University of Utah professor and chef collaborate and create ways to spice up their nutrition class

Story and slideshow by SYDNEY BULL

Catch Chef J Looney in action cooking up some of his favorite dishes.

“Follow your bliss,” Chef J Looney said as he lounged next to the fireplace while enjoying a green smoothie.

Looney is a private chef in the Salt Lake area. He caters events and works for the College of Health at the University of Utah as well. He is obsessed with cooking and shares foods from other cultures around the world with a diverse group of students in the Cultural Aspects of Food class, NUTR-3620.

It all started when Looney was a young kid. His father has been in the food service for a very long time and worked with institutional food, in churches, hospitals and schools on a mass scale.

When Looney was 8 years old, his father managed a cafeteria in a church office building in downtown Salt Lake serving between 3,000 and 5,000 meals a day.

Looney said he fell in love with the action in the kitchen and the look of the large stockpots full of chicken noodle soup and the fact that his dad could make so much food for all those people in need.

Once he turned 14 he lied on his application and told his hiring manager that he was 15 so he could be hired as a dishwasher. He went home every night with the stench of grease and dishwater but loved every second of it.

Looney then spent eight to nine more years there working his way up to line cook and then lead cook. He was finally promoted to managing a prime rib and seafood buffet before he decided to leave the food service industry.

Looney said he realized that he was still making minimum wage compared to all of his friends, which swayed him into working for “corporate America” at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company in central reservations. He worked there for seven years and traveled to many of its hotels.

He spent the next nine years in UPS management, but when he turned 40 years old he said he felt like something was missing. Looney needed that spark. That is when he decided to go back into the food industry again.

He said his wife was hesitant to let him quit at UPS because the pay in the food industry is low and the hours are long. But Looney insisted it was his passion.

“I just want something more,” Looney said. “I want to do something I am passionate about rather than do something just for a paycheck over and over again. I trusted my gut that it was going to work out.”

Word got out that Looney was getting back into food business. His friend Jason, who owns Point of Sale Retail System, called him up and asked Looney for a list of his top five dream jobs.

Looney said that Jason sent out letters of introduction. That is when Karen Olsen, the owner of the Metropolitan, called Looney and offered him an interview with the restaurant’s head chef. (The Metropolitan used to be the crown jewel of Utah’s fine dining but is no longer open in Salt Lake City.)

However, Looney said he met with the head chef and explained that although he had been out of the food service for 15 years, he cooked consistently throughout that time period and still had a huge love and desire toward it.

He was offered an unpaid shift to see if he was qualified enough to work in its kitchen. Looney, who never attended culinary school, said he walked in with only one knife.

The head chef placed Looney at the salad station, and it wasn’t easy. He said after a whole night of feeling completely stressed and demoralized, the head chef offered him the job as a line cook.

Looney said it was still a bad paying job and had long grueling hours but he used it as an opportunity to learn as much as he possibly could from everyone in the kitchen.

Once the Metropolitan closed, Looney became an executive chef at the Prairie Schooner in Ogden, Utah. At the same time, he also got a call from a friend at the U, who wanted his help teaching a nutrition class focused on ethnic foods.

The class, Cultural Aspects of Food, became extremely popular once word got around on campus that there was a chef cooking food for students. Looney worked with another talented cook, Tahmina Martelly, a chemist and licensed nutritionist who works as a professor at the U

After two and a half semesters, the class expanded to four classes a week and became a significant part of Looney and Martelly’s career. Their teamwork allowed her to spend time in the class teaching the cultural factors of each region while Looney spent time in the lab cooking up different recipes according to those regions.

“Food is like a language,” Martelly said. “Food is a huge part of cultural identity and has a sense of home and helps people connect to a new place and also has a healing effect.”

Martelly’s experience with food hits closer to home than most people in the United States. She is a refugee from Bangladesh and now also works as a program director for after-school tutoring and homework help at the International Refugee Center (IRC). In addition, she teaches a computer class to adult refugees to help them gain experience and find future jobs.

The Cultural Aspects of Food class is important to her because of her experience, knowledge and perspective of different cultures covered in the class. She is in the middle of rewriting the course curriculum because the way she teaches is more personable and relatable than other instructors.

Martelly has done a lot of traveling and has more background with these regions compared to the other instructors. She said she wants to help the department apply knowledge from her experiences and standardize those items compared to just teaching out of the textbook.

“When Chef J and I got together he wasn’t as familiar with the cultural stuff,” Martelly said. “Which is why I did most of the teaching and he did the cooking in the lab. He has a teachable spirit, he talks and cooks at the same time. He is very good at interacting with his students. He is a talented cook but very modest and humble. Most chefs I know have a huge ego. But the more we teach and give background information the more he learns and the more familiar he gets with the recipes and the cultures behind them.”

Chef J Looney found his bliss. So on top of teaching he began cooking for athletes, doctors, families and friends. He said he makes a pretty good living now, to the point where his wife is completely happy and satisfied.

“I started promoting that I can cook meals for individuals and families while also catering events,” he said. “I have a pretty solid client list, about 20 people that I cook for at any given time. On Mondays I go grocery shopping, Tuesday I spend cooking all day and Thursdays and Fridays I spend planning out the meals for the following week. It’s a good gig and the days in between I spend on campus teaching because I want to. That’s basically how I got into the whole personal chef thing and wedding season is coming up so I have a few weddings scheduled for the next six months.”

Looney rarely cooks at people’s houses, he mainly works out of a commissary kitchen on Redwood Road, which gives him plenty of space to prep meals for the week. Around 8 a.m. he and his staff prepare approximately 10 different meals within five hours. Then when completed he and his staff send the coolers off to be delivered to the clients’ door. Typically he makes about five lunches and five dinners per client. However, his bodybuilding clients are a little high-maintenance.

Not in a bad way though, they just require about six smaller meals a day and have a very selective menu to choose from. Because Looney is so familiar with flavoring his meals, it helps bodybuilders spice up their foods without going over their macros, the number of grams of protein, carbohydrates, and fats they consume on a particular day. That is why Looney occasionally offers a Bodybuilder’s Meal Prep Class to demonstrate cooking skills and items that can make their food taste better without sabotaging their physical gains.

Looney is an experienced cook and does his best in social media marketing. But most of his marketing is done by word of mouth because he leaves all of his clients and students feeling not only full and satisfied but also inspired.

Chef J Looney and Tahmina Martelly are a dynamic duo in the classroom and have worked very hard to be successful human beings. They are prime examples of the cliché phrase, “follow your dreams.” But how else can one be truly happy if he or she is not taking risks and living life fully?

“My whole underlying theme to my life thus far is, just do what you love,” Looney said. “I spent 15 years in ‘corporate America’ because I thought I needed a paycheck. And when I really took the leap to follow what I wanted to do made all the difference. And yes I took a lot of risks and it hasn’t been smooth sailing, there’s been some huge learning lessons, a lot of pain, blood, sweat and tears getting there. But I have never been happier in my life. So whatever the price you have to pay to follow your bliss, pay the price. Build your lifestyle around what it is you love doing, not the other way around.”