It’s fantastic to create a list of “firsts” in your life, especially when it means making history. In Spring 2011, Chef Danielle Saunders became the first African American woman to win The Food Network’s Chopped competition show [Season 7, Ep. 2], and followed up by taking home an even more challenging Grand Finale win in the Chopped Champions series this Fall.
As the former personal chef for high profile clients like Sean “Diddy” Combs and driven entrepreneur, Saunders is used to staying extremely busy. However, a hectic schedule doesn’t keep her from adding more “firsts” to her life, as she sets out to publish her first book and set up programs to teach children about healthy eating.
Danielle Saunders took some time out with us for yet another first – a “Slice of Life” feature on UrbLife.com! Read on as this talented food expert tells us how she’s creating healthy ‘soul fusion’, gives us her thoughts on the reality of reality TV, and explains the ways she’s opening new lanes at every turn!
Between being a personal chef, a hotel chef, making television appearances and running a business, what has been your favorite thing to do in your career thus far?
Danielle Saunders: They all have been great in their own right. I guess the best thing would probably be being a personal chef, and that’s for more than one reason. You really get to see the world, you get to travel. You get to experience different cuisines and just experience the world and see how other people do foods.
It’s amazing, and I think that opens up a lot of different doors for you, and it opens up your repertoire because you learn more. I think traveling and being able to experience different cuisines with a client, it’s almost like a Chopped in its own right, because it is challenging but rewarding at the same time.
Have you ever had a client that just wasn’t into a certain food, but then you were able to cook it in such a way that they would try it?
DS: Oh most definitely. I would have to use Mr. Combs as an example of a client that had a chosen palette, but I was able to transform things in a way where he would eat them. I’ve had several clients like that. It’s all in technique and how you can transform a dish and elevate it to a point where someone who may not eat this particular item, you transform it in such a way that they are willing to taste it and end up liking it.
It’s kind of rough to persuade someone to try something new when they’re used to doing things their way all of the time. I think food gives you that leverage where you can persuade and barter with people. I’ve been able to them to try things that they probably wouldn’t normally eat.
Have you found that sometimes you could tweak things you learned formally to make better processes for yourself and your cooking?
DS: Most definitely. For me, I think there is a big difference in cooking in a restaurant setting as opposed to cooking private. Cooking in private, you have a lot more room to play around with things, as opposed to a regimented menu that you have to stick by. There are technical Southern things and treatments that you may do with food, like when it comes to collard greens or slow cooking when you’re making short ribs. All of those things are a part of my elevation of soul food, and where I get “soul fusion” from.
One of the dishes on my menu is a Risotto Jambalaya, and that’s where the fusion comes in. Risotto is more Italian and Jambalaya is more Creole, so I’m able to put those two techniques together and really elevate soul food in a way where it’s still reminiscent of something you know when you think of soul food, but the techniques are different when you’re really elevating it and changing the dish and the face of soul food. That’s what I think my style is more like.
A recipe is a recipe, but when you change one or two ingredients you make it your own. For me, when I say the elevation of soul food and soul fusion, it’s really a blend of all of the techniques and all of the genres and backgrounds that I learned through traveling. I put them together with soul food and give you my interpretation.
I have a soul sushi dish that I do, but but they’re served where your brain would automatically go to sushi because of the look and the way that it’s plated. When you taste it, it’s very reminiscent of down home Southern; it’s just presented to you a little differently. I have several things that I do that way. My brain works kind of funny that way.
What are some items we can be sure to have on hand in the kitchen to make our meals a little healthier?
DS: Sweet potatoes. I think that they are delicious and you can transform them in many different ways. You can make sweet potato fries, you can bake it, you can smash them… I can think of four different ways off the top of my head. They’re really good for you. [CLICK HERE for some Sweet Potato recipes from Chef Saunders at Huffington Post]
Spinach. This should be a vegetable that you always have. You can sauté it, you can eat it raw, you can juice it, and it’s very universal.
Thyme. You can do a lot with that. It could go sweet or savory. Again, it’s something that is universal. You can use it in soups and stocks. You can use it in fish and in chicken. It’s an herb that you can put in almost anything that you have and it will elevate it to some point.
Green apples. I can just pick one up and eat it whole.
Skinless chicken breast – it’s lean!
Brown rice. If you keep that in the cabinet, you’ll never go hungry. Plenty of fiber.
