Eating healthy goes beyond kale and chia seeds, says nutritionist and spa chef extraordinaire Samantha Gowing, who finds the current obsession with superfoods misleading. Le Cordon Bleu Consulting Editor Sona Bahadur speaks with Australia’s leading health guru about her remarkable career, her food-as-medicine philosophy and her nutritional forecast for the New Year.
Trace the beginnings of your culinary career.
My first ever job interview was at Wendy’s Hamburgers. It ended with the employment officer advising me that the hospitality industry was not for me! After joining my father’s restaurant business, I spent the first seven years essentially being an apprentice, going from the public bar to fine dining at our multi Chef-Hatted restaurant Gowings in East Melbourne. By the time I was 24, I was one of the youngest female publicans in Australia as the licensee of the iconic Grace Darling Hotel, where I worked from 1990–1998.
What made you transition from a successful career as hotelier and restaurateur to retraining as a clinical nutritionist?
In the mid-80s, food took on a deeper meaning when my father was diagnosed with cancer. When we asked the oncologist for dietary strategies for cancer patients, the only notable nutritional advice we received was to avoid smoked salmon (to reduce carcinogens) and eat more bran muffins (to increase fibre). I realised then that despite working in restaurants, we knew little about food as medicine. When dad lost his cancer battle, it ignited a deep desire within me to learn about the healing power of food. So after 15 years in restaurants, I sold up and retrained as a clinical nutritionist and opened my mobile organic cooking school in 2000. Through my grief, I discovered my calling.
How did things evolve from there?
Big things grow from little things. My ebook The Healing Feeling launched in 2012. By 2013 it was a bestseller, selling over 2000 units locally and more overseas. The demand for clean flavours and transparency of ingredients has never been so great. Our food product development and design services deliver unique vertical wellness offerings that are authentic and handcrafted blends with a contemporary health twist. We develop unique recipes and flavour concepts to build the profile of new healthy food brands, and revive old brands with our cutting-edge concepts in health product development and design.
You’re also a leading spa chef. What excites you about this niche?
I have always been inspired by Chef Raymond Blanc whose Spa Cuisine has been celebrated for decades and helped to shape Nouvelle Cuisine and Californian cuisine. However, I found interpretations of this cuisine to be overly petite, pale and unsubstantial for my audience. So in 2010, I launched my signature cuisine Surf Spa Food, which encapsulates my food-as-medicine teachings. The healing lines between the spa and the kitchen are becoming more integrated. I love this! Seaweed-and-vanilla-infused body scrubs and turmeric tonics on arrival are just some of the ways in which food as medicine is creeping back into the clinic space.
You’ve been a vocal critic of food trends, particularly superfoods. Comment.
The last few years have been marked by a near-hysterical obsession with the next superfood or diet trend. As writer Michael Pollan observed, what we eat has changed more in the last 40 years than it has in the previous 40,000. This trend-chasing “I saw it on Instagram” eating needs to stop. We need to be restored to sane, nutritious, clean, local, personally intuitive foods and go back to thinking about eating as pleasure. Skip the kale if you like. Too many superfoods are on a collision course with sustainability. We’re wildly importing chia seeds, quinoa, goji berries, coconut, maca, and agave from all around the world. But our food-trendiness is disturbing global agricultural ecosystems.
So what’s the path ahead?
Overall, our good lies in the continued pursuit of the enjoyment of food and the attainment of an emotional healthy response from eating. It lies in utilising ingredients for their unique qualities that connect us with the ocean and earth.
Which healthy foods excite you right now?
Native Australian ingredients are so amazing. From finger lime to kakadu plum, from aniseed myrtle to mountain pepper leaf, the forest floor is the new marketplace. Nature is the foundation of progressive menus worldwide, whether it’s foraging for coastal weeds and hinterland seeds, buzzing about flow hive honey, kelp oil or costal tea tree vinegar. Wild harvested ingredients are infusing fragrant gins with botanicals and craft beers are frothing with medicinal elixirs worldwide. Artisan traditions meet modern nutrition as plant-based menus and sustainable table ideology takes charge.
What’s your all-time favourite meal?
My default breakfast is Japanese-style seared ocean trout with brown rice, steamed broccoli and tamari-ginger dressing.
Give us your healthy eating forecast for 2020?
Plant-based food is to 2020 what lentils were to the 1970s. From faux fish to frighteningly complex lab-tested vegan proteins, the future of food looks, well, futuristic. Who would have thought we could have a meat-free burger? But the Impossible Burger made from plant meat has defied nature. It is the biggest selling faux fare around.