Hoboken-based chef, health coach, yoga teacher, and self-professed “Self-Help Junkie,” Jennifer Iserloh had an uncommon career path: she started working in New York City fine dining, hop-scotched to private chefing for some high-gloss clients, and found her way to health-focused cooking as the Skinny Chef. And with the recent publication of her latest (ahem, 23rd) cookbook Superfood Alchemy, Iserloh wants to feed everything: mind, body and spirit.
We caught up with the busy chef—who isn’t vegetarian but does love yoga—to see what we can expect from her latest cookbook and ever-evolving brand.
Table Hopping: You’re based out of Hoboken. Are you from New Jersey?
Jennifer Iserloh: I’m originally from Pittsburgh, but I kind of consider myself a Jersey girl now, I’ve been here so long. I moved to New York City in 1998 and moved to New Jersey in 2000. I’ve been in Hoboken since 2003.
TH: With your new book, you’re taking a deeper dive into wellness territory. But what’s your culinary background?
JI: I went to culinary school at Institute for Culinary Education. Before I graduated, I started working in restaurant kitchens, a lot of fine-dining establishments in New York City. It was quite a ride. I worked at Blue Hill and some very famous farm-to-table-style restaurants. I learned amazing skills from the chefs there.
TH: You also worked as a private chef for some unique clients?
JI: I worked for a famous photographer, Annie Leibovitz. I didn’t know who she was when I went to interview! I worked for her for a year and a half, then I ended up working for another couple, a Jewish man and a Punjabi woman. Talking about Pittsburgh one day, we realized she was the sister-in-law of one of my best friends from college! I did that for a year. Then I was out of work for a little and I had this amazing dream about my dream job. I told my husband, “In two weeks, I’ll have my dream job.” Sure enough, I put my resume in a placement service and got a job working for the Seinfelds. I went out to the Hamptons and Jerry said “What are you gonna cook?” I said, “I’m gonna make chicken parm,” comfort foods. He said “Oh my god, that’s my favorite dish!” Really, every single family wanted the kind of food I grew up cooking.
TH: You’ve done New York fine dining and chicken parm for Jerry Seinfeld. How did your “Skinny Chef” brand come out of that?
JI: Skinny Chef is actually based on the work I did as a private chef—healthy comfort food. Most of my family members died from morbid obesity. We loved food, but we loved it too much. Making that transition to Skinny Chef was me getting my health under control.
TH: And writing was a part of the brand?
JI: When I retired from private chefing, I was writing a lot for places like SELF Magazine and doing some TV. In 2005, I started doing more writing. Every year I do about three cookbooks. Except this year—this [last] year was only Superfood Alchemy.
TH: Superfood Alchemy is more than a cookbook. You have essential oil recipes, instructions for meditations. How did it come about?
JI: I’ve been working on it for five years. It’s actually the culmination of all my experience, plus my yoga background. All the publications I’ve written for have been in the health sector, but I got interested specifically in medicine and food. Now I work in integrated and functional medicine—way more specialized in terms of understanding the food-mind-body practice. I went to the Institute for Integrative Nutrition and got my health coaching degree. It’s a deeper application of food as medicine. I had to learn the science behind different eating systems.
TH: The term “superfood” is familiar by now, but what does “Alchemy” mean?
JI: It’s similar to yoga [in that it] deals with energy centers called “chakras.” Alchemy gives you instructions on how to deal with those centers. But alchemy teaches one thing different from yoga—it teaches how to combine things. When you “alchemize” something, you’re combining it in a way that one-plus-one equals one thousand. For instance, turmeric; your body doesn’t absorb it well. But we discovered through science that if you add fat, black pepper, and a heat source, it absorbs a thousand times better. The cookbook gives you formulas for every area. It has essential oils to calm emotions, meditations to calm the mind, and recipes for those [chakra] centers.
TH: Can you give an example of an ingredient or recipe for a particular chakra?
JI: Dealing with something like the heart, for example, cruciferous vegetables are great for the heart. Cauliflower, kale, broccoli. Emotionally, too, if you have any grudges, or heartbreak, you can remedy that; meditation can feel like the essence of self-love. The Sacral chakra is where your sex organs are, so [I use] some juicy foods. For instance, there’s a Watermelon Hot Chili Shot recipe in there. It’s also about being very sensual. There’s a mindset involved. Alchemy is working those three pieces—body, emotion, mindset. True healing only happens when it happens on all three levels.
TH: Would you say the recipes have any particular culinary approach, any particular region or flavors?
JI: I use every flavor. After 23 books, it’s global. But it is very farm-to-table because the whole book is based on vegetables.
TH: Does that mean the “alchemy” approach won’t work for carnivores?
JI: Not at all. It’s just that nobody has trouble getting red meat into their diet! Personally, I’m not vegan, but I wanted the book to be a healing book. In the beginning, I teach ways you can integrate animal proteins. But I wanted to teach readers how to make vegetables, and how to make them taste good.
TH: Any plans to get back into a restaurant?
JI: I never thought I’d come this far. It’s been a long trek. We’re talking 13 years! And I came to realize after working in restaurants, too, that that kind of work just tears the body down. You can only do it for so long. I have a health coaching practice now, and I work with a lot of doctors and healers. I kind of see myself as the Doctor’s Chef now.
TH: So over your career you went from “Chef” to “Skinny Chef” to “The Doctor’s Chef”?
JI: My new brand is actually Body and Soul Alchemy, my health coaching practice. I want to teach people more about the mind-body connection and bring that into food.