A conversation with Cooking Light Executive Chef Billy Strynkowski.
As executive chef for Cooking Light magazine and its resident “celebrity chef,” Billy Strynkowski has gained followers with his positive attitude, healthy and delicious recipes and helpful cooking tips. His knowledge of food and smart cooking is as expansive as his personality. His natural performance skills, engaging style and well-rounded culinary experience have made him the unassuming culinary go-to guy for millions of Americans (Cooking Light reaches almost 2 million subscribers each month and is passed around to an estimated 10 million more.)
Chef Billy, as he is commonly known, is a regular guest on CNN and has appeared on dozens of other TV shows, including ABC’s The View and CBS’s Good Morning America, as the face of Cooking Light. When he’s not developing recipes in the Cooking Light test kitchen, Chef Billy is traveling around the country hosting Supper Clubs and other Cooking Light events.
Billy has been cooking since he was 14 and is a culinary graduate of Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island. A resident of Hillsdale, New Jersey, he spends his spare time cooking for friends and taking vacations with his two sons.
IDEA’s editor in chief Sandy Todd Webster did her best to keep up with this indefatigable Brooklyn-born fireball for an afternoon during the San Diego Bay Wine & Food Festival last November. Billy’s hectic schedule for the event included planning and cooking a five-course community table–style dinner for 50, planning and teaching a 2-hour class on healthy South American cooking for about 100 and getting all the food ready for the Cooking Light pavilion at the festival the next day. And then there was the social part of the schedule! Webster caught the chef on the fly between teaching and food prep and interviewed him while tagging along on his many errands.
He is an impressive multitasker—tireless, both verbally and physically, and full of life and humor—sitting down only twice in 5 hours of perpetual motion (to drive his rental car between the festival and the restaurant kitchen he had “borrowed” from a chef colleague to cook in). He has a lot to say about the way Americans eat and how we can make sensible changes to get on the healthy side of the eating equation. His main takeaway message is that anyone can do it with a little bit of planning.
Highlights from Webster’s interview with him follow.
Sandy Todd Webster (STW): You’ve been in there cooking and entertaining for over 2 hours straight. I don’t think you even broke a sweat. You’re a natural teacher. I must have written down a tip you gave about once every 60 seconds. Has it always been as easy for you as you make it look?
Chef Billy: I’m tired! That’s like—show business. It’s easy for me to do that. But people pay to come and see me. When they do that, you have to give them good stuff. I get nervous every time I go on. You get better and better as you do it.
I try to present in an easy-flowing and unpretentious way. I don’t want to come off as, “I’m a chef and you’re not.” I’m a normal guy, and Cooking Light is a friendly and obtainable magazine for every level of cook.
STW: You’ve been cooking all your life—professionally since the early 1980s. What have you seen change the most in the cooking world?
Chef Billy: Eating patterns have changed—specifically portion sizes. People don’t eat full portions anymore. When we chefs are cooking for functions now, we make less food than we used to. No one is eating a 6-ounce piece of fish anymore. It’s 4–5 ounces. It’s more vegetables. Not many people are saying they want cream and mashed potatoes that are rich and heavy in butter. People want fresh ingredients and simple cooking. It tastes delicious and is better for you.
STW: That surprises me. I tend to think the opposite—that portion sizes in restaurants, and even at home, have gotten enormous. If that’s the case—if portion sizes are getting smaller and people are looking for healthier fare—why do you think we’re so obese and overweight as a nation?
Chef Billy: It’s fast food, and it’s snacking and the times of day we snack. We’re a country that snacks. A lot of other countries don’t snack. Our snacking habits are really bad, and that’s why we’re obese. I think it’s depression, too. People eat, not because they’re hungry, but because they’re bored or they’re mad. People find themselves eating a pint of chocolate ice cream at 10:00 pm because they’re just trying to feel better. I do the same thing. When I’m stressed, I eat without being hungry, which is a horrible way to eat. The people who aren’t overweight or obese are the ones who look at their portion sizes and who look at what they’re eating and when they’re eating it. They make adjustments. They’re more aware of what they’re doing.
