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Making Your Diet #dessertworthy: Q & A with JBF Award Winner Emily Luchetti

Maggie Borden

March 16, 2015

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Photo by Eric Wolfinger

JBF Award winner Emily Luchetti is known for satisfying sweet tooths of all ages at the Cavalier, Marlowe, and Park Tavern in San Francisco. But last month Luchetti launched #dessertworthy, a social media campaign aimed at revolutionizing the way we view and value our cakes, cookies, and ice cream. JBF sat down with Luchetti to discuss the motivation and philosophy behind #dessertworthy, along with her hopes for realistic change for the average American, one passed-over Pop Tart at a time. 

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JBF: You’ve said before that you feel like it’s your duty as someone who works with desserts all day to be a good role model. Can you tell us a little bit about your relationship with sugar and dessert over your career and your life?

Emily Luchetti: When you’re surrounded by dessert all day, and I would say most pastry chefs would attest to this, you learn not to overindulge, mostly because if you eat everything that’s in front of you, you just don’t feel well. It prevents you from having a productive day and being at your best, both physically and mentally. As a pastry chef I’m constantly asked, “How do you do it?” Like it’s impossible. Or else people ask, “Well, how can I believe that you can make a good dessert if you’re not overweight yourself?” That point of view is so outdated! If you’re a winemaker, they don’t assume that you’re an alcoholic, or if you’re a pharmacist they don’t assume you’re addicted to pills. So I decided that if I can do it, then the rest of the world can attempt to do it, too.

JBF: What motivated you to start #dessertworthy? Have you felt this way for a while, or was there a specific event that brought sugar consumption to the fore for you?

EL: Well, actually, it all goes back to when I attended the Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change. As a chef, you’re constantly asked to advocate for other people’s causes, but at Boot Camp I started wondering, what is my cause? What speaks to my core and affects my day-to-day? And the answer was sugar. I realized I really don’t like that all the messages out there about sugar are so negative. Sugar has become the new devil, and to a certain extent, it’s true. But you can have some amount of sugar in your life. It just has to be returned to the point where it’s a treat and not something that you have all-day, everyday. 

We have to be realistic: people aren’t going to give up sugar one hundred percent. So let’s take a step back. I’m tired of the guilt that’s associated with desserts. If you feel guilty, you’ve negated the whole reason for having it. A dessert is there to give us pleasure. So let’s get rid of the guilt, but also put it in perspective. I don’t care if it came from the Puritans or wherever, it’s gotta stop. Life’s too short to eat bad dessert.

JBF: The Wall Street Journal recently reported a plunge in earnings for Kellogg’s and General Mills—do you see this as a sign of more engaged consumers? Will this change the type of food on grocery store shelves, or do you think the industry will just find another way to package the same basic products?

EL: I think that cereal has been on the slide for a long time. It has so much sugar in it, and regardless if you’re a kid or an adult, if you eat breakfast cereal, you just won’t get enough nourishment to last you until lunchtime. I think people have caught onto that, and there has been a real decrease in the amount of cereal being eaten. These companies need to start creating food that tastes good and isn’t bad for you. I know that’s extremely hard because the sugar and salt adds to the shelf life of food, but at the same time, companies really need to do it if they want to continue to have high sales. People are just getting to the point where they just realize that this stuff is just not good for them. I also think, and I feel really strongly about this, that they should start putting “added sugar” on the nutrition label. Because people have the right to know what they eat, and if it’s not coming from Congress or the FDA, then consumers really need to push for it and say that they want it. 

JBF: Can you recommend some small changes a person can make in their daily diet to curb sugar intake?

EL: First of all, I would stop eating processed foods that have a lot of sugar in them, because when you’re just eating fresh ingredients, you have enough room in your sugar intake that you can have the occasional dessert. I often suggest “no sugar before noon,” but of course there are exceptions to that. For instance, yesterday I was at B. Patisserie in San Francisco, and they make the most amazing desserts, so I said to myself, “I don’t come here everyday, so I’m going to have something delicious.” I got the kouign amann, and it was to die for, and then I just didn’t have any sugar for the rest of the day. So if you have something like a pastry in the morning, be realistic that it does have sugar in it, and so you almost have to treat it as a dessert. 

Another thing that’s important is to figure out what you can substitute for your go-to comfort foods. For most people, if you have a bad day, you want to have chocolate chip cookie—that’s what I do, I crave that chocolate chip cookie. But I’ve learned what I can have instead: I’ll keep cooked brown rice in my refrigerator, and for an afternoon snack I’ll have brown rice heated up with really good olive oil and salt. Or I’ll have a small piece of 70% chocolate. If you have really good chocolate, a little bit is satiating, whereas if you have a Hershey bar, you need two of them before you feel satisfied. 

Lastly, just be honest with yourself: there’s a real addiction to having sugar everyday, and I know that firsthand, because when I’m changing of the menus at work, or I’m doing a tasting, I’ll eat a lot of sweets, and then the next day when I don’t have to do that tasting, there’s a clock that goes off in my head that’s like “where’s the sugar?” And you have to fight it, you really do. But just give a day or two, just give it a break. Recognize that there is that physical desire to have it, but don’t necessarily always give into it. 

You just have to figure out what your kryptonite is. A lot of people in the nutrition world don’t like it when you say, “give yourself sweets as a reward,” they think that that’s the wrong thing to do, but I think if you place them properly, and space them out, and you’re within your sugar limit, I think desserts are good for you in moderation. 

Need an example of a #dessertworthy treat? Check out this recipe for Emily's Chewy Oatmeal Cookies with Dried Cherries and Chocolate Chips. Find out more and join the cause on Emily's website, Facebook, or Twitter.

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