Welcome to the Balance Feature! Each month Believe in Balance features an individual or organization striving to make a difference in the lives of the communities and the people they serve.
This month I spoke to Gerard Viverito. Gerard wears many hats; Dad, husband, caterer, consultant, entrepreneur, and educator.
The day I met him, he was wearing his chef hat at an event where he did a cooking demonstration. He captured my attention with his sense of humor, smarts, and passion for food and nutrition. Of course, his Italian ethnicity helped.
I learned that fresh, clean food doesn’t need a lot of fuss and that kale, chopped finely with a little olive oil and salt can taste AMAZING!
I loved his approach to food and nutrition so much, I wanted to share it with you.
Meet Gerard Viverito…
Where did your love for food come from?
When I was young and growing up, some of my greatest and strongest memories are food-centered. I was 5 years old the first time my grandparents pulled in the milk delivery crate for me to stand on so I could form gnocchi on the kitchen table and stir polenta for what felt like hours on end.
My parents knew better than to get in the way of my grandparents and great grandparents who wanted to instill the family traditions in me. There was the fear, I am sure, of cutting or burning myself, but the adrenaline of the special treatment I got made up for it.
When home my mother made sure my food education continued in the garden. I was taught from a young age to pick vegetables that were right as well as how to plant, prune and tend to the daily upkeep.
I have always realized where food came from and how to make sure it is the best that it can be. During the winter holiday season, I remember all of the kids playing in the snow, but my idea of fun was helping all the neighbors bake holiday cookies, breads and cakes. I delighted in this every year and it helped me to realize that some items such as baked goods required more precision and science than cooking.
What inspired you to become a chef?
Most likely my Italian grandmothers and great aunts. They were always cooking when we were around and put such love into their dishes that you could not help but be amazed at how such simple cuisine could be elevated to such heights.
I grew up with a garden in my yard since before I could walk.
As a child, it was my duty to weed the garden and pick the produce. From a very young age, I could tell the ripeness of fruits, and vegetables by sight, touch and smell. I feel that too many people lack that skill and it’s apparent by what I see people buying in grocery stores today.
Later on, in elementary school, my mother would farm me out to the ladies on the street for their annual holiday baking which further cemented my love of food and the pleasures it brings people.
Chef Gerard Viverito and his wife, Danielle
Who or what has been your biggest influence?
When my wife reads this, she will roll her eyes, I am sure…… Honestly, I have found some of my biggest influences come from my favorite musician, Bob Weir. He is a pioneer in his field and has been touring for the last 53 years as a founding member of the Grateful Dead as well as his own bands.
Now, why would a guitarist be my influence? Well, quite simply in all the years touring, he has never repeated a setlist and has always slightly changed the music. Bobby seeks perfection through iteration and is still seeking it. I like to apply that methodology to my life and constantly make tweaks to see where the journey goes next.
What is the biggest challenge you see as it relates to food and nutrition?
I think the biggest problem facing society today is the inequity of food in relation to distribution. The world food producers presently produce more than enough calories to sustain us and here in America, we average 30% of it going in the trash, while some of our very own neighbors go hungry.
I cannot for the life of me figure out why we don’t concentrate more on figuring out how to equitably share proper nutrition amongst our fellow mankind. All too often people claim it’s cheaper to eat processed food versus whole foods, produce spoils in the field or in transit and then even if it is available many people lack the education to know how to properly utilize it.
In addition to being passionate about sustainability, I’ve always been a bit of a rebel. I’ve never been one to just accept what I’m told or what I read on the internet. Instead, I’ve got to experience things for myself. I’ve been fortunate to travel the world. I’ve seen firsthand how different cultures protect their natural resources. There’s no better way to understand the concept of being a citizen of the world.
This year’s Earth Day theme was Protect our Species. One of the best ways to protect our wildlife and their habitats is to support the global use of sustainable products. Thankfully it’s getting easier to make planet-friendly food choices here in the U.S.
Learn where your food comes from.
I’m not just talking about buying local – although that’s nearly always a great idea – but also understand that there are entire countries that put a high priority on caring for our world’s natural resources. Make time to read the food labels.
