Galloping gastronome on a slow-food mission

“Persons of Interest” is a weekly series exploring the lives of students, staff and faculty, both on- and off-campus.

Persons of Interest logoBERKELEY — In 1986, when the concept of slow food was sprouting into life in Italy, Kristen Rasmussen was a toddler finding her feet in a Humboldt County household with little time for haute cuisine or healthy home-cooking explorations.

Slow food today is a worldwide movement. And the 28-year-old Rasmussen, armed with a master’s degree in nutrition and a penchant for all things edible, has blossomed into a sustainable-food evangelist on a mission to change how we think about food and cooking.

“Food is my profession and my passion. It’s at the core of practically everything I do and love in life,” says Rasmussen, a Berkeley grad who returned to campus in 2010 as a worksite-wellness dietitian with the Health Matters wellness program. Rasmussen moved across campus this summer after accepting an interim teaching position in the Department of Nutritional Science and Toxicology.

“So many people have come to see cooking as a chore, particularly when it comes to healthy eating,” Rasmussen says. “My goal is to help get people excited again about cooking, just getting your hands dirty in the kitchen and having fun with it.”

During her time with Health Matters, Rasmussen helped to develop a range of healthy lifestyle and nutrition-education programs for faculty and staff, including cooking classes where she demonstrated core culinary techniques and quick and easy recipe ideas for great-tasting healthy meals.

She has also worked to expand healthy menu options at campus food outlets and has been actively involved in a variety of outreach efforts, including campus participation in the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s inaugural national Food Day.

“Ultimately, it’s about helping people lead happier and healthier lives,” Rasmussen says. “Getting people interested in their food and where it comes from and encouraging them to cook healthy, delicious meals at home is certainly part of the equation.”

In addition to her “bread and butter” work on campus, the slow-food gastronome manages to juggle a veritable smorgasbord of food-related commitments from consulting to writing to activism or just helping out at the Donkey and Goat Winery in West Berkeley. Rasmussen, who also serves as a consultant to companies in the food-service and assisted-living sectors, recently completed a one-year term as president of the Bay Area Dietetics Association, is a board member and former co-chair of Slow Food East Bay and manages a personal food-focused blog.

Kristen Rasmussen

Rasmussen’s slow-food activities keep her on the go.

Rasmussen traces much of the inspiration for her all-consuming fervor back to her years as a Berkeley student, when she stumbled onto the field of nutritional science. A part-time job at local eatery Zatar nurtured the undergrad’s love of cooking and drew her into the world of sustainable food.

“Waiel and Kelly Majid [the husband and wife chef-owners of Zatar] took me under their wing and became my surrogate parents here,” Rasmussen says. “They really helped spark my passion for the culinary arts and slow food — they grow all their own vegetables and use mostly local, sustainable products in the restaurant — and they taught me a lot of my cooking skills.”

The nascent foodie grew into her newfound niche in nutrition and dietary science during graduate school at Arizona State University, where she wrote her thesis on the beneficial properties of organic versus conventional red wine. Having immersed herself in the growing slow-food movement, she was hired by food-service giant Aramark as a part-time consultant on its “pet project” to create a sustainable-restaurant operation on the 60,000-student ASU campus.

“They looked to me as the expert and gave me a lot of latitude in building the operation from scratch, sourcing local produce, developing guidelines and best practices, everything,” Rasmussen says. “It was a fantastic learning experience and really set me on this career path.”

Berkeley’s Department of Nutritional Science approached the Health Matters dietitian to teach a food-science class as a stand-in lecturer last semester. Having thoroughly enjoyed teaching the “raddest class ever,” Rasmussen jumped at the department’s offer to take up an interim full-time position beginning this summer.

“I’ve really enjoyed my time at the Tang Center and I’m sad to be leaving, but I love being in the kitchen, teaching people about food,” Rasmussen says. “For me, this [class] is the perfect mix of hard-core science, clinical practice and culinary arts, and it’s so awesome to see the students get as jazzed as me about the science behind food and cooking.”

The Application of Food Science course — think Cook’s Illustrated for dietetics and physiometabolism majors — is designed to help students develop the necessary skills to take a recipe or meal plan and adapt it to suit specific nutritional needs or dietary restrictions in real-world settings, such as hospitals or long-term care facilities. Sections cover everything from candy-making to bread-baking.

“I’m really happy to be staying at Berkeley and I really hope this turns into a permanent appointment,” Rasmussen says.

With food permeating practically every facet of her life, Rasmussen recognizes the importance of nurturing non-food related pursuits that nourish other areas of the mind and body. She enjoys the meditative aspects of yoga, uses running and hiking to get out of the kitchen and away from the computer and started taking a ballet class for beginners.

The mental seal around these food-free zones is not always watertight, however. Rasmussen, who plays bass guitar, recently got together with some friends to form a band. The group’s name? “The Grocery Store.”

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