Obesity has become a widespread health concern. Last year, the Surgeon General revealed that two-thirds of adults in our country, and one-third of our children, exceed what is considered a healthy weight.
In that report, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services indicated that one of the best ways to reverse this trend is to "show people how to choose nutritious food."
Hai Fitzgerald, owner of Thyme & Seasons Market Place, a restaurant in Bountiful, wants to do his part.
Fitzgerald grew up eating fresh, homegrown foods on a farm in Vietnam. With no video games or cell phones to occupy his time, he spent his childhood gardening.
In 2008, after a successful career as a computer consultant, Fitzgerald fulfilled his lifelong dream by opening his own restaurant in Bountiful.
Since that time, he has taught hundreds of people in the community in his cooking classes. Now, he is offering specialized classes tailored for children, in hopes that he can help them make lifelong healthy eating choices.
When he sees that a child is having a difficult time choosing something from the menu at the restaurant, Fitzgerald invites him back to the kitchen to prepare his own dish.
"By making them make their own dish and allowing them to be involved, we have a 100 percent success rate in getting them to eat it," he said.
In classes, he features a different vegetable every month and shows kids how to prepare several dishes around that one ingredient. He wants to send the message that they can enjoy vegetables and experiment with flavors to find at least one they like.
Part of Fitzgerald's goal is to teach children to recognize various vegetables, choose the best produce and work with fresh food in the kitchen -- to help them avoid falling into the habit of eating only preservative-laden meals.
"I want them to be just as well-versed in picking produce as they are in computers and their Nintendos," Fitzgerald said.
The trouble is ...
Fitzgerald believes that corporations are primarily out to make money, and not concerned about health. They promote buttery, salty and sweet foods with high taste bud appeal and a long shelf life.
His practice is to prepare everything fresh, from scratch, and to use herbs and spices, rather than adding extra fat and salt, to accentuate the flavor.
"Most people no longer know how to make classical dishes from scratch like their grandmothers did. Lots of people want to eat healthy, but they don't know how," Fitzgerald said.
For example, individuals cannot choose a fresh piece of fish if they have never been introduced to what that looks like, he said.
Fitzgerald's wife, Susan, is a registered dietitian at Salt Lake City's Primary Children's Hospital, counseling young people with eating disorders. Her experiences have also motivated Fitzgerald in his mission.
"As a pediatric dietitian, I am seeing an increasing number of kids who are obese or overweight," Susan Fitzgerald said. "What is even more concerning is that they also have complications typically associated with obesity in adulthood, such as glucose intolerance, type 2 diabetes and fatty deposits in the liver. I think a contributing factor is the amount of fast foods or processed and prepared foods that are consumed by families."
Classes for kids
Classes are held on Saturdays at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., or by appointment. The cost is $10 per child.
Fitzgerald said he does not want the cost to exclude anyone from participating and has applied for grants to help him take the program to children from low-income families.
Since opening his restaurant, Fitzgerald has participated in the Students Transitioning for Educational and Personal Success program, working with the Davis County School District to help disabled youth ages 18-22 prepare for a future in the workforce.
He has trained about 60 students with handicaps varying from brain trauma, Down syndrome, hearing loss or loss of limbs. One challenge that all of these students share, he has found, is poor memory.
Fitzgerald has learned to use lots of repetition. He also has the students explain back to him what they are doing as they work.
"It teaches me patience. It really does," he said, adding that he considers the work he has done to help these students one of his greatest life accomplishments.
Josh Goss, a student of the S.T.E.P.S. program, has received Fitzgerald's instruction for two years. He said the lessons emphasize making sure everything is sterile, doing the job quickly and preparing the recipes with precision.
"Chef Hai is a great teacher. He teaches us a variety of things to help prepare us for our future," said Goss, who hopes to pursue a career in the food industry.
So far, Goss said the most interesting thing he has learned is how to peel and devein shrimp.
Tammi Bradford, S.T.E.P.S. coordinator, said her program has benefited from the chef's participation.
"He has been so good to recognize the potential in these kids. He has even taken some of them under his wing for additional one-on-one training," she said.
Bradford has noticed that Fitzgerald has a gift for recognizing strengths and challenges in each individual student and customizing his teaching style to fit.
Sometimes it takes as long as eight weeks to teach one student to perform a simple task like peeling a potato. "But after eight weeks, they will have that for the rest of their lives," Fitzgerald said.
"I tell these kids -- 'There is nothing wrong with you. Everyone has challenges,' " he added.
He finds that if he treats them as if they are competent, rather than broken, they do a tremendous job.
The skills he has learned working with S.T.E.P.S students have helped him set up his youth cooking classes -- designed for small groups, from age 5 up to teenagers.
Parents are encouraged to attend with their children because Fitzgerald believes that families can become teams who explore together in the kitchen.
"It's time to get back to the basics and away from processed foods," Fitzgerald said. "The change has got to start somewhere."
To register for cooking classes at Thyme & Seasons Market Place, 3211 S. Orchard Drive, Bountiful, contact chef Hai Fitzgerald at 801-294-4099 during regular business hours, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday.