Suffolk, Virginia – Chef Kiara Wack couldn’t light the right stove.
She used to work on the four-burner stove in her Newport News apartment. On this Friday night in Suffolk, she was cooking in someone else’s house and his six-burner stove. The host was out entertaining the dinner guests. So whack, 32, smiling, looking more amused than annoyed, tested every flame.
She was heating up her signature lentil soup, the first of several dishes she would serve.
But Whack is used to trial and error, trying over and over, until you find what works.
In 2013, the stakes of her trial and error were much greater: she was trying to figure out how to save her life.
In May of that year, Whack walked out of a relationship that had left her traumatized and abused.
She dropped out of the University of Virginia where she was studying psychology and returned to her home in Hampton. She continued to suffer from depression and anxiety. Whack lived off fried wings and fries. She packed about 60 pounds on her 130-pound frame in just over nine months.
The emotional weight felt heavier.
So Whack tried something new: teaching herself to cook healthily. Specifically, she turned to “superfoods,” like blueberries, avocados, and salmon. I started feeling better physically and mentally.
Whack has learned what a growing body of research has suggested in recent years: a healthy diet can improve mental health.
For her, this turned from a life-saving discovery into a complete lifestyle change.
Now, she’s sharing what she’s discovered through Serving Chefs, Traveling Thyme Bomb, a memoir and other projects.
“So many people who have been through tragedies and traumatic situations—they feel like they can’t recover. The fact that I did it and I’m as thriving as I am, I feel like I have the blueprint to make it happen,” Whack said before Friday night of cooking.
When the lentil soup began to simmer, Whack carried two gallon bags of lamb chops on the work surface with a jingle.
Little talk sizzled and laughed from the next room but quickly drowned out the sizzle as Whack dumped the bits into the pan.
Whack prefers nights like these, where she cooks on her own. It’s methodical, as I’ve learned to be over the years.
Through most of 2013, Whack had trouble looking in the mirror. Initially, she lost 10 pounds after her exit from the relationship. Then it piled up when I turned to food and alcohol to deal with it.
Her frustration prompted her to make a change. And not because of her appearance in the eyes of others.
“It’s all just stuff” — the new self-care system I’ve developed since that low point — “I’m doing it for myself.”
In 2014, she joined the Comprehensive Nutrition Extension Program. Whack said she did not complete the certification due to the cost, but the program put “the error in my ear.”
She cut red meat from her diet and spent two months perfecting it before doing more. Its process was gradual.
“I definitely remember when I started doing this, I wasn’t with him at all. I was like, ‘I don’t want to eat this.’ But I kept doing it,” Wake said.
The weight started dropping and I started to feel less anxious. Her depression became less severe. She began recording how removing and adding foods from her diet made her feel, something she now recommends to others looking to change their habits.
It took two to three years for Whack to return to her normal weight. During this time, she completed her UVA degree, graduating in 2014. She also started going into therapy. In 2015, I started CrossFit.
However, food was the easiest to control. This discovery shaped her philosophy: “If you can control what you eat, you can control anything in your life.”
Before beginning her journey, Whack said she felt a loss of connection – not between herself and others but between her body and mind. Now, she’s kidding that her mind will honestly tell her when she eats the wrong thing.
When she overeat, she said her body would tell her, “Girl, you shouldn’t have done that!”
A new beginning
At about 9 p.m., after nearly three hours of cooking, Whack began to plate the appetizers: Lamb chops with sweet potatoes, lemongrass, and asparagus on half the plates, and grilled tuna with dirty green rice and avocado and mango gone over the others.
I started preparing at 11 am. Now the work of one day is neatly arranged on 12 plates.
Usually her days are busy with other work. She is a mother now, and the health of her two-year-old son, Jackson, is a top priority as are her children. She also just became an author. Her film “Dis (Re) Covery: An Autobiography of Edible Consumption” tells her story through pregnancy journal, combing through her reflections on motherhood and healing.
She is also an in-school commentary coordinator with Hampton City Schools and works with children with behavioral and mental health challenges.
Whack said mental health is central to all of these endeavours. Not only her but others.
“My goal is not to be everyone’s chef,” she said. Instead, you want people to acquire habits that they carry with them.
“It’s not about losing that much weight in two weeks,” Whack said. “It’s really about changing the way food is presented and how it is used.”
This is also what drove her to Suffolk.
Guests filled the kitchen, vying for the seats closest to where Whack was standing, and distributing dishes. Whack answered questions about what was in each dish.
Guests bowed their heads in prayer before eating. They thanked the Lord for many things, including the chef.
Whack turned off the burners and threw off her last pair of gloves when people started eating.
Then, I just listened to the buzz of happy conversation and the mmms she was responsible for.