Creating recipes as healthy as they are comforting: a vocation for Chef Stacy Wiroll
As a child, Stacy Wirrol never missed a show by American celebrity chef Julia Child. “She treated food with respect. She could even make roast chicken sound exciting. A roast chicken is a very simple thing. But that doesn’t stop it being really delicious.” Watching these cooking shows with her dad in the family living room at home in Wisconsin had a lasting impact on this young American girl. “Chefs like Julia Child or Jacques Pépin, who could zip together a vinaigrette using just herbs from his own garden, taught me that food is about a lot more than simply something you need to ﬁll your belly.” Nevertheless, when Stacy left high school, cooking was not her first choice of career. Her focus was on a career in medicine, but a student job as a waitress in a large restaurant triggered a change of direction. “I remember coming home to my parents after the spring semester and telling my mom: I think I want to go to culinary school! I studied in Minneapolis, and when I graduated, it was like a no-brainer: I felt like I’d found my place.”
So if I use tofu in a salad, I'll coat it in cornstarch, throw it in the oven, and call it ‘crispy tofu’ on the menu. That immediately makes it more desirable!
Stacy Wiroll, Corporate Chef - Culinary Program Development at Elior North America
Cooking healthy, delicious food is all about pleasure
She clearly felt a natural connection between the two worlds of medicine and cooking: “I feel like there’s a synergy there in the sense that you're serving people.” In practical terms, this chef who now has responsibility for culinary innovation at Elior North America wants her guests to relish their food, at the same time as eating as healthily as possible. It’s her firmly held belief that healthy cooking is never dull or boring. “Prejudices run deep. There’s a general belief that ‘healthy’ food is inevitably bland, boring and not particularly nice to eat. But that’s just not true!”
All it takes is a little imagination to convince guests that a dish can be healthy and delicious. The chef makes the point with a broad smile: “It's not like crazy outside the box. All you have to do is work on the name and the image. So if I use tofu in a salad, I'll coat it in cornstarch, throw it in the oven, and call it ‘crispy tofu’ on the menu. That immediately makes it more desirable!”
Likewise, adding Greek yogurt to a ranch dressing recipe helps lower sodium intake and contributes some protein. “I see the whole point of cooking as pleasing my guests, so my ultimate goal is to produce something super delicious! My challenge is that the recipe I develop for a particular burger or salad has to be repeatable in all our kitchens right across the country.” It’s the kind of challenge that never fazes Stacy Wirrol; it has quite the opposite effect. Supercharged with energy, what she loves best is all the teamwork that goes with her status as head of development and innovation. “My job’s all about preparing our chefs by providing them with the tools they need to cook the recipes successfully.”
Eating well means eating healthy, but not just for the body. It’s just as essential for the mind.
Pleasure for the taste buds, comfort for the soul
She still uses her first kitchen utensils today. The first was acquired at the age of 15 when she returned a Christmas sweater to the department store and swapped it for a pepper grinder. Next comes the pasta machine she specifically requested as a Christmas gift. Food has always been a family affair for Stacy. “Despite the fact that my Midwest family is deﬁnitely more meat and potatoes, with fruit and veg seen as more important for the kids! But you have to strike the right balance. Of course, it takes an eﬀ ort to eat healthy, but I love going to the local farmer's market, buying great products and cooking them at home.” The current health crisis has taken the importance of healthy eating to a new level. “Eating well means eating healthy, but not just for the body. It’s just as essential for the mind. Over the last few months, I haven't been able to see my family as much as usual. But being able to cook and share meals remotely, even via a video call, can be very comforting during lockdown. Cooking really does bring people together.”