Celebrity chef Nathan Lyon first got hooked on great food for its ability to delight. “I was pretty young, 5 or 6, and my mom’s parents were visiting,” he recalls. “I was helping my mom make cherry jubilee — I liked helping in the kitchen; it was such a warm place to be. We splashed the dish with brandy, brought it out and flambéed it. Everyone was smiling and clapping.”
Lyon, host of the Discovery Health Network’s A Lyon in the Kitchen, had learned a valuable lesson: Great food makes people happy. And while that was plenty of incentive for the gregarious youngster to learn how to cook, what kept him in the kitchen over the long haul was the pleasure of preparing and eating local foods — a staple of his childhood years in Arlington, Va. “I could either get home from school and get picked on by my older brothers, or walk down to my grandparents’ house and work in their vegetable garden,” Lyon recalls, laughing.
Today Lyon is widely recognized as a strong advocate for healthy local and organic foods. But even back in high school he was developing the culinary discernment that would one day become his claim to fame.
“One night, my friend Jason and I took our dates out to a nice restaurant,” he says. “I remember looking at the prices on the menu and associating it with what my date received on her plate: overcooked broccoli, unseasoned wild rice and a 4-ounce, dried-out piece of salmon.” It was a pricey meal, Lyon realized, but unfortunately “it wasn’t a good meal.”
So, the enterprising young Lyon thought, “Why not skip the restaurant entirely, buy a whole fresh fish, then cook it myself? It would end up being a third of the price with about a tenfold improvement in flavor.”
As a present for his 16th birthday, Lyon asked his parents to buy him the ingredients for a feast he could prepare for his friends. Lyon picked out his own lobsters, shrimp and clams. He and his Italian pal, Jason, even made their own pasta. “When my mom came home from work, pasta was hanging everywhere — on the backs of chairs, over broom handles, just everywhere!” he recalls.
All Lyon’s best friends came over for the meal, which turned out to be a terrific, delicious success. And Lyon came away from the experience with a deeper understanding of the power that creating and sharing good food has on the people who enjoy it. “I realized that this is what life is all about. Food is such an intricate part of society and one’s own personal history.”
Lyon, now 37, later earned a degree in health science from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., and spent six months after graduation reveling in the exquisite regional cuisines of Europe. He moved to the Los Angeles area, where he worked in high-end restaurants and attended the California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena.
Then, in 2006, he was selected to compete in the Food Network reality show The Next Food Network Star. He didn’t win the contest, but he won over the executives at the Discovery Health Network, who offered him his own show. A Lyon in the Kitchen was born.
The show — combined with his regular gigs at various Los Angeles farmers’ markets — gives him plenty of opportunities to extol the virtues of local food and healthy home cooking. He encourages anyone who wants to cook, but doesn’t know where to start, to trust his or her intuition and just start experimenting. “Go with the flow in the kitchen,” he says. “Growing up, my brothers and I made our own school lunches, and for the most part, we’d just make it up. We used whatever we found in the kitchen. Sometimes it was odd, certainly, but it was real.”
And while Lyon emphasizes the health benefits of eating local, seasonal foods on his show, he makes a careful distinction between healthy food and low-cal diet food. In Lyon’s mind, whole, natural foods are the way to go.
“In America, we might point at a freshly prepared meal and say, ‘Oh, that’s so healthy.’ In Europe, however, when someone makes a dish of seasonal eggplant deliciousness, they don’t call it ‘healthy,’ they just call it food. It’s a meal, plain and simple. I equate diet food with ‘processed.’ The less processed the food, the better it’s going to be, both in terms of taste and health benefits.”
Indeed, Lyon argues that the cleaner and fresher you eat, the healthier you’ll feel. “I’m not a doctor, and there are times when I’ve eaten fast foods,” he admits. “But as a person with a health background, it just holds true for me that, more often than not, when you’re eating local, seasonal foods, you’ll feel better, sleep better, deal with stress more easily and have far more energy.”
That’s not to say the superfit Lyon doesn’t have a few of his own guilty food pleasures. His favorites? “Really good chocolate and ice cream,” he admits. “I love them!”
But mostly Lyon cooks to share his passion for food with others — a mission he takes seriously. “There’s a special kind of power in the ability to make people happy through food,” he muses. “You can make that person’s day or even their week with a good meal. Then again, you can ruin a couple’s first date, or even a honeymoon, with a bad one. That’s a lot of responsibility.”