“I knew I had a story in me and I knew I wanted to share it,” says chef Judson Todd Allen about his newly published book The Spice Diet: Use Powerhouse Flavor To Fight Cravings And Win The Weight-Loss Battle. In the book Allen chronicles his battle with food addiction and weight loss from childhood to early adulthood and gives a personal account of how he lost more than 100 pounds in one year by reaching for spices to flavor bland-tasting healthy foods. "I realized it was the spices and ingredients that changed my perception about what ‘healthy’ was."
Cravings for spices from around the globe has been a growing trend as home cooks and diners become more adventurous. Allen became fascinated with flavor as a child who loved his grandfather’s chili for one special reason, “My grandfather used to put vinegar over his chili and I hated vinegar growing up — I hated the smell of it — but it was something about adding vinegar to the chili that I just was in love with,” Allen says with a smile. “Not only are you getting the salty, the savoriness, the meatiness and the earthiness from the beans and the meat, but now you’re bringing in a whole new element of flavor. This acidity, this flavor profile that’s coming from this vinegar, which is something different and unique and your tastebuds appreciate it. That’s when I really began to understand what flavor really was.”
Allen doubled-down on his passion for food and flavors and earned a degree in food science and nutrition from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign where he learned the biology behind the way humans process flavor and the fundamentals of building layers of flavor. Allen also studied formal culinary technique at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and emerged himself in cultures across the Caribbean to better understand indigenous spices and techniques.
Motivated by his own weight loss journey and the alarming rates of high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity in communities of color, Allen decided to forgo the traditional route of working the line at a restaurant to focus on the niche he built. As an early entrepreneur, Allen started a healthy meal delivery program years ahead of today’s of home delivery craze, “I look at Home Chef now and I’m like ‘Oh Jesus, I missed my calling,’” laughs Allen. The reality is the vivacious chef is an ardent believer of envisioning future success and claiming it, “You say something out of your mouth and you’ve got to be prepared for it.” For Allen, he saw himself becoming a personal chef for a major celebrity and soon after got the call from Steve Harvey.
As Steve Harvey’s personal chef, Allen applied his signature cooking style to help the then new daytime talk show host build healthy eating habits. As Harvey describes in his foreword for The Spice Diet, “Chef Judson did not disappoint. His enthusiasm really rubbed off. He prepared three meals a day for me…I don’t think he ever served the same dish twice in the first season of my show,” says Harvey. “In fact, I lost ten pounds in three weeks without ever feeling like I was dieting. I went on to lose more than thirty pounds.”
The Spice Diet is not a cookbook but it does contain a fair amount of sweet and savory recipes. “I give a diet plan some exercise tips and then I finish it up with these amazing recipes that sum up who I really am. It’s all about delivering the flavor, the spices, the ingredients.”
The Food Network alum sees today’s food media missing the opportunity to educate others on the history and the people who created many of the foods that are popular today. “We’ve seen it for so long in our culture, our stories are wiped clean. We need to show black folks as the innovative engines behind a lot of these food cultures, trends, techniques,” Allen says. He notes the work of food historians like Michael Twitty author of The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South and suggests that the black community may need to do some of the legwork in order for stories to be known and shared. “Maybe we need to do some due diligence on our part to really dig up those stories, to dig up those truths and shed that light.”
Resting on his laurels is not in Allen’s DNA — he wears many hats. This chef and author also partners with McDonald’s first black CEO, Don Thompson, at his food and beverage accelerator Cleveland Avenue, LLC. Allen is also a professor of hospitality at DePaul University where he instills a message of excellence to his students. “I always speak about a spirit of excellence, especially among us as African-Americans,” Allen says. He mentors his students by nourishing seeds that have already been planted, “You know to follow your dreams, you know to follow your goals; let’s talk about actualizing this thing because a lot of these visions will be brought to life in our minds but then they either stay dormant or they are just forgotten about.” Allen encourages, “Let’s focus, let’s be strategic because you want everything to be done with a spirit of excellence.”
The Spice Diet is available at your local bookstore and Amazon.
***Our deepest condolences to Judson’s family and friends. It was a privilege to sit down and have a conversation with him about his personal and professional journey. His light shone brightly and he was a true inspiration to many.