An interview with the Head Chef and the ‘Cooking Cardiologist’

Read what Steve and Ali think about eating out and eating well

We talked to our ‘Cooking Cardiologist’, Dr Ali Khavandi and Steve Carss, Head Chef and a partner at The Bunch of Grapes.

So, Steve, where did the initial idea for this collaboration stem from?

We were approached by Mary, CardioKit Project Manager, who had identified us as a local restaurant offering a top quality grade of ingredient and a balanced range of foods.

Why did you want to be involved in the initiative?

It’s a real feeling of achievement that a qualified person like Dr Ali Khavandi can see what we’re doing here – we work hard to create a menu that’s delicious without being downright bad for you.

What do you think the usual perceptions are of eating out?

The usual perception of eating out is as a treat, a meal that will wreck your diet, almost as though sitting in a restaurant is the green light to eat badly and sadly there are too many restaurant chains where a healthy option is almost impossible to find.

Please give us a handful of examples of what heart-healthy meals are on the menu at the Grapes?

Beer Can Poussin with apple and mustard glaze, served with The Grapes salad which is rich in leaves from The Severn Project (a food producer also working with Mary and Ali on the Cardiologist’s Kitchen innovation), herbs, seeds and nuts,
Devilled mackerel, red chicory, radishio, blood orange with coriander and red onion samble.
Quinoa, Israeli couscous, bulgar wheat and pearl barley salad, pumpkin seed, confit lemon, herb fine with a French house dressing.
Chilli greens.
Kale and wild mushroom tagine.

How did the collaboration work?

Dr Ali is a very keen chef himself and he and Mary came to The Grapes for a meeting to discuss the CardioKit menu ideas, then returned the following week, when he rolled up his sleeves and got cooking alongside me. We worked on various recipes and ideas that will appear on the menu during the year. Dr Ali has great knife skills and a definite passion for food – he would have been a chef in another life!

So how did The Grapes add their signature style to the new dishes?

We try to use the amazing Bertha wood oven whenever possible since it adds a smoky depth of flavour to everything from root vegetables, through to the poussin and the fish. It adds another dimension.

As a chef, what did you think of Ali’s ingredient choices? Were there any suggestions which sparked debate?

Ali is very pro Extra Virgin Olive Oil, or ‘EVOO’ as he calls it. Clearly this is an expensive ingredient and it took a bit of getting used to in our financial models but we have now moved over to using Extra Virgin which makes Ali happy.

Which local restaurants are you working with, Ali?

The Bunch of Grapes is our first restaurant collaboration but as part of the Cardiologist’s Kitchen project we are keen to attract as many restaurant ‘partners’ as possible. We are currently in discussion and developing menu options with others but BOG has led the way and shown what is possible when you bring together the right team.

Why did you create this initiative?

Despite being an Interventional Cardiologist spending the majority of my professional life managing heart conditions through procedural treatments and modern medications, I now spend more and more of my time talking to patients about diet and food.
This has been partly driven by my own enthusiasm for everything related to food and eating and also by evolving evidence in this area. Through this focus it became clear that you could affect profound improvement in patients with conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, atrial fibrillation as well as established heart disease.
In many cases conditions would get better/reverse, tablet requirements would reduce (or stop altogether) and crucially quality of life improves. Most patients lose weight without restriction or dieting. This is also clearly important to patients as I am seeing an increasing number who are coming to me specifically to talk about diet and this is a specialist and relatively unique service.
To cut a long story short, I started to interact more and learn from the media and food industry, who have been far more successful than medics at communication and affecting the behavior of our patients. I started to use social media and blog recipes and information as a resource for my patients. This led to a reputation as the ‘Cooking Cardiologist’ and projects like writing for the Observer Food Monthly.
Towards the end of last year I decided to formalize the initiative in an attempt to scale and engage ‘buy-in’ from within official NHS/healthcare. I was successful in an application to the Health Foundation for an innovation award.  I lead the Cardiologist’s Kitchen project but the real day-to-day driving force now is Mary our Project Manager.

Where do you work as a Cardiologist? Where do you live?

I am Consultant Interventional Cardiologist at the Royal United Hospitals Bath NHS Foundation Trust but also perform complex pacemaker implantation at the Great Western Hospital in Swindon and am part of the 24/7 Consultant team providing emergency treatment for the regional heart attack service at the Bristol Heart Institute.
I grew up in Bath, went to school at King Edwards but currently live in Bristol. I am looking to move back ‘home’ [Bath] soon additionally motivated by the arrival of my young daughter.

In your opinion, why might eating out be bad for heart health?

It can be difficult to find good quality, affordable, convenient, every day healthy eating out options in the UK outside of London. There seems to be two extremes and nothing in the middle – indulgent, special occasion dining vs. convenience ‘fast’ food. The latter usually consisting of processed ingredients and unhealthy options.
As a busy professional I personally want access to after work or weekend options that can supplement my home cooking. There is no reason for a ready meal to be unhealthy – unfortunately currently the more emphasis on healthy branding the worse that meal is likely to be for health. That is why at Cardiologist’s Kitchen we are working with food producers and retailers to highlight local healthy options for our patients and the public.

How have your suggestions made the food healthier and in what way , i.e fewer calories, less saturated fats etc.?

Healthy eating has nothing to do with calories or a focus on a single nutrient profile such as saturated fat. These are historical concepts that unfortunately remain in the mainstream but have turned ‘healthy eating’ into restrictive and unenjoyable diet foods or ‘clean eating’. In fact I would be suspicious of any health food that promotes a headline of what’s not in the food e.g. low fat.
The Bunch of Grapes is already using high quality local whole ingredients and making delicious meals and this is a great starting platform. My priorities are to swap refined carbohydrates to fibre rich carbohydrates, add healthy fats (not low fat), boost the total veg content and layer the meals with specifically protective foods. Balance is also key – rich, satisfying elements such as fat provide satiety and enjoyment. This is not diet food!

Tell us some examples of your changes.

The apple and mustard glazed poussin is delicious and a BOG favourite. We are not worried that the glaze is made with butter and things like this would be the normal focus of ‘healthy eating’  – replacing it with margarine or low quality veg oil would be far worse and horrible for flavour. Instead we have swapped potato chips for a beautiful grain salad layered with lots of protective ingredients and combined this with a side boost of local ‘Chilli Greens’. A satisfying and filling meal that does not compromise flavour and is full of protective ingredients.

Were there any suggestions which sparked debate between you?

Not really. It’s been a pleasure collaborating and a very enjoyable process. There’s been plenty of debate but directed towards a constructive process of how we can combine flavour and health.

We’re led to believe that low fat diets are good for you, is that true?

No. Absolutely not. Avoid anything that sells itself as low fat, light or lighter. If you remove fat you generally remove flavour, eating satisfaction (satiety) and protective ingredients. These then need replacing with something and in the modern world this is generally sugar or refined carbohydrates (which are ultimately digested to sugar) and this is a bigger problem for health.

What else can we do, day-to-day, to support our heart health?

Diet is fundamental but this should be supplemented with activity (exercise), relaxation and sleep. Incidentally exercise is the best way to relax and improve sleep quality.
Don’t forget to nurture your microbiome. There is rapidly evolving evidence to suggest that the billions of bacteria in your gut are involved in everything from mood to heart health. As a simple rule of thumb a diet which is diverse will feed the bugs in your gut.

Thank you both!


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