Q&A with... Jeanette Chen, a New Canaan food blogger
NEW CANAAN — Jeanette Chen never thought she’d have a blog.
In fact, up to the day that her own, Jeanette’s Healthy Living, was created, she knew next to nothing about blogging. But that all changed after a chance encounter in 2010 with a friend already on the blogosphere. Instructions were given, Chen’s blog was created, and the rest is healthy-eating history.
Before her most recent endeavor, Chen worked for 17 years in corporate finance, which led her and her husband, Michael, from New York to Stamford and, ultimately New Canaan.
After stepping away from finance to raise her four boys, Chen, 54, began cooking for a friend diagnosed with breast cancer, which necessitated that she cook with nutrition in mind. She’s gone on to cook for her father-in-law, who suffered from Parkinson’s, her youngest son, who has food sensitivities, and her husband, who is lactose intolerant and, through her blog, has shared her secrets with countless more.
Q: Where did your interest in cooking come from?
A: I started cooking while I was in college out of desperation. Michael and I met when we were in college and we went off the meal plan, so I became the designated cook for him. I always loved cooking and baking, especially baking when I was younger, but when I got to college that’s when I really learned to cook.
Q: How did cooking out of necessity in college grow to a love of healthy cooking?
A: I think because I always cooked from scratch. It wasn’t like I was using processed food when I was cooking. That’s the way my mom and dad cooked, that’s just the way I grew up. They never bought anything prepackaged, everything was cooked from scratch.
Q: When did you start cooking for sick friends and family?
A: There was a woman that used to work with me at GE Capital and she was diagnosed with a very rare form of breast cancer at 30. She continued to work throughout her treatments. I stopped working when I had my fourth child, but kept in touch with her and I was cooking for her. And as I started cooking for her, and later on started cooking for other people, I started doing more research and reading on what people with cancer should be eating or not eating. It was basically eating clean. No chemicals, no preservatives, organic.
My father-in-law and mother-in-law actually lived with us for a while. My father-in-law had Parkinson’s disease. As that progressed, his ability to eat regular food diminished. So I had to learn to make soft foods that he could eat easily when he was having trouble chewing and swallowing.
So that kind of dovetailed into the cancer cooking because a lot of the time people going through cancer treatment have difficulty eating as well. There are a lot of side effects that affects a person’s ability to stay well nourished.
Q: Aside from keeping eating restrictions in mind, what else do you strive for when cooking for someone?
A: The visual is really important, especially for someone who’s sick. You don’t want to eat a bowl of brown slop. You want to eat something that’s vibrant and colorful. I really try to get in that mode when I’m cooking for somebody, really thinking about what it’s going to look like to that person.
Q: Since your blog started have people from the web with dietary restrictions reached out to you?
A: I never actually thought anybody was going to read my blog. I was going to use it as a place to record what I was doing. But people started reading it and I started getting emails from people going through different illnesses.
I always have to say I’m not a nutritionist, I’m not a trained chef. I can only tell you what I’ve done and what things have worked for me.
I feel like my blog has really grown into a place where I feel comfortable sharing a lot of different things. So I have regular recipes that I’ve made for my family, recipes that I’ve cooked for people going through cancer treatment, my special dietary recipes. And there’s a whole stream of comments. People get to post and share their frustrations. So it’s kind of become a forum.
Q: Is it ever difficult working closely with sick people, some of whom you’ve become close to and have then died?
A: What I do is not rocket science. Anybody could do it. You just have to do it.
It’s hard because sometimes we’re fearful. I know I’ve been fearful at times about stepping out. You’re afraid of what you’re getting yourself into. There’s a lot of emotional involvement, too. It hasn’t always been easy.
I think we’ve become a society that’s very insular. We only care about our own families and take care of ourselves. It’s kind of too bad.
I don’t think what I’m doing is anything that unique. We all have different gifts and I feel like this is the weird gift that I have, helping people figure out what they might be able to eat.
Q: What is your process for creating a recipe?
A: When I’m cooking it’s like I’m in a war zone. It’s a total frenzy. I crank up the radio and the whole creative process starts and I start throwing things in and writing things down.
One thing I’ve done more recently is I’ve started calculating nutritional values, because some people have calorie requirements or things they’re working toward.
Q: Are your four sons guinea pigs when it comes to creating recipes?
A: Oh yeah, they’ve been my guinea pigs for a long time. My kids love to eat.