No one envisions themselves spending Thanksgiving in treatment for substance addiction. However, for many, spending Thanksgiving in treatment is something that they will have to face in order to regain control of their life.
While spending such an iconic holiday away from home and loved ones can be a distressing thought, it doesn’t have to be a distressing reality. At Vertava Health, we work hard to provide our clients with a home away from home, especially during the holiday season.
No one understands this better than Christian Gonzalez, the chef at our Texas campus. Each year, Chef Gonzalez and his team spend days preparing a true Thanksgiving feast for the clients and staff at The Treehouse. In return, he hopes his cooking can bring comfort to his clients this holiday season.
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Tell me a little bit about your background.
I started cooking when I was 12 years-old with my mom. From there, my passion for cooking started to grow little by little. Eventually, when I finished my career in baseball, I told myself that I wanted to do something I loved- and that was cooking.
So, I went to the Culinary Arts School in Dallas. After I graduated, I went to work at a steakhouse, then to a seafood restaurant, then to a company where I served 600 people a day. Afterwards, I went to work at a different treatment facility and learned a lot under the chef there.
I did a few more things after that before I eventually made it to The Treehouse. Every day, I’m learning something new.
How do you recreate the Thanksgiving feeling here?
From day one, we try to create a family atmosphere at The Treehouse.
The mentality here is that it doesn’t matter where you came from or who you are, this is where you belong and we love you like family. I try to create this same feeling with my food, especially during Thanksgiving- a holiday that’s very food focused.
I always try to create a long table similar to the one you see in all the Thanksgiving photos. The most important part is to make a bunch of good food to put on the table. When there’s good food, everyone will come to share a meal together and start enjoying each other’s company- and that’s amazing to see.
People always say that food brings us together, and it couldn’t be more true.
How does your Thanksgiving feast bring the clients together?
It doesn’t matter what a client’s situation is, or what their problem is, or whether or not there with family- when people are enjoying a meal together, they’re sharing something really special. When you share something like that with others, it’s obviously going to bring you closer together.
I always hope that eating my food gives our clients even just a few minutes of peace. That small moment of being present, letting go of all the negativity and enjoying a warm meal is all part of helping clients truly heal from the inside out.
What are some of the Thanksgiving dishes you’re preparing this year?
I get bored, so I like to change my menus a lot. But of course, on Thanksgiving we have turkey. It is going to be a little different this year though.
We’re going to make some smaller turkeys and play around with different spices. We’ll obviously do the classic herb-roasted turkey, but some other small turkeys will be seasoned with more exotic flavors. We also do a ham and plain turkey breasts as other options.
There will be mac n’ cheese with different flavors. Some roasted corn and quinoa. Butternut squash with brussel sprouts, feta cheese and cranberries.
I’m going to try a different kind of mashed potato this year- it’s going to be a combination of sweet and salty. Then the classic sweet potato casserole with marshmallows, pineapple, brown sugar and cinnamon.
We top it all off with homemade dinner rolls and cornbread. But the best part if the variety of desserts we’ll be making this year.
That’s what I have in mind today, but I’m sure I’ll come up with more.
Especially on a holiday like Thanksgiving, how do you manage certain dietary restrictions?
Right now we have about 15 to 20 clients who have some sort of dietary restriction. If we can’t make a meal that’s suitable for them to eat, then we’ll make them a special plate.
But especially during a holiday like Thanksgiving, you have to be able to bring different choices to the table. You don’t want anyone to feel left out, so we try to make a huge variety of things so that everyone can have something.
How do you keep the menu new and interesting?
The only guideline I really stand by is making sure my meals hit all nutrition areas. I want to make sure that the food our clients are eating is healthy and good for them.
I think about it like this: how can I reach the clients with my food? If I don’t think it’s going to impact the clients in a positive way, I don’t change it.
What kind of impact does your cooking have on the clients?
It’s just a great way to help change our client’s life.
A lot of the time, clients will come up to me and ask for a recipe. Or they’ll just shake my hand and tell me they enjoy eating my food. Some of them even say they want to work in a kitchen when they leave The Treehouse, which is really incredible.
If I can get just one smile from a client, it means a lot.