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Enlightened Eaters: Candice Kumai on Clean Eating

Maggie Borden

August 24, 2015

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Despite years of modeling, Candice Kumai never felt sexy until she made the decision to revamp her diet and her lifestyle. Kumai switched to “clean eating,” and hasn’t looked back since, finding satisfaction and success as a chef, wellness journalist, and cookbook author. The Top Chef  alum detailed her experiences at our recent Enlightened Eaters event, which focused on her newest cookbook, Clean Green Eats. We spoke with Kumai about the importance of family, her inspiration to eat and cook better, and whole-food diet tips for the home cook.

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JBF: When did you start to focus on clean eating? 

Candice Kumai: My mom always scolded me for eating too many processed foods as a teen, and I never really got it until I started to eat clean in my mid-20s. It was the tremendous difference in how I felt that pushed me to create change. Clean eating is not a temporary fix or a crash diet; it’s a way of life. I simply began eating all whole, unprocessed, and real foods again, and I consequently looked and felt my very best after this permanent change. 

After a series I shot with Lifetime called Cook Yourself Thin, I was so incredibly touched by all of the honest and open women that I met who were looking to get healthy and to nourish their bodies. The experience propelled me into the health, wellness, and publishing industries. I knew in my heart that as long as I always spoke the truth, as long as I never sold out, as long as I worked extremely hard, and and was authentic with my work, that I would one day be able to share my stories, love, and passion for clean eating. This journey through food, culture, lifestyle, and heritage has not been easy, but my goodness, has it been rewarding!

JBF: Your book is dedicated to your father, and you credit your mother’s Japanese cooking as the foundation of your outlook on clean eating. How have the habits of your parents influenced your cooking, and your career?

 
CK: My parents may be the most humbling, altruistic, and nurturing people on this planet. My father, raised on a farm in northern Poland, came to the U.S. when he was just 11. He later served in the Navy, got a degree from Hartford Tech, and has worked as a nuclear auditor with Edison for over 30 years. My father's philosophy was built simply on integrity and hard work. My mother was born and raised in Kyushu, Japan, and came from a family of impressionist and tapestry artists in Japan.

My mother is a Japanese language teacher in the U.S. and her passion is to help to bridge the gap between American and Japanese cultures. My mother and her family taught me much of what I know regarding Japanese cuisine. I’ve been visiting Japan since I was in kindergarten, and my love and awe for the craftsmanship and intricate detail in Japanese cuisine and culture has never been stronger. I travel to Japan once a year to study its food, ingredients, land, heritage, and culture. My job is to learn and share my passion for my heritage with the American public. 

Our household was full of tough love. Not that my parents weren't nurturing and loving, but discipline, hard work, and taking pride in what you did came first. My sister and I are both entrepreneurs. We both push ourselves to consistently be at the forefront of our industries. The influence of my parents lives through our work each day, and I am grateful for the tough love, support, and discipline they taught me.

JBF: Have you ever tried any fad diets?

CK: Sure, when I was a scrawny teen modeling in Los Angeles 15 years ago, I was much more into Frappuccinos with extra whip and caramel or a bag of pita chips for lunch and diet "natural" soda. But I quickly learned that these types of foods have zero nutritional content and are full of empty calories and processed chemicals. Here’s the truth: I never felt sexy when I was a model. I only felt sexy when I was my best version of myself, when I nourished and loved myself through real, clean foods. 

JBF: What are some of the biggest changes someone will experience when they start eating clean?

CK: The best side effect to clean eating is simply how amazing you feel. And when you feel good, your whole life starts to improve. The less sugar, preservatives, chemicals, and processed junk you put into your body, the more you will glow. You’ll also feel as if you have more energy, better sleep, more mental clarity, and better fitting jeans. Um, yes! 

JBF: Do you have any recommendations for making good, clean choices when you have you eat out?

CK: Cooking at home will always be your greatest resource to reclaiming your health, so you should choose to cook at home as much as possible, if you can. But I love eating out—I mean, I love eating out, I mean, I live in New York City and I am obsessed with San Francisco, which are both fabulous destinations for delicious food. I love all of my incredibly talented chef colleagues and friends and I urge you to support the ones that are creating change: the ones who are out there at the farmers’ markets, the ones who are cooking with fresh, real, clean, local, and unprocessed foods. The more you know about where your food comes from, the better your overall health. 

For more inspiration, check out Kumai’s recipes for Chipotle Salmon Burgers and Creamy Coconut, Pea, and Mint Soup.

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Maggie Borden is assistant editor at the James Beard Foundation. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.