When you speak with Chef Kita there are a few things you immediately sense – you are talking with a genuine authentic lover of good food, a devotee to health and nutrition and, generally, just about one of the nicest people you have ever met – as long as you eat your vegetables. Raised to appreciate the magic of good, old-fashioned home cooking rich with flavor, texture and tradition, Marquita Speed, Chef Kita, is the host of the Food Bank of South Jersey’s healthy cooking show, Hunger Bites.
Fitting for a Mother’s Day tribute, though Chef Kita shares there have been several amazing culinary influencers in her life, including family, friends and seasoned innovators in culinary opportunities for women, above them all is one person who influenced Chef Kita’s path to good cooking.
“I have a really, really close bond with my grandmother, I realize all the wisdom that she holds for our family and our traditions. She’s a foodie. I’m a foodie. Once I started going to culinary school we really connected in our shared love of food. I would bring her all the tasty dishes I would make, all kinds of cuisines, and we would talk and talk about food. We would talk about everything food and family. My family originated from down south, Alabama area, definitely Southern cooking. My grandmother was raised on a farm, they gardened, they had chickens – a life filled with fresh air, fresh vegetables and good cooking.”
Recently, Chef Kita’s grandmother, Virginia, celebrated a very special birthday, 81. Chef Kita’s experiences with good family food and her grandmother’s fantastic home cooking permeated her childhood. For Chef Kita, family celebrations were filled with big laughs, live music and good food. That good food, Chef Kita learned as she continued her culinary education and pathway to dietetic education, as it turns out, the soul food that served as the foundation for so many wonderful family experiences was, in fact, not very healthy. Delicious, no doubt. Rich with salt and low in nutrients, also no doubt. Unhealthy in many ways … no doubt.
Just one example, deep frying, as Chef Kita notes, is a staple of rich, Southern cooking and, while delicious, is not the healthiest way to prepare dishes. “It was love, the food I grew up on, the food my family and my grandmother made so beautifully – delicious soul food, food made with love, deep love – soul food is love,” Chef Kita shares. “However, as I grew in my culinary training I realized, it was time for my family to balance health and nutrition with the love.”
As food was a celebratory and greatly appreciated part of her life growing up, and with the power of nutrition, health and ‘eating right’ as part of her mission today, Chef Kita is all about healthy strategies for cooking meals.
“There is no reason why you can’t have vegetables in your breakfast or fruit at dinnertime. You don’t necessarily have to have the pancakes and French toast with breakfast, but if you do – add some fruit, lesson some of the sugar choices, go with the low sugar syrup and include more apples or strawberries,” Chef Kita shares, with a smile. “I love my family, I adore my grandmother and I take seriously my mission to educate people to healthier ways to eat – and I won’t be silenced.”
Whole grains. Vegetables. Fruits. There are effective and simple ways to change the mindset of what is good food, and what is good and nutritious food. “Good and nutritious food is not filled with sugar. Good and nutritious food is the gateway to managing, or even avoiding, complications related to diabetes, high blood pressure, cholesterol and obesity,” Chef Kita shares. “No matter what age you are, no matter who you are, if you eat mindfully, think differently when it comes to food, there are healthier and more active days ahead for you.”
Chef Kita brings this mindset to good food and healthy cooking to Hunger Bites, where, in every episode, Chef Kita creates recipes and demonstrates simple to create dishes using only food items that an individual may receive at a food pantry, including items such as canned beans, oatmeal, fresh eggs, brown rice, popcorn, fresh fruits, canned vegetables and more.
“People think you have to have a piece of meat with every meal,” Chef Kita shares. “That is not the case – you do not need to have a piece of meat with every meal. Black beans and other canned beans are amazing sources of protein – there are always substitutes and alternatives for recipes that will empower people to create meals from so many non-perishable food items, there are so many options to make healthy meals from whole grains, black beans, green beans, brown rice, canned vegetables, eggs – there is so much people can do to eat healthy, on a budget.”
What does Chef Kita’s grandmother think of all Chef Kita’s healthy eating ways? “She and I are still foodies together,” Chef Kita jokes. “I am just always now the voice that will call for a little less salt, and a little more vegetables, and that’s just fine with her.”