Cooking is a Sustainable Act: An Interview with Chef Kim O’Donnel

Chef Kim O’Donnel is a pioneer, one of the first writers to regularly feature vegetarian dishes when she began her career as a writer for the Washington Post years ago. She is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education and a regular contributor to True/ and Kim speaks here with Women Of Green’s staff writer Sarah Skenazy about the challenge of changing food patterns and the timely notion that cooking is a sustainable act.

You’ve noted in your writings that a non-meat centric approach to cooking promotes creativity in the kitchen as well as health benefits and cheaper grocery bills. What sorts of larger social effects might come about as people open up in their relationships to food?

As much as I’d love to see more meat eaters taking a weekly break from meat, I think what’s more important here is that we all need to commit to cooking, period! Meat-less or meat-filled, cooking connects us to ourselves, each other, the road our food traveled and how that journey impacts the environment, our health and our wallets.  This brings to mind a recent conversation I had with a Seattle artist, who said, “Cooking is a sustainable act.” I like the sound of that.

If you could author more proposals for collaboration between chefs and public health institutions, what would they look like? What about chefs and environmentalists?

I am a big fan of Preston Maring, a physician in Oakland, Calif., who started farmers markets at several Kaiser Permanente medical centers around the country.  He’s made it his mission to show the direct link between cooking and wellness. His prescription: A chef’s knife, a salad spinner and two cutting boards.  If we could just clone him and his work…

With arguments for reducing meat intake coming from everywhere from doctors and climate experts to Nobel Peace Prize winners and celebrities, what’s holding people back? How can the average cooks reservations be most usefully addressed?

Even with all the data staring us in the face, change is hard, particularly in a culture with a per capita meat consumption of 200-plus pounds a year.  Americans don’t like change, and they don’t like to be told what to  do, even if their health depends on it.  That’s why I think incremental change — baby steps — can be so effective.  If you’re daily meater — and so many of us are — taking just one day off is a 15 percent reduction. That’s quite significant! And yet, it doesn’t require turning your life — or pantry — upside down.  Start with one day off, but if that doesn’t resonate for your most stubborn meat lover, show the Mr. or Mrs. Sausage in your life just how fab vegetables can be — by roasting them.  Beats boiled veg any day.

Here at Women Of Green we highlight women as agents of change. How might women move the message of the Meatless Monday campaign further than their own dinner tables?

I think we need to stay focused on the kitchen and the dinner table for a while. It’s a room that has gotten dusty and a piece of furniture that has been largely ignored for a very long time.  It’s time to give them both a good workout and show our families and friends just how empowering and fun it can be to cook together and share at table.

What do you think of when you hear the word ‘green’? What’s your working definition and do you consider yourself to be described by the word?

To me, ‘green’ means being aware and more mindful — of our health, the food we eat and how everything we do is not in a vacuum but deeply interconnected, that the way we live our individual lives directly impacts animals, plants, the planet and our relationships with family, community and the world at large.  One mindful action a day is indeed being green.

You can buy Kim’s new book, A Meat Lover’s Meatless Cookbook here, or visit her website at

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