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MENTAL HEALTH AWARENESS MONTH, PART 1: WHY 10 MINUTES OF COOKING IS LYING TO YOU

It’s May, meaning it’s Mental Health awareness month, and I had originally planned to have this blog completed before the start of May.

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Which, ironically, taking care of my own mental health, and issues caused by my own neurodivergent behavior, means that this entry is instead done sometime in the middle of May.

And then I wrote too much, so I’m going to have to split this into multiple parts so it’s easier to digest.

ADHD and being late; name a more iconic duo.

I’ve discussed this before, but I am not the kind of person that you might think from the various interviews or dumb videos that I do. At least, that part is an aspect of my being, rather than being the whole of who I am.

I suffer from depression, anxiety, ADHD, insomnia, bouts of paranoia, and bouts of insomnia paranoia that seems to run in the family, as both Tom and I have, multiple times in our lives, jolted up and attacked the other in the room while being still completely asleep and unconscious, only waking up when the other twin defends themselves and knocks the sleep-walking attacker to the floor.

Weirdly enough, when I’m sleep-fighting, I apparently like to throw hands, but prefer a more kick-based style when I’m awake, and Tom, who generally sticks to a snappy fist-oriented striking style, tends to throw almost exclusively kicks when he’s sleep-fighting. Safe to say, our unconscious selves are kinda weird, and often have different ideas of what to do than our conscious selves.

It’s a big ‘ol list of stuff that I listed, but there’s likely more that’s maybe undiagnosed, or simply doesn’t have a common, encompassing name that I’ve cared to research, or otherwise come across.

And honestly? As I approach 30, I don’t necessarily care to find out either.

I like to think that, generally speaking, I’ve gotten a good handle on moving through life with these issues. I only got officially diagnosed with ADHD last year, and have learned how to deal with it across the mass majority of my lifetime without taking any medication for it, and similarly with everything else, have learned how to live life well enough to seem like I don’t have these issues at all.

Would getting the right therapy, medication, and techniques by professionals have helped earlier on in life? Absolutely, and I recommend everyone do it. But much like the story of Vite Kitchens in general, I kind of blundered through everything, making mistakes everywhere until I learned the right thing to do, one step after another, and internalized them until getting to the same place as someone who took the advice of professionals, albeit a little bit worse for the wear.

Tim, you may ask, what does all of this have to do with eating healthy?

I’m glad you asked, hypothetical reader asking a hypothetical question.

One of the questions that I get a lot is, “Why did you decide to make Vite Ramen?”

Depending on who’s asking, and in what context, I’ll usually give a slightly different answer. If the interviewer is asking because they’re part of the fitness and wellness industry, I’ll answer with an emphasis on working out, and the amount of protein I needed for powerlifting stuff. If they’re part of the esports scene, I’ll talk about being team captain of my collegiate Overwatch team, and how poor nutrition can cause poor results from sub-optimal performance.

And so on, and so forth. And the thing is, all of these are true. All of them boil down to the core aspect of nutrition and health, in that, well...

Proper nutrition and health affects every aspect of our lives, whether we want it to or not.

What a slacker. How pitiful. How lazy.

I used to be a chef. Well, technically speaking, a line cook at a Michelin Star restaurant after completing culinary school, but everyone outside the industry likes to say “chef” because it sounds fancier. I’ve since learned it’s easier to just agree and not try to talk about the difference between a chef and a cook, even if you’re cooking at a fancy place.

If you were to ask the average person what a cook or chef eats on their days off, before or after work, or otherwise what they eat in their normal, everyday lives, the general expectation is that chefs and cooks eat very well, cook amazing food for themselves, and have a general higher standard of living insofar as food quality is concerned.

Would it surprise you to learn, then, that the first Chef de Cuisine I worked under would often show up carrying a bag of McDonalds? Or that the First Cook working the temperamental white oak fueled flames of the Michelin Star grill with impeccably marbled prime ribeye would consume almost exclusively PB&J sandwiches after a shift? Or that the favorite meal before showing up to cook and plate meticulous, beautiful plates with the finest ingredients to the most discerning of clientele, was nothing more than a lukewarm, slightly soggy piece of 7-11 pizza that was more comparable to the cardboard boxes the tomatoes came in than a neapolitan pizza from Italy?

I am exceptionally fast and precise in the kitchen. I can multitask like no other, and handle half a dozen pans of different ingredients, temperatures, and needs all at once, having worked the blistering pace and precision of a Michelin Star kitchen attached to a bar and a hotel.

And yet, these chefs are a cut above my vaunted skills, and possess knowledge, technique, and refinement above anything I ever achieved.

And still, most of the time, they eat very poorly, nutrition-wise, despite having the skills and expertise to cook circles around 99.999% of the world.

