic medical conditions with a bagful of roasted root vegetables and yam soup. Her business, Personal Cuisines, is based in Silicon Valley where her varied clients run from cancer survivors to health food fanatics, all of whom depend on her to prepare nutritious and delectable meals.
Most people haven’t a clue how to prepare beneficial vegetables like rutabaga (relative of the turnip) or Swiss chard, and, she says, “you won’t eat them if you don’t know what to do with them.” So Gisele made it her mission to study how food can contribute to improved health and share that knowledge with others.
For example, she discovered parsnips (sweeter, paler cousins to carrots) have anti-inflammatory agents that are good for colon disorders, constipation and high blood pressure. She recommends mashing them up with mixing half and half with potatoes.
Swiss chard is filled with chlorella, which helps in the healing of tumors and strengthens the immune system. Gisele uses turmeric often for its anti-inflammatory powers; cinnamon, which helps maintain proper blood sugar levels; and dulse flaks (part of the seaweed family) instead of salt. But her mantra is “Fresh”—everything, especially vegetables and fruit, as fresh as possible before eating. It’s important to determine how long produce has been sitting on a shelf or how soon it will be cooked.
Gisele is all too familiar with the challenges of trying to get kids to eat a healthier diet. Prior to becoming a chef, she lived a fast-paced Silicon Valley lifestyle as a single parent who indulged in hot dogs, onion rings and Velveeta.
“Processed foods are the worst,” she says knowingly, “and Hamburger Helper was my middle name.” In 1998, part of her colon was removed and doctors couldn’t advise her about what foods she should eat to recover. “All my doctor said was, ‘You’re going to be sick.’”
Ironically, soon after surgery, her son’s doctor, an ADHD specialist, recommended healthy food to get him off Ritalin, which had caused ringing in his ears. Both mother and son turned to a no-nonsense, knock-it-out-of-the-ballpark healthy diet and after a few months her son was off Ritalin and the ringing stopped.
“He was motivated to eat right because it meant getting rid of the ringing,” Gisele recalled. With both feeling better, she left her high-stress job and began making salads at Our Daily Bread, an outreach program at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Sunnyvale that feeds the needy. Recognizing how much joy she found in cooking healthy dishes, Gisele wanted to learn more and enrolled in the Natural Foods Chef program at Bauman College in Santa Cruz.
After graduation, she started Personal Cuisines and today Gisele specializes in helping many clients with compromised immune systems, although some clients request her services just to maintain maximum wellness. Two of her long-term clients, Jim and Gloria Wing of Los Altos, call their healthy food diet “successful aging.” Jim reports, “I’m mentally sharper and don’t have weight problems.” Gloria, who has chronic pain, says, “Giselle has become my lifeline….” An anti-inflammatory and high-fiber diet including Butternut squash soup, fresh ginger and a teaspoon of maple syrup all brought down Gloria’s inflammation.
Watching Gisele cook a meal, it’s easy to see how her passion infuses her flavorful Adzuki bean soup, red lentil stew and chicken patties with apple and arugula. The Japanese Adzuki bean, available in most health food stores, is considered a true superfood: high fiber and a good source of folate, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, iron, manganese and zinc. “Great for the kidneys and those on dialysis,” she explains.
Teaching while she cooks, here are a few tips from Gisele’s cornucopia of information about healthy eating:
• When making macaroni and cheese, always use white Cheddar, which has no dyes.
• Rather than whole-wheat pasta, use whole-grain pasta, which is higher in fiber and easier on the digestive system.
• When it comes to snacks, avoid sugar, go for almonds, a half apple and cheese.
• Be careful what you drink with meals; only drink lukewarm water or tea. “Ice water shocks the bowel system,” she says. However, one glass of wine is fine, especially red.
A final thought is about the value of delayed gratification. “Wait 20 minutes after a meal before having dessert,” she suggests. “Those minutes allow nutrients to absorb in your system.”
Elizabeth Orr has been a journalist for more than 20 years, writing for the San Jose Mercury News and she is also a playwright, video script and web content writer.