STW: Aside from snacking and mindless grazing, is there any one area of eating that we especially fall down in?
Chef Billy: Our biggest problem in America is breakfast. Our breakfasts are solid carbohydrates, but they’re not complex carbs. We’re also one of the only countries that eat fattening, processed meats for breakfast. China, Japan, most of Europe—they aren’t eating bacon, ham, sausage, scrapples. They also aren’t eating eggs, home fries, grits, etc., for breakfast. As a result, our blood sugar spikes and then plummets, and we’re hungry again by 10:00 am. Then we snack, and then we go to lunch. That’s where the obesity comes from. Where do you draw the line? If you watch what people eat for breakfast here—like a huge bagel with cream cheese loaded with carbs and fat—it’s unbelievable. In Europe they might eat a little croissant and jam, but that’s their whole breakfast.
STW: What do you eat for breakfast?
Chef Billy: I’m a Kashi® GoLean kind of breakfast eater with a little cinnamon in the milk. Did you know cinnamon lowers blood sugar? And it’s delicious.
STW: Another great tip from Chef Billy! Let me write that one down. Do you think if Americans had more information about food or were more educated about it, we’d be more successful?
Chef Billy: Yes. I think it starts at home and with being a parent. Forming good habits about food needs to happen when kids are young. You can’t take a 60-year-old man and tell him, “You can’t eat this for lunch anymore.” That’s not going to work. He’s 60 with lifelong habits that aren’t going to change. We all have eating patterns and behavioral issues that are formed early in life.
STW: What if kids aren’t getting this at home? Where are they going to learn the language of food and the habits of healthy eating? Can they learn these lessons in school?
Chef Billy: The way things are now, probably not. When kids go into school and the school lunch program is garbage, that’s what they come to understand is acceptable to eat on a daily basis. They grow up believing that hot dogs, hamburgers, French fries and pizzas are okay to eat for lunch every day. There are no salad bars. The vegetables are canned. I don’t want canned green beans—why should a 10-year-old want canned green beans? Where are we going to draw the line with these kids? When are we as a country going to stop worrying about the almighty dollar and start feeding kids with decent food in the school lunch program? Michelle Obama is trying her hardest, but she’s not getting any traction because of the food vendors who service the schools and [the vendors’] influence. It all comes down to the dollar.
STW: What do you think the solution is? Is there one?
Chef Billy: States should tax something for the school lunch programs. If a child is hungry, he’s going to eat good food. You reform the habits by saying, “Sorry, we don’t have French fries here anymore. Sorry, we don’t have hot dogs here anymore. You don’t like it? Sorry, if you don’t like it, don’t eat it.” Eventually, the child is going to eat what you’re serving, as long as it’s good. That’s when we start building good eating patterns where the child says, “Hey, that grilled chicken that was brushed with barbeque sauce was pretty tasty.” Food still has to taste good. If it’s not good, no one is going to want to eat it.
STW: Did you see Jamie Oliver’s reality show experiment in West Virginia last year? What are your thoughts on it?
Chef Billy: It’s an experiment, and it will work if he gets the traction and the money behind it. I did a program called “Get Healthy California” with Maria Shriver and Sanjay Gupta, MD. [Gupta] was actually bargaining with the restaurants to stop them from locating so close to schools and being so [aggressive in]marketing fast food to children. We all know you can go to any fast-food restaurant and find something on the menu that is somewhat healthy. But if you’re a child and you go to the McDonald’s by your school, you’re going to get French fries or a burger because that’s what they market. Not to mention you get a toy with your meal. You’re probably not getting a salad, because they’re not saying, “We’ve got a great salad here.” They’re marketing burgers, fries and toys.
STW: What about you? Do you ever struggle with diet and exercise?
Chef Billy: When you work in a kitchen, you don’t sit, but you’re tasting food constantly. We all watch what we eat the best we can. Everybody at Cooking Light is pretty much healthy. We try to live what we preach. I probably travel more than anyone at Cooking Light, so that can be a challenge. You’re in a hotel room alone, and you might sneak a drink or a high-calorie snack. You might just decide you want a burger that night because it’s easy and it’s good.
