In the mid-1990s, Peter Kaminsky, a self-proclaimed hedonist, landed the perfect gig. As the writer behind New York magazine’s “Underground Gourmet” column, he was paid to patrol the outer reaches of the boroughs in search of the tastiest ethnic fare. When he wasn’t sampling Vietnamese, Korean, Greek, Cuban, or West Indian cuisine, his duty was to discover little-known, up-and-coming restaurants. And as the magazine’s go-to food writer, Kaminsky was also called upon whenever the likes of Daniel Boulud, Alain Ducasse, or Thomas Keller opened a new bastion of four-star-fare. Some of New York’s greatest chefs hired him as a co-writer (and taster-in-chief) for their cookbooks.
There was one occupational hazard. When Kaminsky, who is five foot-nine, became the Underground Gourmet, he weighed 172 pounds and wore trousers with 34-inch waistbands. After a few years on the job, he had crossed the 200-pound line and struggled to wiggle into XL T-shirts and 38-inch pants. The wake-up call came when his life insurance renewal was denied. “The choice was clear,” he writes. “Mend my munching or fast-forward to Judgment Day.”
And mend he did, shedding 40 pounds, getting his blood sugar levels under control, and regaining his insurance policy. Culinary Intelligence is the story of how he accomplished what many dieticians say is impossible: losing weight and keeping it off.
“Intelligence” is the operative word. Kaminsky tells his story with engaging, thoughtful prose–no gimmicky diets, no impossible-to-follow menu plans. He believes in gratification, not denial. “For a change in diet to succeed, it must be at least as satisfying as the unheathful fast food and processed ingredients that it replaces,” he writes. In fact, one of the reasons he decided to lose weight was so that he could look forward to many more years of drinking great wines and eating juicy steaks.
The guiding principle to eating intelligently (and with full pleasure) according to Kaminsky is by maximizing what he calls Flavor per Calorie, or FPC. FPC simply means consuming the very best food and drink you can get. Beer, which Kaminsky still enjoys, provides a good example of FPC in action. Guzzling a Coors fails to quench that beer-y thirst, so you pop another can. On the other hand, a full-bodied, hoppy, yeasty craft brew invites you to sip and savor its complexity. One bottle leaves you satisfied, and packs no more calories than a bland, industrial brew. The intense flavor of fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables satisfies; there’s no need for high-calorie sauces and sweeteners to breathe life into out-of-season produce. A modest portion of grass-fed beef delivers more satisfaction than the dreary meat from industrial feedlots. And — critically — cooking those ingredients well (or living with someone who does) maximizes FPC.
Although there are few outright taboos in Culinary Intelligence, Kaminsky does point out areas where those trying to shed pounds go at their peril. If you want to lose weight, Kaminsky has three words of advice: “No white stuff,” meaning white flour, white sugar, white rice, and potatoes. He suggests you avoid desserts and sweetened beverages. All forms of processed food are antithetical to FPC. And he suggests you examine your diet for high value targets to eliminate. In Kaminsky’s case, it was pizza. As a pizza-loving writer working from home in Brooklyn — a pizza paradise — he was in the habit of nipping out at midday and heading to one of the many good parlors in his neighborhood. A little calculation showed that his pizza habit added the equivalent of two extra days’ worth of calories to his weekly diet — he was eating nine days’ worth of food every seven. Daily sojourns to the pizza parlor became a thing of the past, although he occasionally picks up a slice as a special treat.
Liquor can be part of intelligent eating — in moderation. Kaminsky urges readers to set limits and stick to them. After some introspection, Kaminsky decided that he could survive on one glass of wine with dinner, where his earlier self might have enjoyed three or four. One glass forced him to savor every precious drop and increased the satisfaction he got from wine.
In the end, eating mindfully rests on three commonsense pillars:
- Don’t eat processed foods.
- Buy the best, fullest-flavored ingredients you can afford.
- Make those ingredients even better by cooking: the surest way to maximum FPC.
I ran into Kaminsky earlier this year at a reception at a hotel looking out over the Hudson River. He bellied up to the bar clutching a glass of red wine and extolling the culinary virtues of fatty, pasture-raised heritage pork. He was fit and trim — and, from what I could tell, partaking fully in the evening’s festivities.