Interview: Chicago's Best Personal Chef Katie Simmons on Why Plants Rule in the Kitchen!

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I find it fascinating how a plant-based diet can influence people around the world in different ways.

In a previous interview, we touched base with Australian powerlifter Jonno on how a WFPB diet has had a transformative effect on his ability to lift weights and feel healthy.

Late last year, I began chatting with Katie Simmons, "Chicago's Best Personal Chef," after stumbling across one of her excellent vegan recipes online and getting to know just by reading up on her background on her website - Plants-Rule.

Her story is a powerful one that has the ability to promote change - if you need some inspiration to make diet and lifestyle changes, seeing her own transition, loss of 50 pounds, and reclaiming her health is truly great. The "journey," as you will see, even comes with some scale not unlike the Lord of the Rings!

But, the story does not stop there.

The journey towards better health is not just linear to get from point A (feeling sick, overweight, etc.) to point B (not feeling sick, losing weight, etc.) - but involves learning how to completely change your thoughts on food, exercise, and other aspects of lifestyle. For Katie, this adoption of a whole foods, plant-based diet lifestyle (where she has personally gone full vegan, cut out dairy products, and stopped cooking with oil) has led to a great impact on her professional career as a chef.

She is in a unique position to promote better eating habits directly as she cooks for her clients. If you are in the Chicago area, you may even consider getting in touch with her as she operates as a personal chef and provides coaching and lecture services (among other things).

I hope you find our interview with Katie Simmons inspiring as it provides some insight into a unique approach to the plant-based lifestyle.

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From what I can read on your website, I see that your personal and professional life have been shaped by a number of significant events. One of the notable ones that stick out to me is your decision to take a journey to New Zealand to break up the norm. How would you say this trip impacted you?

This trip impacted me on a deeply personal level. It marks the beginning of me taking risks, facing challenges, and overcoming fears to be able to explore, learn, and follow my passion.

In New Zealand, the universal language of food echoed everywhere I went.  It was the welcoming open door that landed me a job at Auckland's Fish Market cooking school.  It was the center of life on the organic farms where I lived and worked for a few weeks at a time. And it was fall-back conversation starter when meeting other backpackers at hostels all over the country.  

After that trip, I came back to the US knowing I wanted to find a career in the food industry.  I was in love with the power of the simple, ancient tradition of cooking.

Could you tell us about what inspired you to become a chef in the first place?

Tongariro Crossing, New Zealand North Island, 2008 taken by Chef Katie during her New Zealand trip

Tongariro Crossing, New Zealand North Island, 2008 taken by Chef Katie during her New Zealand trip

Again, my trip to New Zealand was really a turning point. I left behind a job in sales in the fitness industry that, while successful, left me stuck in a rut. I especially loved cooking in the hostels while I was backpacking.  At the end of the day exploring a volcano or hiking up a glacier, all of us international backpackers would commune over bowls of soup and pasta to share stories, travel tips, and commiserate on the things we missed from home. I love that food brought us together, and I still love how food brings us together.

For Farmer Fred, carrying around extra weight and suffering from many physical ailments really led to a tipping point where a decision needed to be made about making a big change for the better of his health. The last straw really came when his grandson was started to get old enough to play, but he struggled to keep up. Since making the conscious decision to transition to a plant-based diet (no oil and vegan), he has lost 65+ pounds and reclaimed his health. How has your weight shaped your desire to make personal changes?

My weight change on a plant-based diet came as a complete surprise and was powerful.  After years of trying to lose weight with conventional methods of calorie-counting, portion-control, chicken breasts, and Greek yogurt, I never saw a change.  Then, I gave up dairy, oil, and animal protein and lost 20 pounds in a few months. In total, I've lost about 50 pounds.  Like Farmer Fred, I'm sure he also feels stronger and has more energy than ever before.

How was your experience working for Whole Foods Market? This is a place many of us in the plant-based community are all to familiar with as customers, but I’ve never really given thought to those individuals behind the scenes. 

Whole Foods Market was an incredible experience.  

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I am grateful that it was this market that opened my eyes to a plant-based diet.  I learned so much about healthy eating and nutrition.  I also learned extensively about so many of the common food concerns many have, including GMO's, gluten-free diets, humanely-raised meats and seafood, sustainable farming, fair-trade products, and organic farming.

I still think WFM has the highest quality standards in the industry.  The amount of research and quality-control they do behind the scenes iterates their commitment to being a leader in the industry.  

Their new focus on bringing more low-cost items to customers is also note-worthy.  I get all of my canned beans, grains, frozen vegetables, and most pantry staples there because of the low costs and high quality.

I noticed you have a certificate in Plant-Based Nutrition from the T Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies and instantly thought to myself, “I recognize that name!” Are there any figures in the plant-based movement that have had a significant impact on you? 

I trained under the doctors Matt Lederman and Alona Puhlde (from Forks Over Knives) and Jeff Novick when I first was learning about this, so, of course, they greatly impacted my perceptions on nutrition.  

As an athlete, I've also found a strong connection to other plant-based athletes. I've gotten into the Rich Roll podcast, and I love Howard Jacobson's podcast at Plant Yourself.

When it comes to creating a great recipe, what are some key elements that make a dish for you?

This gluten-free vegan cookie recipe offers a taste of chocolate and an elegant presentation. Natural cocoa flavor shines without too much sugar. Make a big batch of this oil-free, plant-based dough and freeze it until ready to bake. These healthy, dairy-free treats make a perfect holiday dessert.

The key elements to creating a delicious dish are:

  • Balance of flavor (sweet, spicy, savory, bitter)
  • Balance of texture (crunchy and smooth)
  • Balance of temperature, if possible (like a cold salad with warm roasted chickpeas)
  • Make it beautiful

These 4 elements are fundamental for most chefs, no matter the cuisine.  

I also strive to tell the story of a dish. Sometimes the story is a history.  Take my Mom's Sweet Potato Casserole, which she would make every year for Thanksgiving.  The story unfolds from this Southern standard, covered with marshmallows.  Then, the dish adopts neon-colored marshmallows when the grocery was out of the regular white ones.  Now, the dish is dairy-free, plant-based with a pecan streusel as my diet has changed.

Chef Katie's Stuffed Brandywine Tomatoes

Chef Katie's Stuffed Brandywine Tomatoes

Another story is about an ingredient.  My Stuffed Brandywine Tomatoes tell the story of Brandywine tomatoes, an heirloom variety that is part of the Ark of Taste project, which aims to preserve "endangered" foods from being lost. 

The story might also be about location.  The spices in my Moroccan Chickpea Tagine reflect the combination of cultures.  Cinnamon stick, turmeric, and dried apricots stew together with turmeric and cumin.  In this dish, you can taste spiced from India, dried fruit from Northern Africa, and wine and vegetables from Europe.  

Lately, I've found a particular craving for these dishes that celebrate the story of combined cultures. Refugees and immigrants might bring very little with them to a new country.  However, their food is often the first thing to be embraced by their new home.

What are some of your favorite recipes that you have created? 

I love reworking comfort foods to fit a plant-based diet.

Chef Katie's Stuffed Acorn Squash (vegan, gluten-free, and oil-free)

Chef Katie's Stuffed Acorn Squash (vegan, gluten-free, and oil-free)

Especially in the winter, the smells of cooking stews and casseroles is incredible. Shepherd's Pie, Lasagna, Beluga Lentil Chili, Green Thai Coconut Curry, and that Moroccan Chickpea Tagine are some favorites right now.  

I also love baking, with some of my favorite baked recipes my Banana Spelt Walnut Bread, Wild Blueberry Cardamom Muffins, and a new recipe for Chocolate (Hidden Green) Cupcakes (where spinach is secretly what keeps the cupcakes moist). 

Could you describe some of your services in case someone reading this would like to get to know more about what you can do for them?

If you're in Chicago, I would love to cook for you and your family.  I also teach cooking classes -- these are great fun for friends, families, and even work colleagues. 

If you're outside of the Windy City, my website Plants-Rule is dedicated to sharing the techniques, recipes, tips, and motivation for adopting more plant-based eating.  I have a huge database of recipes and videos there, plus a few cookbooks

I also do recipe consulting for special diets -- developing dishes for restaurants or even home-chefs that fit specific dietary restrictions (from dairy-free to gluten-free, and everything in between).

You can get to know more about Chef Katie Simmons through her website, Plants-Rule, and social media accounts including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.