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I recently met Chef Kelly Benedict at a spring equinox salon at Space by Mama Medicine in Soho. During the event we were instructed to reach out and talk to three strangers in the room (something I wouldn't necessarily do on my own as I can be quite shy in new environments!) and the Universe brought me to Kelly. I soon learned that she had made the delicious gluten-free black sesame cookie I was eating at the time, and after talking for a few minutes I just knew I had to feature her on Back to Basil! Seeing as we met at a spring equinox event, I thought it would be very fitting to discuss what foods we should be eating for the season.

But first, a little background on Kelly. She attended cooking school in 2006 and worked at two of New York's best restaurants, Eleven Madison Park and Gramercy Tavern, afterward. She always knew she wanted to be a private chef however, so she left restaurant life to pursue her dream. Kelly has been working as a private chef for the last 10 years. She is based in New York City, as well as the Hamptons over the summers, and Barcelona, Spain.

Kelly has always felt at home in the kitchen. She explains, "since I was a young child I was drawn to food, the art of creation, the memories, the tradition, the comfort, the smells and colors, everything. I was either in the kitchen helping my parents and grandfathers or glued to the TV watching cooking shows." As a kid she used to write down recipes on post-its which she found years later! So she has always loved creating food, but in more recent years, food has brought her a different meaning: 
My passion and the reason I continue to do what I do today is to heal, to expose as many people as I can to the tremendous power that food has on our body, mind, and our spirit. I have seen first hand the effects of how changing your diet can literally change your life.

Kelly has been gluten free for the last 12 years. In college she found herself eating junk food daily, and an overload of sugar and gluten ultimately led to depression. She tried an elimination diet and realized gluten was a huge problem for her; once she removed it from her diet, "(her) life came back." She hasn't touched gluten since then and maintains a healthy outlook on food:
It is not about eating perfectly. It is about truly listening to your body and how you feel. I just choose to eat food that is going to make me feel 100 percent, 100 percent of the time, and for me that is mostly plants, no gluten and no dairy, and always making room for "soul food" edible memories!

So now let's talk about what to eat this season! It's finally beginning to feel like spring and I for one can't wait to frequent farmers' markets and enjoy picnicking in parks! One of Kelly's rules when food shopping is to always have at least five different colors of produce in your cart - an easy way to ensure you're getting a variety of nutrients! Asparagus (she loves making asparagus soup with cilantro, parsley, and garlic - yum!), radishes, dandelion greens, fava beans, and baby bok choy (delicious to snack on!) are a few of her top picks for spring. As we transition from warm winter foods to more raw vegetables, she recommends incorporating sautéed greens in salads - something I had never thought of doing before! For spring salads she loves to use wild arugula and beet greens as a base and has fun mixing it up with different ingredients like spring onions, sautéed radish & dandelion greens, raw radishes, fresh herbs like mint, cilantro, and parsley, toasted nuts, fava beans, and quinoa or a starchier roasted vegetable. How delicious does that sound?!

For dressings, her go-to ingredients are cashews, pumpkin seeds, or tahini (she loves seed+mill!) as a base with different combinations of the following: a tiny bit of water, fresh herbs (like mint, cilantro, parsley, and dill, or tarragon on its own), lime juice, lemon juice and zest, apple cider vinegar, a tablespoon of olive oil, a tiny bit of garlic, and occasionally some ginger as well. She throws everything in the blender et voilà ! The dressing will keep for a couple days in the refrigerator.

Some other tips I picked up from Kelly were to store raw nuts and chia and flax seeds in the fridge or freezer and to "pack your supplements and adventurous mentality" when traveling. She explains:
I never go anywhere without camu camu powder, wheatgrass or barley grass juice powder, spirulina, and my vitamins. Once you get there find an organic vegetable store and that will become your best friend on your trip. Having that comfort makes a word of difference when you want to stay in and cook one night!

When she isn't traveling, Kelly loves to reserve her mornings for quiet time. After waking, she looks outside, gives thanks, and says to the Universe, "I am open and receptive." I think we all could benefit from starting our day this way!

Ever since meeting with Kelly to talk about this post, I have been loving sautéed dandelion greens (all you need is fresh minced garlic and olive oil!) and making multi-ingredient salads with lots of fresh herbs! Spring is my favorite season and eating seasonal produce is not only nourishing for the body, but also for the mind as we enter into a period of self renewal and reconnection to the earth.

Kelly offers a variety of services, including Wellness Consultations which include pantry/fridge makeovers and menu planning/tips to leave you with the confidence to cook for yourself and your family, Weekly Cooking (preparing a few dishes and snacks for the week), Recipe Development, and Delivery of Baked Goods (gluten free, vegan, minimally sweetened). Head to vitalthyme.com to learn more (and for delicious recipes!) or contact her directly at kelly.benedict@gmail.com.

Deciding what I put into my body is ultimately about self respect, honoring my mind, body, and soul, honoring traditions and those who are no longer with us, and honoring Mother Earth who has provided everything we need to thrive. We have a huge opportunity to impact not only our health, but the health of this planet if we all just eat consciously and limit the consumption of animal products. - K.B.