Chef Judson Todd Allen shares healthy eating tips with library

Since starting work at the Naperville Public Library in mid-December, I am already seeing many perks of the job.

One huge bonus is that I get to meet great people and sometimes even famous presenters. And it was with great excitement that I got the chance to meet “The Next Food Network Star” finalist and chef Judson Todd Allen on Monday during the library’s Healthy, Wealthy & Wise event.

I was pretty star struck. This wide-smiled chef has worked with celebrity chefs such as Alton Brown, Guy Fieri and Giada De Laurentiis. His thoughtful and emotional segments about weight loss during his season on “The Next Food Network Star” hit home with me. I also have vowed to eat healthier.

So it only reinforced my admiration for Allen when, upon meeting me there, he gave me a strong hug.

“I’m a hugger,” he said with a laugh. And as luck would have it, I am a hugger, too. Life’s too short for a handshake or a fist bump, I say.

Even with the bone-chilling cold, Allen came out to the event and heated up the library with his spicy and flavorful hot sauce — not to mention, his funny and genuine magnetism.

The Chicago native, who founded Healthy Infused Cuisine, presented countless healthy eating tips to about 50 attendees at the event. He began the presentation by talking about his childhood food addiction.

“When I was a kid, I would wake up at 2, 3 o’clock in the morning, and I would just ransack the refrigerator and eat whatever I could find,” Allen told the crowd. “I remember, if it was jelly on a spoon, I would eat it.”

He then discussed how he overcame his food obsession and lost more than 150 pounds by eating healthy and exercising.

“I held myself accountable. I recognized I wasn’t happy with myself,” he said, adding that he had to change the way he thought about food. “I had to get creative and get innovative with food. I had to use different food alternatives.”

He said he improvised his granddad’s fried catfish recipe by using pecans, herbs and Parmesan to crust the fish and cook in the broiler.

“What did I get? I got flavor,” he said. “I got something that was far better than that deep-fried catfish.”

About eight partners also braved the frigid temperatures to set up interactive booths at the event, which culminated a 12-monthlong initiative to be healthy: physically, financially and mentally. Since last January, the library worked with about 20 local partners to present about 100 programs. During the event, attendees also won prizes, including gift cards to local businesses and gym memberships.

After meeting chef Allen and listening to his healthy eating tips, I am inspired to use more spices, try different cooking techniques … and keep on hugging.

Mary Rakoczy is a multimedia associate for the Naperville Public Library.