Research by EcoFocus Worldwide revealed that 87% of us are thinking about the environment when we shop for groceries. And 58% of shoppers (up from 54% in 2014) care about where companies source their ingredients. Buy only US-caught seafood. Ask the seafood department manager about the country of origin if it’s not already marked. More than 90% of our seafood is imported. We don’t know what regulations were followed to protect our oceans when those fish were caught.
I serve as Director of Culinary Education for Passionfish, an NGO non-profit organization dedicated to educating people around the globe on the issue of sustainability in the seas. I can confirm that the American seafood industry generally has superior sustainability practices than those of other countries.
Stop using GMO cooking oils.
Use palm oil instead of canola, soy or corn oils. Palm oil is non-GMO and versatile for most high-heat applications. Palm oil is one of the most widely consumed products on the planet and can also be found in many of America’s biggest brands.
Much of our palm oil comes from Malaysia, where it is certified sustainable. (MSPO is a new logo you might soon see on packaged foods.) I’ve walked through the Malaysian oil palm plantations. Malaysians are diligent about protecting the rainforests and wildlife.
Don’t buy into the no-palm oil movement. The oil palm is about 10 times more productive than all other oil-bearing crops.
Without the oil palm, the amount of deforestation needed to plant other oil crops to feed the world would be unimaginable. So, instead of saying “no palm oil” insist on only certified sustainable palm oil.
Be efficient and buy only what you need. More than 30% of our food in this country goes to waste. Freeze what you can’t eat right away. Eat your leftovers. If you overbought, share the bounty with your neighbors. Use your grocery shopping choices to support tougher standards and strengthen enforcement of already existing laws and legislation. Food manufacturers are listening. Many more have now committed to using certified sustainable ingredients. This is good news for the growing number of informed consumers who are visiting manufacturers’ corporate responsibility websites for ingredient sourcing details.
You talk a lot about “functional cooking”. What does that mean?
The simple answer is adding nutritional ingredients to a recipe to gain healthful results. I am very big on helping people with “shopping cart makeovers”. I usually start coaching people and tell them to start slowly and read the labels on their foods. If you care one iota about your health, you need to read the product labels of the foods you’re placing in your shopping cart.
Many products which appear healthy actually contain hydrogenated oils. This major trans fat source has been associated with numerous health problems, such as heart disease and diabetes.
Read the ingredients of each and every food product you purchase. Look for products made with healthier oils, such as palm oil or olive oil, and because sustainability matters, support companies which use certified sustainable and responsibly sourced Malaysian palm oil.
If I am going for a cold preparation, my new go-to is Chia Seed Oil. Its is rich and velvety and blends into dressings just as easily as any other oil would but with the benefit of omega 3 fatty acids.
Some other things I try to get people to do is add fiber to their food. We are in a fiber crisis in this country and are all about 30-50% below our daily intake needs. For a no shop and chop solution, I add either sunfiber or regular girl powder to my coffee or recipes for an extra serving of fiber without feeling bloated. When I need a little extra recovery for my muscles I am using ribose as a substitute for sweetener. I do the keto diet and have now become very sensitive to sweet flavors therefore ribose is great as it is 60% as sweet as table sugar but helps combat fatigue without the dreaded glucose sugar crash.
If you could give one piece of advice about food and nutrition to our readers, what would it be?
Eat as locally and seasonally as possible. It does not have to be expensive to do, perhaps even plant your own herbs and vegetables as space permits.
When food is grown far away due to our differing seasons, it requires a lot of resources to get to us. Sadly in transit, many nutrients are lost and the food is not even giving us the vitamins we need.
Additionally, I always appreciate supporting my local community as they support me in my businesses. You don’t have to eat tomatoes, cucumbers, and strawberries in the winter!!! Your body deserves and craves a variety. Give it what it wants by eating seasonally and have nature provide the variance.
Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?
Nothing earth-shattering here, but when you cook, use your head, your hands and your heart. Translation, think about what you are about to put into your body, make it with your own hands and put love into it!
What’s next for Chef Gerard?
Every block I ask my students what they want to be when they grow up and they often say what they think I want to hear, but I tell the ones that have “no idea” that I am with them.
I do not know what my end game is and just as I have learned so many skills along the way that have benefitted past and present ventures, I am sure that it will be trying to disrupt the present food industry.
How can our readers find you?
I hope this interview brought you some good ideas. I bought my palm oil and am super conscious about where my food comes from.
If you enjoyed this post, I’d love it if you share it with your world.