Chef Joe Durio became committed to creating delicious, wholesome food long before healthy-eating became popular. He is perhaps best known and recognised for his work in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in his home state of Louisiana, when he provided over 500,000 meals to aid workers, townspeople and first responders. Kreol has been delighted to be able to talk to Chef Durio about his, ‘Heart Healthy International Cuisine’, enterprise, that aims to reduce obesity and diet-related ill health.
Chef Durio grew up in the Louisiana village of Palmetto, where he was raised on his grandmother’s traditional Creole cooking. Using whatever ingredients she could afford, his grandmother instilled in him the knowledge and skills needed to create fresh, wholesome and tasty food. But around him, Chef Durio could clearly see the effects of eating food that was too high in fat and sugar or too low in nutrients. Within his family and local community, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease are rife.
A drive to break the obesity cycle
Seeing for himself the physical effects of poor eating habits instilled in Chef Durio a determination to cook using fresh ingredients with low amounts of fat and salt. He was further inspired by his uncle, an ex-military cook, to take up a career in the food industry and trained at the Johnz School of Culinary Arts, Frankfurt. Combining this education with his passion for combating diet-related ill health, Chef Durio began his mission to recreate Creole and other classic dishes using healthy ingredients that not only tasted good but that could be enjoyed by the whole family. This has culminated in his, ‘Heart Healthy International Cuisine’, which he told us more about, at Kreol.
His is the only company that offers diabetic and blood pressure-safe food products in Louisiana. His commitment to this cause is admirable. It is clear that he wants his business to be a success not merely for financial reasons but because he genuinely wants to break the cycle of overeating and obesity. He elaborates, “I wanted to create the healthy alternative product because food is killing a lot of people and I’m trying to give people healthier choices. I created the company and the products to give my family a healthier choice. In the process I can help other families and other people who don’t have nobody to represent them or speak on their behalf.”
Creating tasty food for everyone
To Chef Durio, the answer to preventing obesity and all of its associated diseases is simple: being able to choose nourishing, healthy food. Yet he always understood that people would not often choose healthy food over unhealthy food because, traditionally, the former was so lacking in flavour. People associated ‘healthy food’ with ‘hospital food’. In a way, they were right, as Chef Durio points out: “I tell people, either you eat healthily or you’re going to end up in the hospital.”
He was keen to stress to us that his, ‘Heart Healthy International Cuisine’, range is not about trying to force people to eat healthy food. It’s about proving to them that there are delicious, flavoursome foods out there that, “Still satisfy your palate but that don’t have all the side effects.”
As all of his food is prepared and cooked fresh for his customers, he has no need for preservatives or additives. He also ensures that all of his meals can be eaten by anyone, “The kids, the parents, the grandparents, everybody can eat my food.” He cooks with meat off the bone, shellfish with no shells and uses little fat and sodium but injects plenty of taste into his dishes using his own diabetic Creole seasoning. Again, though, he tries to cater for everybody’s palate, allowing diners to choose how spicy or mild they prefer their meals to taste.
“A lot of times when you go to restaurants you have your entire family with you there’s going to be someone in the family that can’t eat in a certain way, like you have your parents or some of the kids and it’s too spicy for the kids or has too much salt for the parents. So I felt let me see if I can prepare it where it’s safe for everyone, satisfying for everybody’s taste. My food acts as prevention of diet-related diseases, and can satisfy someone who has already got health problems.”
He offers over 150 different products in his organic (USDA certified) range. He could be regarded as a pioneer in his field, since he was focussed on the health benefits of fresh, low fat, low sodium foods long before, ‘Healthy eating,’ became fashionable.
At first, he met resistance to his new cooking methods , highlighting, “I was criticised for the way I prepared it because I wasn’t using the traditional pork and meat that the original recipes required. If I was to change it I would’ve been just like everybody else, in the same category, so I stuck to my belief, and now the way I’m preparing it is the way everybody is going towards now. Now a lot of top chefs are trying to learn how to cook healthy when that’s the only way I’ve ever been doing it.”
There can surely be little more satisfying than enjoying a well-prepared, mouthwatering meal that is also good for your heart. Chef Durio owns several restaurants in Atlanta, New Orleans, Houston and Philadelphia. He has cooked for celebrities, sport stars and politicians, though his ethos has always been to treat everyone as though they were celebrities.
He also caters for airports, schools, casinos, nursing facilities, food trucks and even catering companies so that they can offer healthy alternatives to their customers. His, ‘Boil the bag’ concept allows food to be prepared quickly and with consistent results with minimal labour costs, all whilst using food manufactured to his exacting standards.
Chef Durio told us that cooking using fresh, plentiful ingredients, allows him to offer real value for money. It disproves the idea that people have, “That healthy food has to be expensive.”
Past successes and future ventures
Chef Durio has been in business for over 25 years. During that time, perhaps the most testing experience he went through was during and after Hurricane Katrina. At that time, he was newly married and the storm destroyed his home and everything he had worked to build up. It would have been natural, perhaps, for him to dwell on his losses and spend his efforts on salvaging what he could of his own assets, but instead he worked tirelessly to help others in need.
His actions during that period are perhaps what has made his name so well known and respected, particularly in the southern states. He cooked for and served well over 500,000 meals during the year and a half following Katrina, providing much-needed nutrition and care for the first responders, the nurses, the National Guards, the American Red Cross, the volunteers and the survivors themselves. He also used his network of contacts in the industry to get food supplies sent to the area. Chef Durio acknowledges that his actions not only helped others but also helped himself to recover from his personal tragedy at the time.
Katrina was also a turning point for his business. He started his food service company to try to recoup what he had lost, developing his range of products and trying to get back on his feet financially. He knew that his idea was unique in Louisiana and believed that there was a real gap in the market that his wholesome food could fill. That vision and resolve ultimately led to his Heart Healthy initiative.
Crystal ball gazing into the future
As for the future, he wants to continue to develop his product range and ideally set up larger facilities to help him do so. A lot of people still don’t know that his enterprise exists – one that can feed families in restaurants but also provide healthy cooking on a large scale for businesses that want to offer a heart-friendly alternative to their customers.
He was awarded Chef of the Year in 2006 in Louisiana and New Orleans and was the first chef to receive the Unsung Hero Award from President Obama in the White House in 2014 for his work to improve the health of young and old alike by helping to reduce obesity. Given his successes to date, it is entirely likely that he will achieve his ambition to expand his business and do all he can to make healthy cooking a normal part of everyday life.