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Curtis Aikens Teaches Healthy Cooking

by Bill Hand, New Bern Sun Journal

It’s a frying pan revival.

Chef Curtis Aikens is nothing if not effervescent: He prowls the stage in a brilliant white cook’s double breasted jacket, swinging his arms like stocky batons as he promises the joys and miracles of healthy cooking to a crowd of fellow diabetics.

He preaches not just food, but love.

“OK, everybody stand up!” he says as he takes the stage. “Now, I want you to turn and hug a complete stranger! Go on, now!”

Once you’ve hugged, he says, you can’t be strangers anymore.

Aikens, who between encouragement on portion sizes and the importance of exercise, prepares two dishes: a turkey-based chili and a garden salad featuring Carolina strawberries.

Aikens honed his speaking skills as one of the first cooking hosts on the Food Network. It was a gig he gave up in 2004 “’cause my kids were, ‘Who is this man coming in our house?’”

He ran his own cooking shows and is frequently a guest chef on the talk show circuit. He has authored children’s cookbooks and cooked in the White House a number of times, most recently for the Obamas. He is, in fact, Michelle Obama’s official chef in Georgia.

“She’s a wonderful woman,” he says, “but I don’t do politics. I’ve cooked for red presidents and for blue presidents. I always like the presidents’ wives more than I like the presidents.”

Aiken’s show was Tuesday night at the Orringer Auditorium on the Craven Community College campus, and was sponsored by Coastal Carolina Healthcare. CEO Stephen Nuckolls was thrilled to have him as a guest.

“Coastal Carolina was selected among other groups to receive a grant,” Nuckolls said of how the group brought in Aikens. The grant, from Novo Nordisk Pharmaceuticals, was awarded because of the high ratings CCHC’s diabetic patients have regarding sugar control.

Aikens emphasizes that having a disease like diabetes doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy life.

“If you want some chocolate cake, have some. A piece, I mean, not the whole cake,” he jokes. But follow that cake up with a good, long walk.

As an example he spoke of “some of the best soft crab I ever had” in New Bern today, “But I parked a quarter of a mile away so I had to walk it off.”

His overall philosophy is simple: “You can love, you can eat, you can have fun in the kitchen,” he said. You can do just about anything you want – but you’ve got to be smart how you make it.

Turkey meat instead of beef for chili, for instance.

He told the audience he could offer them a healthy recipe for nearly anything they could imagine, right down to banana pudding.

“I want you to think of recipes you love,” he said, “and I’ll show you how to make it so you can still eat it.”

He’s preaching lifestyle as well as meal style, and he’s talking from personal experience. He watched his own father die from diabetic complications.

“He lost his toe, then he lost his foot, then he lost his leg, then he lost his life,” he says. And he, himself, battles diabetes every day. Looking almost ridiculously healthy on that stage, he declares, “I once weighed over 400 pounds!” — A gasp in the audience — “If I could do it, you can too.”

Aikens says he sees himself as a modern-day Johnny Appleseed. “Like he spread his apple trees, I want to spread the word that we can manage our diabetes, and love doing it.”