Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 9, 2013

ALISBURY — Taste was chef Vivian Ray’s main focus when she first learned to cook as an apprentice in New Orleans.
Being in an area known for its food, she was often making rich, creamy sauces filled with both flavor and fat.

But nearly 30 years after stepping into the kitchen, Ray’s focus has shifted to crafting healthier meals and teaching others how to do the same.
Her perspective changed while working on a master’s degree in nutrition.
“I started learning about the different chemicals that are in food and it made me think this is a serious problem, obesity is now diagnosed as a disease,” she said. “I decided I needed to look at doing something about it, so I removed myself from cooking the traditional way and moved toward healthy cooking.”
Ray’s crusade to create a fitter population has started small, but she has big plans.
She’s currently hosting a series of workshops called Joy of Cookin-N at the Salisbury Child Care and Fine Arts Center on Standish Street.
I recently attended one of them for my series “Someone’s in the Kitchen with Sarah.”
“I have created a program that includes interactive culinary skills and nutritional concepts to help people gain some knowledge and make better choices,” Ray told me.
During one of her recent workshops, Ray gave about half a dozen people a lesson in packing a healthier lunch.
Each person received a knife and cutting board, which they used to create a broccoli salad.
The salad was simple. It included broccoli, red onion, apple and two small slices of salami.
“This is a high fiber, low fat, all natural meal with a little bit of mealt for protein,” Ray said.
A homemade dressing made of vanilla Greek yogurt, olive oil, apple cider vinegar and honey topped the salad. Ray said simply adding blueberries or raspberries to the mix will create a sweet dressing.
“You don’t have to buy salad dressing anymore, you can make your own using ingredients from your kitchen and a blender,” she said.
Using freshly peeled tomatoes, basil and a clove of garlic, Ray whipped together a no-cook tomato sauce, which she poured over grilled chicken to create a quick lunch dish.
She simply blended the ingredients together while cooking the chicken in a skillet with a bit of olive oil.
“You don’t have to season the chicken breast at all,” she said. “It’s really that simple.”
Ray suggested adding hummus along with celery and carrots for dipping to the lunch bag. A small piece of chocolate with at least 70 percent cocoa is a good way to have a treat without going overboard, she said.
“Anything less than 70 percent is filed with additives,” she said.
Ray said those who don’t have much time for lunch can throw some berries in the blender before work and simply drink their lunch.
“Keep it simple, keep it very simple,” she said. “You don’t need a lot of tools, you don’t have to spend a lot of money.”
Besides teaching community members how to think nutritious when it comes to eating, she’s showing them a few other tricks in the kitchen.
“They are learning basic food preparation skills and knife skills like how to make a V-cut,” she said. “When they’re done, they’ll know how to do a couple of garnishes to show off to their friends and some quick salads they can make for lunch or dinner.”
Ray said her workshops are also teaching people how to read labels, understand portions and decipher calorie counts.
Trained at the Culinary Institute of New Orleans, Ray is currently the director of Livingstone College’s programs in hospitality management and culinary arts.
She said she’s enjoyed hosting the workshops as part of a project she is working on for her doctorate degree.
“I’ve learned people are willing to try to change their habits,” she said. “They are actually going home and preparing this food, which lets me know I am teaching at a level that they understand.
“A lot of people learn nutrition and they never use it, I don’t want this class to be that way.”
In the future, Ray hopes to host classes for larger groups of adults and children.
“These workshops are for adults, but I’d like to modify them for kids,” she said. “Older people’s habits are pretty much set, so I’d like to take this concept and reach out to children so they can grow up using some of these techniques and learn to make healthier choices.”
I found Ray’s workshop very educational. So much so, that I can’t include all the notes I jotted down in this column because it would simply take up too much space.
She’s hosting two more, one this Friday and another July 19. I suggest attending if you’re interested in learning easy, inexpensive ways to change your eating habits.
One of my favorite tricks was simply adding cucumber, lime, lemon or orange slices to a cup or pitcher of water.
“It flavors the water and the fruit formulates a chemistry in the body that detoxes the body,” Ray said.
Ray will also be doing a cooking demonstration at the Salisbury-Rowan County Farmers Market on Saturday.
A little knowledge can go a long way when it comes to nutrition, especially with Ray as your guide.

Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.