Chef Natalia Levey Turns Personal Health Issue Into a Passion for Culinary Wellness

About ten years ago, Chef Natalia Levey, co-founder of multi-concept restaurant group Hi Hospitality, was having a bout of depression that she couldn’t quite understand.

“It felt chemical; there was nothing in my life that could spark depression in me,” she says. “There was not a single circumstance in my life that would create a situation for me to be depressed. I was happily married, I was a mom, I had great friends, I had an amazing life.”

It turned out she was right: Chef Levey consulted a doctor who specializes in holistic medicine and after having blood work done, learned that her mood was actually connected to a deficiency in folic acid and vitamin B12. After that experience, Chef Levey became extremely interested in the relationship between food and wellness, and went on to become a certified health coach and certified nutritional consultant. She also began partnering with doctors to help them teach their patients how to cook healthy meals at home, as well as incorporating what she’d learned about cooking and wellness into the menus of her restaurants. In order to help chefs make their dishes a bit healthier, she suggests the following tips.

Increase fruits and vegetables in dishes by thinking about complementary flavors. It’s no secret that fruits and vegetables can boost the healthiness of a dish, but Chef Levey says there are easy ways to incorporate them into recipes that will enhance both the nutrition and the flavor.

“Vegetables and fruits contain fiber, and fiber is a prebiotic, which we need for the bacteria, the probiotics, in our gut,” she says. “We need to focus on eating a wider variety of fruits and vegetables so we have a wider variety of prebiotics and probiotics in our gut. So, instead of thinking about regular mashed potatoes, think about what two or three complementary vegetables you can add to add a little bit more to the variety. Not only are we increasing nutritional value of the dish, but we’re also increasing the flavor profile as well by introducing interesting flavors.”

When it comes to mashed potatoes, for example, Chef Levey says that adding some cauliflower, parsnip, and vegan cream cheese can produce a healthier version of the creamy goodness that everyone loves.

Consider changing the plate composition. “We are so used to the protein being the star of a plate, but with the recommendations that are coming out, we really should be looking at vegetables to be the star of the plate,” says Chef Levey. “Fifty percent of the plate should be vegetables and then you have a smaller portion of the protein and then whatever starch and garnish are there.”

Make vegan options part of the rule, not the exception. Chef Levey says that in her restaurants, she has responded to increasing requests for vegan options in order to not only boost the healthy dishes on the menu, but also to make these customers feel more welcome.

“What we have done in all of our restaurants is that we want to help make those people that have nutritional deficiencies, or that have specific preferences, feel welcome, rather than we’re sort of doing them a favor by eliminating something off the menu,” she says.