Staff by Day, Amateur Chef by Night
Office of Student Success Program Coordinator Jen Crespo talks about learning to cook, learning to cook healthy, and how it’s reshaped her life. See what she’s got to say about her trials, tribulations, and triumphs from behind the stove.
“I used to dread going home to cook,” says Office of Student Success Program Coordinator Jen Crespo '06, '14. “But now it’s very relaxing! Now I come home from work and listen to music as I get to work behind the stove.”
The transformation from reluctant cook to consummate clean-eating chef wasn’t an easy one. Before she began her junior year at Pace’s Pleasantville Campus, Crespo’s grandmother set out to teach her how to make a few basic dishes that could carry her through.
“That summer before I went back to college, I would come home from work and get cooking lessons from my grandma every afternoon from four to six and then serve what I made,” she says. She served her first completely solo meal the night before she left for campus—one whole roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, a veggie dish, and a salad.
“My grandfather cut into the chicken and it was totally pink!” she laughs. “It wasn’t even close to cooked.”
But things got better.
Over the next few years, Crespo had to learn to rely on herself to make meals and keep herself well-fed, which really spurred her on into learning more about timing, flavors, and cooking times. She cooked for her roommates, she cooked for family and friends, and she tried new things and got better.
“In February of last year I decided to go on a diet, which meant I needed to change the way I was cooking,” Crespo says. “I found this book called The Fast Metabolism Diet which essentially uses food to trick your body into speeding up your metabolism. At the time, I was not a fan of exercise so I thought this diet would be perfect for me.”
After a few weeks of monotonous eating, Crespo put her skills to use—enhancing the book’s recipes, translating her grandma’s recipes into healthy alternatives, and exploring new options that would support her diet and weight-loss goals.
“It sounds silly, and they always say this, but making smart substitutions is key to losing weight,” says Crespo. “Bake your chicken, broil for crispiness, avoid frying, swap out brown rice for white, use Truvia instead of sugar, replace milk with almond or coconut milk alternatives, say no to cheese.”
After the first few weeks, the weight melted off, resulting in a 40-pound weight loss that Crespo has been able to maintain through clean eating. “Keep in mind, this was all without exercise,” she says.
In the months since, Crespo has begun to share her culinary creations via Instagram at @ChezCrespo. Some of her dishes include southwest steak fajitas paired with kiwi salsa; veggie pizza with squash and zucchini on whole wheat crust; black bean brownies (yes, you read that right); and roasted pears with cinnamon and honey.
Eventually, Crespo says, she’d love to end up owning and operating a food truck that features healthy options. “Maybe themed days, like Meatless Mondays and Taco Tuesdays,” she says. “I love my job at Pace, but I love going home to cook more.”
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A Special Note and Recipe from Jen:
One of my favorite healthy recipes is below—it’s also fast metabolism diet-friendly. It’s Spanish rice with beef and one of my favorites because it takes an hour to make but the prep is 15 minutes and then it cooks itself, so I can do other things like do a load of laundry or watch a TV show while I let it simmer on its own.
- 1 pound lean ground beef
- 1 large onion, chopped fine
- 3 cups chopped bell peppers (I like to have 1 red, 1 green, and 1 yellow or orange pepper to give the dish some color.)
- 2 cups beef broth
- 1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes with juice
- 1 cup (8-ounce can) tomato sauce
- 2 tablespoons chili powder (more if you want it super spicy)
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 3/4 teaspoon sea salt
- 1 1/4 cup uncooked brown rice
- Chopped cilantro for garnish
- 1 lime (cut into quarters)
- 1 ripe avocado
In a large skillet or pot (use one that has a lid), cook and stir the beef, onion, and peppers over medium heat until the beef is browned. Next, stir in the broth, tomatoes, tomato sauce, chili powder, garlic powder, and sea salt. Bring that to a boil. Stir in the rice, reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer for one hour, or until the rice is tender. Sprinkle generously with chopped fresh cilantro, top with 1/4 of avocado, and squeeze lime juice over the top and serve! Remember to stir ingredients once or twice during that hour while the food is simmering.
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