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Originally published Saturday, January 7, 2012 at 7:02 PM

Taste

Mindful eating is Bastyr chef's mission

When he arrived at the Kenmore campus last February, he found a kitchen team "really committed to serving the best." His first move was a bold one: He introduced meat to Bastyr's traditionally vegetarian menu.

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AS MILESTONE birthdays so often do, turning 60 prompted Jim Watkins to pose an existential question: Is this the last thing I'm going to do with my life?

At the time, he was executive chef for the Lifelong AIDS Alliance, a nonprofit that delivers 5,000 meals a week to people with AIDS and other illnesses. He loved the work, but the question nagged.

"Most people in my family who worked, worked the same job their entire life," says the Baltimore native. "I don't know how they did that. I made up my mind early on that I was going to have as many experiences in my life as I could possibly cram in."

Cram he did. After 20 years as a social worker in Minneapolis, he attended culinary school, eventually becoming executive chef in the vegetarian kitchen at the Aveda Spa in Osceola, Wis. Driving 100 miles round trip to work for four winters made him realize, "I didn't want to grow old in Minnesota."

He began spending Sundays in the library, reading newspapers from other cities. "At that time, I believed if you wanted to change your life everything you needed was in the library." An ad for a vegetarian chef in Seattle caught his eye. The owners of the still-under-construction Café Flora flew him out and wooed him hard. He wrote an opening menu, they offered him the job and he accepted: all before he had even cooked them a meal.

Two other nonvegetarian restaurant ventures followed: Plenty and Jimmy's Table. Then in 2001 Watkins joined a group of high-profile chefs, led by Jean-Michel Boulot, who revamped student dining at the University of Washington. "Boulot's goal was to change the face of university dining, to bring it into the present and use fresh ingredients," Watkins recalls.

But after Boulot departed in 2006, Watkins says, "It was moving back to the traditional campus food. It didn't stick, and it was really heartbreaking." That's when Watkins moved to the AIDS Alliance. "I wanted to do food that brings about really positive change in people's lives."

As he contemplated the start of his seventh decade, Watkins learned that Bastyr University, the nation's largest university for natural-health arts and sciences, was looking for a food-services director. He had found the answer to his question. "I felt literally like I was led here, like I had no control over it. I talked so much during the interview I thought maybe I frightened people a little."

When he arrived at the Kenmore campus last February, he found a kitchen team "really committed to serving the best." His first move was a bold one: He introduced meat to Bastyr's traditionally vegetarian menu.

He did it respectfully, setting up a station apart from the main cafeteria line. "I thought it was going to be a big point of contention," Watkins says, even though, as part of the interview process, he met with students who were members of the Carnivore Club. "For the first month and a half, I prepared the meat myself, two different choices a day. I served it myself, too, so that I could be the person to hear any criticism." But people lined up.

"The food is amazing," says Nicole Warren, a nutrition and dietetics major from Spokane. "We're all so fascinated with health and good food, it's important for us to know where the food is from and what's in each dish. They list every single ingredient. It's always a short list, and it's all good for you."

Watkins, who didn't really learn to love food or understand its relationship to health until he was in his late 20s, would like to see much more education and discussion about what we eat. "People make fun of 'foodies' but I think it's a great movement."

Most of his family ate a traditional African-American Southern diet, he says. "My mom had 17 brothers and sisters, my dad had 12. When I go back and think about how all of them over the course of my life passed away, it was absolutely related to their diet. They grew up on a farm in Virginia. They moved to cities to find work and bought into the whole idea of convenience food."

He considers it fortunate that they sent their kids back to the farm to spend summers with relatives. "We worked all day in the fields, in the vegetable gardens, milking the cows. We ate a huge breakfast and a light lunch. In the evening we sat down and ate a big, balanced, from-scratch dinner," he remembers.

Considering his family history, "it really sunk in to me. I don't want to have high blood pressure. I don't want to have heart disease. I don't want high cholesterol. How can I prevent that from happening to me?"

His philosophy boils down to this: Eat a varied diet; eat food in its whole, natural state as much as possible. It's not just what we eat that's important, but also how much. Exercise is equally vital.

Even at Bastyr, a community motivated to eat healthfully, Watkins sees room for improvement. He instituted a grab-and-go station and broadened the selection, so now there's a range of "adult lunchables."

How people eat matters to him, too. Watkins hopes to move Bastyr away from the traditional cafeteria-style line where people take as much as they want and pay by the pound. He's introduced individual pricing and envisions a vegan station, a protein station, an all-day breakfast station, a raw station.

He would like to see more "mindful eating," where people close their books and computers, put down their phones and look at their food.

"Maybe that's impossible to achieve on a campus," he says. "Maybe people don't have the time to slow down and eat, but I'm committed to it."

If it's the last thing he does with his life, it will be worth it.

Providence Cicero is The Seattle times restaurant critic. John Lok is a Times staff photographer.

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