I try to exercise as much as I can. I wasn’t always an exerciser, but there comes a point you have to do something. Biking and running are a lot of fun. I try to stay active. And the thing is I have a lot of energy. I’m always moving.
STW: When you took the job at Cooking Light several years ago as a classically trained chef, did it take a lot of adjustment to fit the “light” mandate of the publication?
Chef Billy: Not really. I always cooked smart. I always cooked healthy. I always thought it was better not to camouflage the natural flavors of food. Things taste better when you let the natural flavors shine through instead of using fats and salts. It was an easy transition for me because I always cooked with a lot of vegetables. I always say I could be a vegetarian 2 or 3 days a week. I LOVE vegetables. Yeah, we like our proteins—meats and fish and chicken—but you know what? How about Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, zucchini . . . all that stuff. Bring it on!
STW: If you could emphasize a couple of ways for families to eat a healthier diet or be smarter cooks at home, what would you suggest?
Chef Billy: The first thing is that people need to have better tools for cooking, meaning better pots and pans. This is a big thing. A lot of people don’t have good pots and pans.
Second, people need to plan their meals. People do not plan. They might think, “Well, I’ll make chicken tonight,” but they haven’t thought far enough ahead to know what they’re serving with it or what they’re shopping for. You need to decide, “Okay, we’re having chicken, cauliflower and mashed potatoes tonight.”
STW: Where does the planning start?
Chef Billy: Write a list before you go to the grocery store. If you have a list, you have a plan. You know what you’ll be cooking, and so you know what to buy. People don’t have a list or a plan, and what happens is the shopping trip turns into grabbing a bunch of convenience foods.
STW: How planned out do you have to be?
Chef Billy: It’s up to the individual and his or her lifestyle. How busy are you? Are you shuttling kids to dance and soccer practice in addition to working? Then you may want to make three to four entrées for the coming week on Sunday morning. Jennifer Loudon Estep, Cooking Light’s integrated marketing director, does that every week. She has her family meals planned the week before and does a little prep on Sunday morning to make the week run more smoothly. This allows her to stay on track, feed her family healthy, home-cooked meals and not pick up the phone to call in a pizza.
STW: People seem to think there’s this whole process they need to go through just to cook dinner at night, and perhaps that deters them. Does it have to be that complicated? Do they have to dirty every pan in the house to make a decent dinner?
Chef Billy: No, they don’t. They have to plan and just keep it simple.
STW: As a chef of healthy cuisine, what are you excited about as far as ingredients, trends and techniques go?
Chef Billy: A trend always does a circle. What I see now is more people realizing there are a lot of “old” ingredients that can be used to cook better. People are using more white balsamic vinegar. There is also an array of grinder spices available today: Montreal steak, Indian, lemon pepper, rosemary-garlic. People are starting to season their food better with fresh grinds like this that don’t require salt. There are so many out there. People are realizing there’s food out there that’s pretty damn tasty—made simple. If you go into my pantry, you’ll find a ton of spices in there that have no salt in them.
Also, people love the grill. People are grilling more now than ever. You know why? Your whole kitchen isn’t a mess when you’re finished.
I think chefs are always aiming to maintain the natural ingredient and enhance it. Most chefs today are not trying to outthink the food. They’re more about letting the natural flavors shine through. With ingredients, less is more.
STW: Where do you get inspiration to improve yourself as a chef or as a home cook?
Chef Billy: You have to do a lot of reading. You have to open your eyes to what’s around you food-wise. Whether you’re in a Ralphs® [supermarket] or a restaurant, you can’t have blinders on. Every time I’m in Trader Joe’s I try to buy something I’ve never tried. Why? Because there are ingredients out there I’ve never used before. It could be a simple condiment that might help me improve a dish. Something easy and delicious. You have to be creative and smart about it so you can make today better than yesterday. You can’t sit stagnant in this job. Food is a very touchy industry. One bad meal and people won’t go back, or they won’t listen. You try to keep it simple and delicious. It has to be approachable so people feel they can do it.
You’re only as good as the last plate of food you put out. A chef is a temporary artist. We create; we try to make it as flavorful as possible; we hope people will enjoy it.