Why?

Simple. They’re tired. Exhausted. Spent. Beat. Devoid of energy. After spending all the time in the blistering chaos of the kitchen, ears filled with the cacophony of dinner rush and the POS printer tick tick tick ticking away with the incessant flow of neverending orders, they want nothing more than to have something simple to fill the hunger in their stomachs.I hate it when people say “Oh, this meal only takes X minutes to prepare!” or “Just cook it yourself, it’s so easy!” or any of those inane, guilt-inducing phrases. It claims the viewer as the lazy one, the dull, unindustrious member of society who has a distinct personal failing of not being able to commit a measly ten minutes of time to cook a healthy meal for themselves.

What a slacker. How pitiful. How lazy.

What every single one of these people fail to mention is that active and prep time are far from the only time and energy requirements to cook for yourself. You also need to:

  • Make your shopping list

  • Go to the store

  • Buy the items

  • Put away the ingredients

  • Remember that the ingredients are there and that you have a time limit before the ingredients go bad

  • Take out the right amount of ingredients while wondering what you’re going to do with the rest of the bag of ingredients

  • Cook (10 minutes)

  • Eat

  • Wash what you cooked with

  • Wash what you ate with

  • Put away what you washed and cooked with after they’re done drying

I cooked at a Michelin Star restaurant. My hand guides a knife at double- no, triple the speed of an average person, and cuts impeccably, precisely, shaping every ingredient on my cutting board to my exacting will, even as a pan pops and sizzles with searing proteins and a pot steams up the air with colorful, simmering vegetables. And I am proud of my skills, proud of the hardships I cut my teeth on to attain these abilities, proud of the way I can handle so much and everything at once, and--

And... and yet, most days, I can’t.

I can’t because on Saturday, my depression dragged me under like a barrel of concrete chained to my leg. I can’t because on Sunday, I made my shopping list but forgot to go to the store, dazzled and distracted by something that I don’t remember until it was far too late. I can’t because on Monday, my anxiety spiked as a dozen messages from a dozen suppliers, vendors, and partners flooded in all at once. 

And most of all, sometimes, I can’t because... I just can’t get myself to start doing it that day.

Executive function is hard to come by nowadays, and not just exclusively for those of us who deal with ADHD. Simply put, executive function is the energy and willpower to start a task. Often, this is the most difficult part, and what we procrastinate on the most, and at any point of the multitude of steps listed above, if you fail to utilize the executive function within the time limit, then things can go badly.

Food rots. Your cooking burns. The dishes pile up more and more and more into an increasingly insurmountable task of cleaning.

Every celebrity chef, every TV personality out there selling cookbooks and courses and whatever it is they’re talking about that day, belting “You have no excuse not to make my 10 minute easy dinner!” is, quite frankly, not only spouting a load of crock, but also perpetuating the myth that the only reason why someone isn’t cooking healthy for themselves is that they’re lazy or unskilled.

This is complete and utter bullshit.

The chef de cuisine I knew wasn’t lazy. She worked so hard, putting in so many hours with so little sleep and rest that she suffered from severe medical issues, only taking a leave of absence to recover after much begging from the executive chef. The First Cook I worked with wasn’t too timid to cook. When his arms were burned and blistered from molten sugar gone wrong, he shrugged it off and worked the scorching fires of the grill anyway, arm wrapped up in so much tape, plastic, bandages, and other coverings that he looked halfway in a hazmat suit. And the mentor chef I looked up to was anything but unskilled- Today, he’s the executive chef at one of the finest hotels in Hawaii, making some of the most beautiful, creative, and amazing food you can find anywhere in the world.

And they are just some of the examples of the people out in the world. Every single person faces their own struggles, their own hardships, and their own endeavors that sap their energy and executive function, day by day, hour by hour. We do not know the things that each person must struggle with when they wake up. We do not know the things that drive each person to do what they do. 

Why, then, do we perpetuate a cycle of blame, and perpetuate a cycle of guilt, as if we’re all personally responsible for not being able to eat something delicious and healthy? If it cost us nothing, took no time, consumed no energy, and utilized no executive function, wouldn’t we all choose to have the freshest, healthiest, most delicious meals every single day, and be at peak physical and mental health?

Vite Kitchens, and thus Vite Ramen, was not established in the same vein as many other products before it. My philosophy behind what we create is not entrenched in the belief that one should consume only our product, or as much as our creations as physically possible. It is, instead, based on the idea of support, and the want of something which can, at its core, allow anyone to indulge in being able to treat their health well in addition to respecting the other priorities in their life that sap their energy, all while still being able to enjoy a hot, delicious, filling meal. It’s shelf stable so that it takes a very, very long time to go bad, so that it can be around when you need it. 

