By Simone Miller
Simone Miller is the force behind Zenbelly, the San Francisco-based Paleo and gluten-free catering company that has proven alternative eating can still be five-star gourmet. Simone’s recent cookbook, The Zenbelly Cookbook: An Epicurean’s Guide to Paleo Cuisine, brings this sentiment home to our kitchens, spicing up and adding variety to the healthy eater’s “chicken and broccoli” plate for dinner every night — while also giving Sunday breakfast an overhaul (think Silver Dollar Pancakes with Blueberry Compote). Most importantly, Zenbelly is all about eating simple, real food, prepared with unique flavors. Here, Simone shares how this philosophy is the backbone of everything Zenbelly.
You were first a personal chef, then started your own catering company, and now you are a published chef with The Zenbelly Cookbook. How has your approach to food evolved through all these shifts?
Actually it's been pretty consistent since I started working as a personal chef when I moved to California 8 years ago! But before that — I spent a lot of time cooking in vegetarian restaurants, and made and ate a lot of foods I avoid now... Soy everything, lots of bread, fake meats, all the things that were considered healthy back then, that I now consider some of the worst offenders out there. My focus has switched to simple, real food. I feel a thousand times better now, eating properly raised meats, veggies, and good fats, than I did when I was a vegetarian.
How did you first pinpoint that you had a sensitivity to gluten?
I had symptoms for many years that didn't seem to point to anything concrete: frequent headaches, brain fog, lethargy, general malaise, even some pretty intense migraines. I woke up in the morning feeling exhausted, regardless of how many hours I'd slept. I think the a-ha moment happened when I reflected back to when my symptoms were at their worst — it was definitely the years I was a vegetarian, in my 20s. During that time, my diet consisted of a lot of meat alternatives, made of soy and gluten. While working at a vegetarian cafe, I'd often have a seitan rueben, which was basically a gluten sandwich. When I moved to California in 2007, I started going to a chiropractor, who did food sensitivity testing. I sort of even knew before I got the results back, but the tests confirmed it.
Was a gluten-free catering company a tough sell to customers when you first started? How have you seen that change, if at all?
I was concerned when I decided to take that leap in the beginning, but it hasn't been a tough sell at all. A lot of clients hire Zenbelly because it's gluten-free; a lot of people need that. But a lot of clients also hire me because of my food point-of-view. They want their wedding, their housewarming party, their dinner party catered with the best ingredients. No one misses the gluten, especially when there are so many high quality alternatives out there. And of course with my specialty being grain-free / Paleo cuisine, the focus is on the proteins and veggies. It's really quite similar to a farm-to-table style, which people really appreciate.
You've said that your mission is to prove that gluten-free and Paleo can be just as gourmet. How do you define Paleo in your cooking?
To me, Paleo is about cooking with whole, real food. It's not a historical reenactment. The way I see it, Paleo is about cleaning up the way we eat and bidding farewell to the food that was made in a factory. The focus is on properly raised meats and seasonal veggies and fruits. When you're cooking with simple, quality ingredients, it actually makes your job a lot easier! It doesn't take much to coax the delicious out of them.
The Zenbelly Cookbook seems to offer the perfect blend of recipes for the amateur home cook vs. more seasoned professionals. What was the thought behind that?
I really want to help people be better cooks. I hear a lot of people say they don't know how to cook, and I'd hate for that to be the reason they're not eating well. My intention with The Zenbelly Cookbook was to teach some simple techniques that could help boost the home cook's kitchen confidence. While I wrote the book to be accessible to the amateur home cook, I also made sure to include some sophisticated flavor combinations and techniques. People who eat Paleo can get stuck in a rut — steak and broccoli; chicken, kale, and sweet potatoes. Repeat. Since I cook for people professionally, I have a lot of tricks under my belt as far as building and balancing flavors. I really hope that my knowledge in that area can help inspire even some of the more seasoned cooks out there!
What was the initial spark to put together a cookbook?
Oh it's been a dream for a long time! I'd read so many articles about the process involved with getting a book deal, and they always left me feeling pretty discouraged. I actually lucked out with The Zenbelly Cookbook — the Paleo community is a really supportive one, and I got an intro to Victory Belt Publishing from a colleague who had written a bestselling book with them. They loved my approach and photography, so we were pretty quick to sign a contract. There's nothing concrete on the books for a second cookbook, but I do plan on working with them again.
What are your favorite recipes from the cookbook, and would you be willing to share one with our readers?
I really love the recipe that's on the cover, the Pan Roasted Chicken with Bacon and Apples. It's so simple to make, but you'd never know it from the flavors. I also love the Mango-Chile Ceviche. As far as Paleo recreations: I'm pretty proud of my plantain tortillas and NY-style pizza crust. And of course the chocolate cake!
Any other advice, or last words to add?
Get in the kitchen, and have fun! Cooking is like anything else — you don't get better at it, if you don't practice. Most importantly, don't get too caught up in the latest diet madness. If you focus on real, whole foods, and pay attention to how different foods make you feel when you eat them, you're off to a great start.
Pan Roasted Chicken with Bacon and Apples
prep time: 10 minutes | cook time: 45 minutes | serves: 4
1 whole chicken, cut up into 8 pieces
1 teaspoon finely ground sea salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 pound bacon (5 to 6 thick strips)
1 cup sliced shallots (about 3 large)
1 apple, sliced in ½-inch-thick half-moons
1 cup white wine
3 to 4 sprigs fresh thyme
Preheat the oven to 450°F.
Season the chicken pieces liberally on both sides with the salt, and just on the flesh side with the pepper.
Heat a large, dry cast-iron, or other oven-safe, skillet over medium-high heat. Sear the chicken pieces skin side down in the hot skillet until nicely browned and crispy. Flip and cook on the flesh side for 2 minutes. Pour in the wine and nestle in the thyme sprigs. Roast in the oven for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, brown the bacon in a medium skillet over medium heat until crisp, about 10 minutes.
Pour off all but about a tablespoon of the fat, and add the shallots and apple. Saute for another 4 to 5 minutes, or until the shallots are softened and the apples start to brown.
After the chicken had cooked for 15 minutes, add the bacon apple mixture to the pan with the chicken, doing your best to nestle it between the pieces as opposed to covering the skin.
Roast for another 10 to 15 minutes, or until the internal temperature of the chicken reaches 165°F.
Simone Miller is a self-taught chef who has been working in the food industry for 17 years. She worked at several restaurants in New York and Connecticut before relocating to San Francisco in 2007. Once in the Bay Area, Simone worked as a personal chef while working to launch a catering company. Shortly after getting Zenbelly off the ground, Simone learned what was behind her constant headaches and lethargy: a pretty serious sensitivity to gluten. Discovering she had food allergies put the brakes on the business, but only long enough to pivot. Simone couldn’t imagine serving people food she hasn’t tasted, and recognized the tremendous need for gluten-free catering. All signs pointed to turning Zenbelly into a gluten-free catering company.
And who better to do it than someone who couldn’t imagine living a life restricted by food allergies? Simone is a chef on a mission: To prove that gluten-free and Paleo cuisine can be just as gourmet, refined, and artfully presented as what you’d find in a fine bistro. She draws on her holistic nutrition education to bring true nourishment to her cooking, and believes healthy food can be delicious enough to impress even the most serious gourmand.
Simone offers a chef’s perspective to Paleo recipes on her blog. There, she shares her grain-free recipes that have made believers out of some of the most die-hard gluten eaters, and has encouraged countless people to roll up their sleeves and have fun creating simple, delicious, healthy food.