Blueberries. They can be used for dessert, they are transformable, and you could even add them to savory sauces, which is a very French technique. They’re also full of antioxidants, which is good for you and your skin. They give you energy.
They’re also a part of Dr. Oz Garcia’s
Daily Boost drink, which is a mixture of cranberry,blueberry, acai, and strawberry – all of the different berry groups together, which is an antioxidant boost. It gives you energy. You can drink it by the shot or you can have it in a shake. It’s delightful and it tastes really good.
With Chopped, was there any misperception you had as to what being in a television competition was all about before you went in?
DS: Not at all. I think exactly what people saw is what it is. I go into TV knowing that people would always find me to be the underdog. And that’s fine, I like to be the quiet storm coming through, where you’re not sure what I can do – and once I start cooking, the proof is in the pudding. I kind of like that, and I expect that out of television and that’s exactly what I got. I was able to break the mold and break those misconceptions.
Women rock, and we can do our thing no matter how we look! I remember going to the network… and you know I wear jewelry and I like nice, designer things… so when I came up I had a Louis Vuitton bag and jewelry. I remember one of the producers saying, “You’re a chef?! Wait, you have a manicure!” Well, I like to look nice outside of work and I don’t want my hands to look beat up so I get manicures.
Either way they totally discounted me on Chopped, which I knew would be the case. Then once I cooked, they were like, “You’re kind of badass!” It was just so funny. All of those things that I thought about TV were exactly what I thought that they would be. Again, I like to break molds and make you think about what I’m going to do, and keep you wondering and I did that.
Was the competition stressful?
DS: Yes it was very, very stressful, but fun at the same time. I think that days are very long when you do TV. That takes a lot to get used to. When I’m cooking, I’m in my comfort zone. I’m good with time, and I work good under pressure. The part of the competition caused the least amount of stress for me.
The stressful part was waiting to see who would get chopped. Waiting for the results was the hardest part for me. Cooking and being able to speak on television and being interviewed, I’m totally comfortable with that.
What do you have coming up next career-wise?
DS: I’m actually working on my book. It’s a book that is geared towards the misconceptions of soul food. I don’t have a definitive title of it yet, but I am working on a publishing deal. I’m also in works with Anthony Mackie, we’re supposed to be filming a project together.
In addition to that, I’ve recently been certified by Dr. Oz Garcia, who is a world renowned nutritionist and life extension specialist. I’ve lost 40 pounds on a diet that he promotes called Eat Right for Your Blood Type, so I’m promoting that. I’m a living witness that it works, and it’s amazing how your body just tells you what it wants and what you should have. It’s really crazy.
I recently opened up a juice bar in Englewood, New Jersey called The Market Place, where I’m featuring juice combinations. We’re directly across the street from a 27,000 square foot gym. I’m promoting health through food and juicing, and letting people know that you don’t have to eat a bunch of pork-induced food in order for it to taste good. I want to really clear up the misconceptions about soul food and just good food period.
I also give back to the children. That’s my other platform, teaching kids that eating healthy is important and it starts a very young age. That’s a big misconception in our community. We feel because it’s a $6 meal at McDonald’s or wherever that it’s healthy and good. We eat in the restraints of what we can pay for.
I’m here to show that there are other options, that we can eat healthy and not pay a million bucks for it. There are ways we can cut corners and still get good, nutritious meals without eating the junk that we normally consume. Working out is obviously a plus, but I would say at least 70% of it is what you put in your mouth, and what and when you consume it. We don’t realize it because we’re on the go.
That’s why I have two major salads in the store right now that can go for any of the four blood types, so it’s convenient, it’s quick, and it’s healthy. I’m excited about it and I’m so blessed to be here and I’m very happy to see where it could go. I’m psyched to see where it’s going to take me.
I’ve gotten a huge following via Twitter and Facebook, people emailing me saying that I’m an inspiration. That encourages me to really do more and really break molds. I’ll do whatever it is I have to do. On Chopped, I’m the first African American woman to win the competition.
I’m just really excited to see what all it can bring and whoever I can help or touch, and show that we can do this and we can eat soul food and be healthy. Your body really talks to you, and once I learned what I can and cannot have, it’s just like, “Whoa, I didn’t like having this stuff anyway.” It’s a no-brainer and it just makes sense.