Tofu With a Side of Laughs
Chef Jeremy Rock Smith adds humor to Kripalu’s kitchen and classes
Photos by Gregory Cherin
“I’d like everybody to get comfortable in your chairs and close your eyes,” Jeremy Rock Smith coos to a group of yoga pants–clad Kripalu guests gathered for his Tuesday-night, whole-foods cooking demo. “We’re going to dim the lights and start off with a meditation.” A smirk overtakes his face and his blue eyes twinkle. “I’m kidding!” he exclaims in his naturally raucous speaking voice.
A split-second of silence follows, and then the group dissolves into giggles. The laughter keeps going for the next hour and a half with nonstop cooking and yoga jokes—riffing on everything from ludicrous coconut-oil miracles to gratitude meals to kale-massage techniques.
“Jeremy is down-to-earth, approachable, and roll-on-the-floor funny—he really should have his own cooking show,” says Kripalu guest Susan D. Kelly, a career coach from North Attleboro who has enjoyed several classes with the chef. “In addition to learning about healthy eating and smart cooking, anyone in attendance is thoroughly entertained.”
Smith’s irreverent humor sometimes has a sarcastic bite, but it’s always clear that he’s teasing with love. “Humor is important in that it allows us to laugh at our journey and keep things light,” he says. “At Kripalu, many who come are going deep within themselves most of the day, and that can be heavy and scary. From my own experience, I find the work of self-observation can be so serious that I forget that there is also joy.”
Born on Long Island, Smith moved to the Berkshires with his family when he was ten and lived on Baldwin Hill in South Egremont. “I grew up around a lot of jokes and storytelling at family gatherings, mostly making fun of ourselves,” he says. “I remember at my grandfather’s funeral, as we stood over his casket, the funeral director said he had never seen a group laugh so hard at a service.”
He landed his first restaurant job at age 14 working as a busboy at South Egremont’s venerable Old Mill. After graduating from Mount Everett Regional High School, he earned a degree at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. He went on to cook at many of the Berkshire’s top restaurants, including Wheatleigh, John Andrews, The Old Inn on the Green, Gedney Farm, and The Marketplace Café.
In 2005, he had what he deems a “mid-life cooking crisis,” during which he embarked on a quest to lead a healthier lifestyle. “I had always cooked for flavor and aesthetics and never for physical nourishment or healing and realized that was the unknown territory I was looking for,” he says.
To make the transition, he accepted a position at Canyon Ranch as a cook and did demonstrations with nutritionists. “Many of my coworkers at the Ranch—in all departments—mentored me. There was a wealth of knowledge among them about wellness.”
He joined Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge in 2010, serving as kitchen manager, and within three years became executive chef. Now he supervises a staff of 67, preparing three meals a day, seven days a week for 800 people on typical weekdays and up to 1,800 on busy summer weekends.
The meals are served buffet style and are designed to accommodate almost every dietary proclivity under the sun. The daily menu incorporates lean meats and dairy, while providing satisfying options for those following vegetarian, vegan, macrobiotic, gluten-free, and/or Ayurvedic diets.
Smith enjoys the menu-planning puzzle of having to please so many different palates. And those who have dined there rave about his creations and talk about returning to Kripalu, not only for the yoga experiences but for diving once again into the scrumptious cuisine. “I heard a chef once say that the parameters are the borders of my sandbox, and I just play within it. I do enjoy the challenge of not using the flavor crutches of butter, cream, and fat,” he says.
He often features a classic dish, such as penne pasta swimming in rich Alfredo sauce, with a related vegan one like rice penne topped with creamy, non-dairy pumpkin sauce and a dollop of kale pesto. He sources as many ingredients as possible from local farms.
In addition to his kitchen duties, the chef leads the weekly whole-food cooking demonstrations that are open to guests attending any Kripalu program, and he periodically teaches multi-day workshops on topics such as one-pot meals, food as medicine, and easy family meals. The latter subject is especially close to his heart, as he is the father of three young children: Hadyn, eight, Jasmine, six, and Dessa, six months.
Indeed, the first thing he does each day is pack his kids’ lunches. “My children don’t know what kale is because I’m told it’s not good to bring your work home with you,” he says with an easy grin.
For information on upcoming classes, visit kripalu.org/presenter/V0007202/jeremy_rock_smith
Click the link for Jeremy Rock Smith's recipe for Simple White Bean Chili