When Peter Hodgson, the executive chef for the University of Utah’s Chartwells Dining Services, received an award from the American Culinary Federation in 2016, he couldn’t pick it up. He was rushed from the airport — where he passed out — to the intensive care unit, which became his home for three weeks. Doctors found five blood clots in his lungs.
After being released from the hospital, Hodgson said he resumed his regular diet of fried and cheese-filled foods.
“Being a chef, we eat the worst food,” Hodgson said. “I mean we eat fried egg sandwiches, grilled cheese with a fried egg. We just eat quick food, you know? So I’m back to my fried rice and hamburgers with egg and bacon and everything, eating macaroni and cheese. Grilled cheese with nine bits of cheese in it.”
Hodgson weighed 268 pounds in August of 2016.
“About three weeks later, I couldn’t move and my stomach was like blown up,” Hodgson said. “I got rushed to the hospital and it was the same doctor. My pancreas was three times the size of a normal pancreas.”
The doctor told Hodgson, “You can pick the color of your coffin, or you can get on this diet, but you have got to do something now. Right now. You have got to make a decision of do you want to live or not.”
The 67-year-old said he chose to live.
His new diet cut out anything that would be detrimental to his pancreas. This meant no soda, alcohol, coconut, avocados or animal products of any kind.
Having been a chef since 1966, Hodgson noticed that the social norm in restaurants is to fill a plate with 70 percent meat and 30 percent vegetables. Hodgson said he wants to invert that.
“For me, I had to give up everything,” Hodgson said. “But I am advocating that you should at least reduce the amount of meat you’re eating. That should be the first goal of anybody.”
Hodgson suggested cooking vegetables the same way meat is cooked. By roasting, poaching, steaming, smoking, grilling and sautéing, Hodgson gets excited about cooking vegetables now like he never did before.
“I’m not advocating to give up everything and become vegan and get on a horse and hold up a flag and say, ‘Aye yeah! Here we go! I’m vegan, yeah!’ I’m just saying, out there you really have to reduce your intake and look at more superfoods — superfoods like beets.”
The average college student is at the ideal age to start eating healthy, according to Hodgson.
“When you’re young, that’s when you need to do it,” he said. “It’s like when you save, you don’t save [money] when you’re 50 or 60. … You save it when you’re 18, 19, 20. You teach yourself those lessons early on. I think if we could just get out there and teach people that this is the way to go, you’d be a lot better off. And then when you get to my age, you’ll appreciate that you’ve got another 10 years or another 20 years, and you’re going to have a [better] quality of life.”
Hodgson is now 181 pounds and has one remaining blood clot that will never go away. At work, Hodgson has others taste dishes for him, but he can often tell what a dish needs by his sense of smell.
“It has been tough, and it’s tough every day, but now I see opportunities to increase the way we do the vegetables,” Hodgson said.
The benefits of going vegan have shown in both Hodgson’s life and those of his
“[It has improved] my endurance, my health. I used to be fatigued, I’m not fatigued anymore,” said Ana Mari Bumgarner, a catering supervisor and another vegan convert. “I have a lot more energy. A lot of animal products really drag you down and give you a lot of health problems over the years. And plus, it’s a good thing for the environment.”
The two suggested having more small meals throughout the day, never eating after 8 p.m. and choosing organic products when possible.
“Food is so exciting that we miss things,” Hodgson said. “We just don’t think about them anymore — especially vegetables. There are so many beautiful vegetables that just create so many beautiful flavors. And seasonings, we just don’t look at them.”
On campus, there is a section of the dining hall at the Peterson Heritage Center dedicated to vegan dishes, but more options are popping up. According to Hodgson, a dozen vegan restaurants have opened up in Salt Lake City in just the past three months. This year, he said, Chartwells plans to open a new vegan concept on campus.
“I’ve been very, very lucky,” Hodgson said. “I really thank the Lord, thank everybody and especially that doctor in the ER that put me on the right track told me, ‘Hey, you’ve got to do this.’”