Cooking saved her. Now, she’s passing on the lessons of eating healthy for your mind, body. | Food
SUFFOLK, Va. — Chef Kiara Whack couldn’t get the correct burner to light.
She’s used to working with the four-burner stove in her Newport News apartment. On this Friday night in Suffolk, she was cooking at someone else’s home and its stove with six burners. The host was off entertaining dinner guests. So Whack, 32, smirked, looking more amused than annoyed, tested each burner.
She was warming up her signature lentil soup, the first of several courses she would be serving.
But Whack is used to trial and error, to trying again and again, until she finds what works.
In 2013, the stakes of her trial and error were much higher: She was trying to figure out how to save her life.
In May of that year, Whack got out of a relationship that left her feeling traumatized and abused.
She withdrew from the University of Virginia where she was studying psychology and moved back home to Hampton. She continued to struggle with depression and anxiety. Whack lived off of fried wings and french fries.
She packed around 60 pounds onto her 130-pound frame in just over nine months.
The emotional weight felt even heavier.
So Whack tried something new: teaching herself to cook healthier. Specifically, she switched to “superfoods,” such as blueberries, avocados and salmon. She started to feel better, physically and mentally.
Whack learned what a growing body of research has indicated in recent years: A healthy diet can improve mental health.
For her, this went from a life-saving discovery to an entire lifestyle change.
Now, she’s sharing what she discovered through her chef service, Traveling Thyme Bomb, memoir and other ventures.
“A lot of people who go through tragedies and traumatic situations — they feel like they can’t bounce back. That was me,” Whack said before her Friday night of cooking. “The fact that I did and I’m thriving how I am, I feel like I have the blueprint to make it.”
A loss of communication
As the lentil soup began to simmer, Whack heaved two gallon-sized bags of lamb chops onto the countertop with a thud.
Small talk and laughter buzzed from the next room but were soon drowned out by sizzling as Whack unloaded the chops into a pan.
Whack prefers nights like this, where she cooks alone. She’s methodical, as she’s learned to be over the years.
For most of 2013, Whack had a hard time looking in the mirror. Initially, she lost 10 pounds after getting out of the relationship. Then, it packed on as she turned to food and alcohol to cope.
Her frustration pushed her to make a change, however. And not because of how she looked in the eyes of others.
“All of this is stuff” — the new self-care regimen she’s developed since that low point — “I do for myself.”
In 2014, she enrolled in a holistic nutrition program for guidance. She did not complete the certification due to the cost, but the program put “the bug in my ear,” Whack said.
She cut red meat from her diet and gave herself two months to master that before doing more. Her process was gradual.
“I definitely remember when I was starting to do this, I wasn’t with it at all. I was like: I don’t want to eat this. I don’t feel like doing this routine,” Whack said. “But I kept doing it.”
The weight started coming off and she began to feel less anxious. Her depression became less severe. She started to log how removing and adding foods from her diet made her feel, which is something she now recommends others do who are looking to change their habits.
It took two to three years for Whack to return to her normal weight. During this time, she completed her degree at U.Va., graduating in 2014. She also started going to therapy. In 2015, she started a CrossFit exercise regimen.
Food was the easiest to control, however. That discovery shaped her philosophy: “If you can control what you eat, you can control anything within your life.”
Before her journey began, Whack said she felt a loss of communication — not between herself and others but between her body and mind. Now, she jokes that her mind will tell her bluntly when she’s eaten the wrong thing.
When she overindulges, she said her body will tell her, “Girl, you shouldn’t have did that!”
Around 9 p.m., after nearly three hours of cooking, Whack began plating the entrees: Jerk lamb chops with sweet potatoes and lemon herb asparagus were spooned onto half of the dishes, and seared tuna with collard green dirty rice and avocado mango salsa went on the others.
She started prepping at 11 a.m. Now a day’s worth of work was neatly arranged on 12 plates.
Her days are usually busy with other work. She’s a mom now, and the health of her 2-year-old son, Jaxon, is as high a priority as her own. She also just became an author. Her “Dis(Re)covery: An Autobiography for Edible Consumption” tells her story through a pregnancy journal, combing her reflections on motherhood and healing.
She is also an in-school suspension coordinator with Hampton City Schools and works with children who struggle with behavior and mental health challenges.
At the center of all these endeavors is mental health, Whack said. Not just her own but others.
“My goal is not to be everybody’s chef,” she said. Instead, she wants people to build habits they carry with them.
“It’s not about losing this amount of weight in two weeks,” Whack said. “It’s about really changing how you view food, and how you use it.”
That’s also what brought her to Suffolk this Friday.
Guests filled the kitchen, vying for seats closest to where Whack stood, handing out plates. Whack fielded questions about what was in each dish. The guests bowed their heads in prayer before eating. They thanked the Lord for many things, including the chef.
Whack shut off the burners and tossed her last pair of gloves as people started to eat.
Then, she just listened to the hum of happy conversation and mmms that she was responsible for.