“I love eating and was super overweight as a kid,” admits Chef Xavier Btesh as he talks about his recent conversion to a plant-based diet. “The whole plant-based diet is being conscious of what you eat. And no need to be vegan to go plant-based, it’s an eating lifestyle more than a diet.” Btesh’s journey to this healthier way of eating didn’t happen overnight, though, but came as a natural progression from his exposure to and love for Mediterranean food.
Born in Paris to a French-Italian mother and a Syrian-Iraqi Jewish father, Btesh has been traveling around the world since an early age. “My parents were artists who raised us all around the planet from Los Angeles to Paris, or the French Alps, but our base was always St. Tropez [in the south of France].”
His early exposure to food and cooking came from his mother’s family who was in the restaurant business. “I always hung out in the kitchen and knew early I wanted to work there,” he says. This love for cooking led Btesh to a career in culinary, with glamorous perks like getting to cook for celebrities like P. Diddy, Ivana Trump, and even European royalty. “I slowly made a name [for myself] and learned my task. Later on, I was offered to be the food specialist on the French version of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and I got to work around the world as an executive chef and consultant.”
Being exposed to all kinds of rich, luxurious fare actually made Btesh a lot more disciplined about what he eats. “Thanks to my job, I quickly realized you really are what you eat. I gave up soda and junk food in 2000. Luckily, I’ve always loved veggies even as a kid and they’re still my go to, also French and Mediterranean family-style food, and definitely Bordeaux wines,” he relates.
Btesh fell in love with the Philippines back in the 1990s thanks to his Filipino friend Eduardo Lacson. “When I had the opportunity to work here in 2012, I said ‘yes’ in a second flat,” he volunteers. Since moving to Manila, he has worked as chef-consultant for Nuvo, Shakey’s, La Vie Parisienne in Salcedo, Pacific Cebu Resort, as well as doing guest chef stints, and even writing a cookbook French Kusina in 2017.
After becoming chef-consultant for Monde Nissin and brand ambassador of its meatless protein brand Quorn in 2018, Btesh took healthy eating to the next level. “A few months ago, I mentioned The China Study to our CEO,” he relates.Btesh is referring to the bestselling The China Study: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted and the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss, and Long-term Health by T. Collin Campbell and his son Thomas Campbell. In a 2011 New York Times interview, T. Collin Campbell explains the message behind the book, “The idea is that we should be consuming whole foods. We should not be relying on the idea that genes are determinants of our health. We should not be relying on the idea that nutrient supplementation is the way to get nutrition, because it’s not. I’m talking about whole, plant-based foods. The effect it produces is broad for treatment and prevention of a wide variety of ailments, from cancer to heart disease to diabetes.” As a result, Btesh’s boss encouraged him to enroll in Campbell’s Plant Based Nutrition course on eCornell, Cornell University’s online learning platform.
After taking the Cornell course, Btesh decided to ease into the diet himself, which he did starting this January before the lockdown. How did he start? “I had a Marie Kondo moment in front of my fridge and pantry, chasing all the hidden sugars, bleached and canned food I could find and thinking ‘Do these hidden sugars and cholesterol really bring happiness to my life?’ I switched from canned beans to dry, used brown rice rather than white.”
How does the plant-based diet differ from vegetarian or vegan eating? Btesh explains, “The misconception is that vegetarian is always healthy, but you can be vegetarian and still eat junk food all day long. There are different levels in the plant-based diet. It’s for one to choose and introduce the diet into one’s lifestyle. It can start by [eating plant-based foods] one day a week, or a week, or a month to train.”
It wasn’t that hard, actually, according to Btesh. “I’ve already been swinging from vegetarian to vegan since a few years, so it was easy, especially with the help of Quorn, the meatless protein I work with.” He added grains like adlai or bulgur as his basics, with adlai as his favorite grain that he enjoys hot or cold. He has foregone animal meat, dairy, and liquors, although he still drinks wine.
As for desserts, he reveals, “Luckily, I don’t like sweets so much, so I don’t eat any except fruits.” He already lost 3.5 kilos after his first month on the plant-based diet, and he adds, “I started feeling the difference quickly, better sleep, better skin, less bloated.”
It does help that Btesh is a professional chef with a wide repertoire of recipes to cook from. And his Mediterranean background lends itself to lots of veggie-heavy dishes, with emphasis on grains and beans. “I love Middle Eastern food and I’m a massive soup eater, cold or hot, so I love my grandma’s Syrian coral lentil soup. It’s topped with fried garlic and squeezed lemon, super easy to do, not expensive and filling.”
It’s no surprise that ratatouille, that quintessential French Mediterranean vegetable dish, is a favorite. “I have no problem cooking a big pot for my selfish self, and like we do in the south of France, I eat whatever is left of it the next day, cold and flavored with Dijon mustard vinaigrette, the salad way!” For more plant-based recipe ideas and tips, he recommends the Forks Over Knives website.
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Since going on the diet, Btesh has lost weight but “without starving” and has never felt healthier. He warns, though, “Be ready to give up on a few pleasures, especially if you like processed foods which are real addictions.” He advises to take it step by step, starting with removing junk food from the pantry, and replacing it with beans and nuts. But he isn’t about a life of deprivation either, and assures, “I believe pleasure is very important in a diet, so if you want to go for a plate of pasta, a burger, or a pack of chips, go for it but don’t make it a habit. Keep this for special occasions.”