We Are What We Eat, Drink, Breathe: In the Fields & Kitchen with Chef Kristina San Filippo of the Purple Spoon
Kristina San Filippo is a yoga practitioner, a holistic fit for The Culinary Institute of America (Hyde Park, New York) graduate. Photo courtesy of Chef Kristina San Filippo.
Chef Kristina San Filippo is serious about surrounding her kitchen and customers in holistic wholesomeness. Dead serious.
If you have bought straight-from-a-local-farm produce at the Purple Spoon: A Culinary Hub in Bonita Springs or picked up carry-out based on the week’s harvest, you know San Filippo’s philosophy on meat products, vegetables, dairy and eggs from select farms and ranches that she respects.
When she was designing her space in The Prado at Spring Creek Plaza, San Filippo was intent on using sustainable, green products that don’t emit volatile organic compounds—chemicals such as formaldehyde and cancer-causing benzene—into the air. From the cabinets to the paint, she ensured each detail would be gentle to humans and the environment: chairs made from 60 percent recycled materials; non-porous Cambria quartz island countertops and tabletops; and custom cabinet interiors made from untreated American-produced maple.
She uses biodegradable detergent to wash dish towels. To keep linen use (and laundry) at a minimum, there are no tablecloths. A star of the show is the energy-efficient induction cooktop. “I took my commitment to sustainability on the culinary side and put it toward how you build office space,” San Filippo says of transforming the former Quizno’s location. In essence, the 37-year-old doesn’t want to “contaminate the environment, our food, our staff nor our guests.”
And there’s good reason: San Filippo developed an autoimmune condition that affected her nervous system. This came as a real shock to committed yoga practitioner. Holistic health care professionals determined her weakness was the result of environmental overexposure to chemicals. She stepped out of the kitchen for a year and a half to get to the root of her health problems—and heal. “I couldn’t hold onto a knife. It was extreme,” she recalls. “I was able to do a massive reduction of toxins in my life. When I decided to renovate this, I knew I would be in here for a lot of time in my daily life and wanted it to be clean and environmentally responsible.”
Filling a “culinary wasteland”
Originally from Atlanta, San Filippo earned her culinary arts degree from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., then a bachelor’s in hospitality management from the Collins School at California Polytechnic.
With toque in tow, the restaurant and hospitality industry career beckoned: New Orleans, Chino Hills and Carmel, Calif., and Kauai, Hawaii. Her parents owned a home in Southwest Florida, and had retired here permanently. “I thought it was important to be in their lives on a regular basis, rather than being on a small island in the middle of the Pacific.”
When San Filippo arrived to what she calls a “culinary wasteland” 11 years ago, she ventured along a new fork in the road: teaching culinary classes and hosting wine dinners as the executive chef at the Robb & Stucky KitchenAid Culinary Center. “I talk a lot now, but I was very quiet and shy,” she recalls. She began connecting with local farmers and seafood purveyors, and liked the creativity. “Teaching allowed me to create a new dish, give it to my customers, get their reactions, and they could ask questions. Then I could alter the recipe,” San Filippo said. “Doing the same recipes every night drove me crazy.”
She also served as executive chef at FineMark National Bank & Trust’s Bonita office and as chef instructor at The Good Life in Naples. She also partnered with Nick Batty at Inyoni Organic Farm in Naples to offer tours and meal prepared on site—events they continue to offer during the growing season.
More than farm-to-table
The Purple Spoon is part restaurant, part culinary school, and part community hub for picking up prepared foods or ingredients. Each week, a four-course, pre-determined menu based on the season’s finest, paired with wine, is prepared in front of patrons on a Friday or Saturday night. A local farmer or wine expert is often in attendance to talk with diners at these Beyond-Farm-to-Table gatherings. San Filippo believes that the farm-to-table concept is “being overused and bastardized” by eateries that may only source, for instance, tomatoes or lettuce from a local farm. San Filippo sources 90 percent of her produce from local farms, noting there are some things that simply don’t grow in Southwest Florida.
