John Gordon cooks for more than 2,500 people a day. As executive chef of Los Angeles-based Project Angel Food, a nonprofit organization that provides meals to people with serious illnesses, the batches of Mongolian beef, sweet and sour tofu, and turkey chili verde that leave the Gordon’s kitchen are specially tailored for diners’ nutritional needs. “It’s about food as medicine,” Gordon says. “So whatever category that client fits comfortably in” — whether they have diabetes, cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, or are being treated for cancer — “they get a tailored meal to accommodate whatever they’re dealing with.”
Gordon and Project Angel Food’s efforts are part of a nationwide movement toward medically tailored meals, or food prescribed as medical treatment and intervention. For those with chronic conditions, advocates say, a precise balancing of nutrients — not to mention services that ensure patients have access to good food — can keep people out of hospitals and improve overall health. For Gordon and the army of employees and volunteers that fuel PAF, that means one recipe might be written, and then cooked, several ways based on specific nutritional guidelines: People with kidney disease receive portions with less protein, for example, while those with diabetes get meals that focus on vegetables instead of carbs.
In the latest episode of Gastropod, co-hosts Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley speak to folks at the Food Is Medicine Coalition and other experts advocating for meals as medicine. And read on for Gordon’s perspective on the logistics required to bring prescription dinners to hundreds of people daily. “I find it exciting,” Gordon says. “It’s a puzzle. It’s a challenge each day to say: Okay, how do I make this happen?”
Gastropod: Before the Food Is Medicine Coalition, who were Project Angel Food’s clients and what were the meals like for them?
John Gordon: When I started, our clients were all HIV and AIDS patients; we were doing one hot meal per day for each client, seven days a week. Back then, the emphasis was: Get their weight back up, keep the weight on them, and make sure that they had something to eat. For various reasons, clients just did not have access to food. I’ve heard story after story [from clients] where, once it was discovered that they were HIV positive, people would disconnect from them. So at a time when they most needed [help], they didn’t have anyone in their corner. And so, here comes Project Angel Food, like, hey, here’s a hot meal per day. Guaranteed. We got you.
When did the organization start getting involved in medically tailored meals?
In the past five years or so, we’ve gravitated towards food as medicine, meaning the recipes have changed. It went from being like, “put on weight, eat, eat, eat,” to “if you’re diabetic, then these are the things you should not have, and these are some of the things that are probably better for you.”
What’s the process of creating one of these recipes on your end?
I come up with a recipe and I shoot it to our nutritionist; she’ll go through and make the necessary adjustments so that it’s suitable for our clients’ categories. Then we’ll do the acid test in the kitchen. We’ll cook them all, line them up, and taste them. All the chefs on the floor will walk down the line, taste testing. Everybody will make notes, mark down the pros and cons, what we like, what we dislike. Generally things tend to be bland, but it’s to be expected. The [challenge] is to give [each recipe] as much flavor as possible without compromising the nutritional value.
What do you have to do to make a recipe fit all the different nutritional categories?
When you look at the turkey chili, it all looks the same. But each of those five different [batches has] something slightly different about it. If we send a recipe up, and they say, you can’t use corn in this, then we’re searching around for an acceptable substitute that would not compromise the taste. If we can’t find anything that won’t compromise the taste, then we’ll try it without the corn. Or we’ll gauge: Are we compromising it too much to not have that particular taste? As far as something like turkey, I know the protein itself will never disappear. But a lot of other things that add all the life to it might, from a taste perspective. And you know that yes, it’s been stripped down, but it’s what this particular client needs.
Do you have tricks that you’ve developed to add back in flavor using things that fit the medical needs?
With some recipes, yes. If it’s really losing its flavor, I might ask, is it okay if we add a little bit more thyme, make it dance a little bit more? And sometimes [the answer is] yes. Sometimes no, you can’t, for it to be nutritionally what it’s supposed to be.
We wanted to ask a little about economics. Ultimately the food has to be within a certain budget. So what are you shooting for?
On my side of things it’s always from the angle of, what is it gonna cost me protein-wise? Right now, obviously we all know costs are out of control, and if the protein is way too expensive, then we’ll start dancing around. What other proteins can we try? What are other ingredients that are $1.50 less per pound? Can we go from beef to chicken, or from pork to fish? You start really playing around with the recipes.
When you’re cooking in bulk, you always want to keep that creative edge. I want to make sure that the team is involved and staying in tune with their creative side. With that in mind, I’m always pushing [them] to keep coming up with ideas: If it’s doable, let’s give it a shot. Let’s see what we can make of this.
Has cooking these meals changed how you eat?
It actually has. Not 100 percent, because there are certain things that I’m not ready to give up or change. But it’s definitely opened my eyes to the realities of what you eat and how it affects you, in so many different ways. For me personally, it’s pushed me in the direction of investigating plant-based food. My mind is really blown about the whole plant-based world and I’m falling deeper and deeper into plant-based cooking.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.