As an aside, it feels really weird talking about Vite Ramen like this. Feels like I’m a shill even though... y’know... this is exactly why it was created and... I make it and all.

Anyway-- I’ve said it before, and will say it again:No one should have to rely on Vite Ramen all the time. I believe that everyone, given the time, energy, executive function, and all the other factors involved, should cook delicious, fresh, healthy meals for themselves using the best ingredients. But practically, this is something that just isn’t possible every meal, every day, or sometimes for entire weeks or months in our frenetic, frantic lives that we lead, where everything seems to move and change and transform at the drop of a dime.

Vite Ramen was, then, ultimately created because I needed to save my mental health. I needed to be able to be good to my body, and therefore my mind, for those times when I couldn’t plan, couldn’t execute, was saddled with enough and more where the slightest extra straw could break the carefully balanced, barely functional self that I’d managed to keep together.

It let me do more than just function- It was a way I could convince myself that I was taking a step forward, rather than simply persisting through the hardships; it allowed me to choose, to say, okay, if I don’t work out, at least I’m eating healthy, if I’m not able to cook, at least I have something warm and filling to nourish the long days that stretch into the deep nights.

So when I talk to the fitness interviewers, the foodie interviewers, the esports interviewers, the business interviewers, and give them different answers, talk about different things, and the story is expressed in myriad angles and speaks of a thousand particular peculiar things, then know that it is all the truth. It is my mind, burning at both ends, frayed and tangled as I juggle the infinite wants and needs of myself and of others, begging to not be saddled with yet another weight.

Because, at the end of the day, no matter how much I love cooking, no matter how much I enjoy the artistry and techniques to create an experience served on a plate, it’s another burden, another task, another set of things that steal from my ability to perform in other ways.

And more than just be a tool for productivity, it needs to be said that this philosophy extends to rest, as well. If cooking is not enjoyable, and is work, and drains you, then the act of doing so when you’re attempting to recover and rejuvenate can be not just difficult, but actively detrimental to resting. Delivery, takeout, frozen TV dinners and other fast and easy foods help in this same capacity, and should not be demonized in the way they often are-- Each thing helps someone in a different situation in a different aspect of their lives.

Because sometimes, I’m not looking for min-maxing taste and health, but want the biggest, greasiest, juiciest burger in town paired with a frosted pint of beer, or maybe an entire baker’s dozen of assorted doughnuts washed down with a coffee that bears greater resemblance to a milkshake than its single-origin roots, because the week was just one of those weeks, and deserves nothing less than pure, unadulterated indulgence in the most saccharine, umami-filled, and rich foods I can stuff down my gullet.

That, too, can be a form of self-care. Everything in moderation, as they say... including moderation. Gotta go nuts sometimes, let loose, release the pressure valves, and not bottle everything up, right?

In the end, I think, what we do for ourselves to help our minds can only be justified or judged by our own perceptions. The concept of self-responsibility, while defined by the self, often is defined by what others want for us, whether it’s someone saying you look like you gained or lost weight since you last saw them, or that you need to clean your room more, or that you don’t work hard enough, or an innumerable amount of well-intentioned, but ultimately guilt and pressure inducing phrases of things we often already know.

What others cannot see externally is all the other stresses we face from not only them, but others preaching pressures from alternate perceptions, societal and social expectations, and often, most of all, the strain we put on ourselves.

The myth of the “10 minute meal,” then, is one based in a fallacious and narrow-viewed assumption of personal responsibility that pushes a damaging, guilt inducing narrative that you have only yourself to blame for not eating or being as healthy as they say you should be.

I strongly believe that, moving forwards, we should not continue to create and perpetuate systems that imply shame on people who likely don’t have the same goals or priorities as ourselves. We should offer supportive structures and supportive environments for people to be able to tackle their own problems in their own way, on their own terms, with their own means.

Everyone deserves to be healthy. That’s something I also wholeheartedly believe in. But health is so much more than physical. Without taking care of one’s mental health, physical health cannot, and will not improve. Stress and mental fatigue can destroy someone who should otherwise be in peak physical condition, and putting additional pressure on them only serves to accelerate the downward spiral, rather than help.

Support is not, in the end, forcing your ideals or your worldview on someone else. Support is creating and offering different options, avenues of approach, and opportunity for people. It’s about creating breathing room and space, and giving people more freedom, more autonomy, and more ability to create their own outcomes with their own ability.

And right now, I think, everyone could use just a little bit more of that.

That concludes the first part about mental health and food. Stay tuned for part 2, where I’ll discuss more neurodivergence factors, sensory issues, and why “healthy” isn’t one size fits all.

-Tim Zheng, CEO/Founder

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