The weekly take-out selection could include soups, grain and vegetable salads, salsa, dips, desserts or sauces. It’s whatever Mother Nature yields. Each Monday morning, San Filippo and her two full-time chefs convene over boxes of farm-supplied vegetables and “we start cooking,” she admits, “but it’s not completely chaos.” The recipes focus on vegan and gluten-free. When incorporated, animal protein comes from local ranches, including Circle C Farm in Felda and Three Suns Ranch in Punta Gorda.
In addition to prepared foods, Purple Spoon offers ingredients for home cooks, such as specialty cheeses, salts, organic nuts and soup stocks made with Circle C poultry and Three Suns meat bones. The stock bones come from pastured animals raised without antibiotics, hormones or genetically modified feeds. To San Filippo, the fact that these farms raise chickens, cattle, hog, lamb and goats more humanely than overcrowded industrial operations is as important as what goes into the animals. Two of the three ranches process on site, so the livestock doesn’t have to be transported and undergo pre-slaughter stress, which shoots adrenaline through the body and alters meat’s flavor.
“I’m teaching people the importance of where things truly come from,” says San Filippo, who is intimately familiar with the farmers and ranchers she works with. “They have complete control over how animals are handled, and they do it humanely and respectfully.”
San Filippo also caters and teaches regular culinary classes using residential-grade, high-efficiency Bosch appliances, in lieu of industrial equipment. “I’m here to teach people and inspire them to cook at home. I want them to be working on the same kind of equipment they have in their own home,” she says.
Ted Butanowicz, and his wife, Mary, met the chef through Good Life, where they began taking her courses. He marvels at San Filippo’s understanding of all-things food, whether it’s nutritional values, food origins, or structural or chemical changes that take place during the cooking process. “Her knowledge is overwhelming. Everybody walks away just awed,” he says. “It’s extremely informational. It adds so much more to the cooking.”
The Butanowiczes shop at the year-round Locally Grown Produce Market held Wednesday afternoon at Purple Spoon. The Butanowiczes, of Naples, brought San Filippo into their kitchen for a family holiday gathering, and family members worked alongside her in creating the feast. “They just loved it,” he says. “She has the kind of personality where she just relaxes you. She has a demeanor that makes you feel comfortable right away. You’re paying attention when you’re relaxed.”
The Butanowiczes emphasize whole foods in their diets. He grew up working the family’s farm outside of Cleveland, Ohio, in the summers, and knows what farm-fresh means. “It’s better than anything you can get in the store,” he says. “As you get older, you get more conscious of what you’re eating. If you’re going to spend your money, spend it on something healthy or good for your body.”
Retired from the information technology field, Butanowicz, 68, realized long ago that “you have to be a chemist” to understand processed-foods labels. “None of the chemicals are in there for the benefit of me. It’s for the shelf-life, coloring or whatever,” says Butanowicz.
Preservatives, sodium, dyes and fillers abound in processed products. About 15 commonly used emulsifiers (to prevent separation or improve texture) are “generally regarded as safe” by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Two of them—carboxymethylcellulose and polysorbate-80— have been linked to increased incidences of obesity, metabolic problems and inflammatory bowel disease by altering the make-up of bacteria in the colon, according to a Georgia State University study. Neuroscientists at the National Institute of Mental Health have been trying to connect the dots between the gut’s microbial composition (microbiome) and mental health, too.
It may come as no surprise that San Filippo uses filtered, Florida spring water for cooking and table service. “Water can be the highest-quantity ingredient in a dish, and it will affect the final flavors of a dish,” she says. Local utilities use chlorine to clean public water supplies, so “if you want your soup to taste like a swimming pool, take it out to the swimming pool and have a seat,” says San Filippo.
Because, in the end, she says, you truly are what you ingest—air, water and food.
“If you don’t know what’s in your food and environment, the damage it can be doing on a daily basis is beyond what we can imagine,” Filippo said. “It affected me. My body could not do what a chef needed to do, and that should not happen. We’re given these machines at birth and it’s our responsibility to maintain them and take care of them to be able hang out on this planet for as many years as we choose to by staying healthy.”
Purple Spoon: A Culinary Hub is located at 25151 Chamber of Commerce Drive, Bonita Springs. Details: chefkristina.com/purplespoon or 239-908-3842.
Written by Cathy Chestnut.