It’s 8am and Redmond Whole Foods is still quiet; she’s there with her empty grocery bags, a small cooler and her lists. The employees shout out greetings as she moves through the store quickly, deftly navigating the aisles with two shopping carts. A few stop to ask whom she’s cooking for today; they’re excited about the upcoming football game. She carefully selects eggs, meat, seafood and vegetables, checking it against her lists. She puts in special requests for the next week. The early morning crew knows this routine and promises to special order what she needs, then help get the groceries checked out, bagged and quickly send her on the way to cook for some of Seattle’s football champions.
For Kirsten Helle of Puyallup, the journey to becoming personal chef and nutritional consultant to some of the NFL’s finest athletes wasn’t easy. Some of her star clients include Michael Bennett, Brandon Mebane, Cliff Avril, Russell Okung, Nate Burleson and their families.
Twelve years ago she was too tired to get off the couch to play with her then-2-year-old daughter. Helle had been heavy since she was a child, but then she was more than 100 pounds overweight. She had high cholesterol and blood pressure, and was pre-diabetic.
“It was that moment when I stopped being disgusted with myself,” Helle said. “Right then and there, I decided that we were going to be a healthy family, no matter what my weight or size was.”
Learning How to be Healthy
She decided she was going to change her family legacy of obesity and disease and create a new legacy of health.
Helle spent hours scouring research-based nutrition information at the library. She checked out countless books about food, nutrition and cooking. It was from those books that she not only learned about portion size, which she says was “truly eye opening,” but she also taught herself to cook. She learned for the first time how to use fresh ingredients — her diet before that consisted of cheap prepackaged and fat-free “diet” food.
She began to change her eating habits one meal at a time. Her budget was $16 a week. “I focused on healthy food; not just what was the lowest calories or free of fat. I found I could stretch our tight food budget even further with whole foods and eating the proper portions of them.”
What resulted from her dedication to learning about healthy eating was a renewed self-confidence and respect. Through the process she shed more than 100 pounds, became a self-taught chef and fled an unhealthy relationship with two young kids in tow.
For a time they lived in a shelter and she worked two jobs — often she went without food so her kids could eat. She put her personal chef dreams aside while she worked to make ends meet. Five years ago that all changed when she met her husband, Artie, who encouraged her to launch the business she dreamt of.
Following Her Dreams
She started online, where she offered meal-planning services, acquired a handful of clients and snagged some blogging awards. The American Heart Association recruited her to promote heart-healthy recipes. She was invited to the Governor’s mansion, where she shared her story. She hosted cooking segments on Q13 Fox News with anchor Marni Hughes, and then Food Network came calling.
“I feel really lucky that what I have been through is now serving a purpose, that I get to inspire other people to live healthier and more delicious lives. The Food Network provided a bigger platform in which to tell that story. I started to see the potential of how many people I can reach — now it wasn’t just what I could do one-on-one in my clients’ kitchens; now I could be in many people’s kitchens.”
Helle won Guy’s Grocery Games in May 2014, winning over the judges with healthy versions of pasta arriabiata and chicken bahn mi. She came home with a grand prize of $16,000 and bigger dreams for her business.
She began working with local school districts to help design healthier school lunches and started writing a book. She developed a business plan for a community kitchen to serve low-income clients and introduce them to healthy home cooking.
And yet another phone call changed her life — this time from a doctor whose patient was a professional athlete. The athlete needed some help designing a menu to help fuel his grueling daily workouts and yet stay within the doctor’s nutritional guidelines. That athlete was defensive lineman Michael Bennett of the Seattle Seahawks.
Cooking for Athletes
Word spread fast among the team about her healthy-yet-tasty food. Her schedule now boasts many current and former NFL players, with several more on her waitlist.
Feeding the champs during playoff season requires long days. She begins at the grocery store, shopping for two clients at a time, and then heads to their homes to prep and cook enough food for two days. She puts in 12-hour days several times a week.
Her zesty meals include plenty of vegetables and lean meats. During the peak sports season, the players can consume up to 7,000 calories per day, and it’s her job to make sure that they are eating whole foods that provide optimum nutrition.
Her clients love to challenge her with requests to create healthy versions of their favorite meals. She creates menus with plenty of Caribbean, African and Cajun influences. The item that is requested the most is southern-style baked “fried” chicken and Bennett’s baked beans. “Healthy eating made a huge difference in my life,” she said. “ It truly motivates me to see how healthy eating makes a difference in the lives of my clients, on and off the field.”
Now that the season is over, her schedule has eased a bit. Many of her clients returned to their hometowns, and the extra time is allowing Helle to work toward her goal of opening that community kitchen and to test recipes for next season.
The journey continues for this young chef who is creating a healthy legacy for her family and her clients and who is continuing to chase her own champion-sized dreams.
Award-Winning Chicken Bahn Mi with Quick-Pickled Cucumber Salad
- 1 pound ground chicken (breast is leaner; thigh is more moist; a combination of both works, too)
- ¼ cup old-fashioned oats
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled
- 1 bunch green onions, trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces
- 1 bunch fresh cilantro, washed and trimmed
- 1 teaspoon Tamari soy sauce
- 1 lime, juiced
- Pinch kosher/sea salt to taste
- 2 teaspoons healthy oil/fat of your choice
- 4 whole-grain buns (alternatives to buns can be whole-grain/gluten-free English muffins, lettuce leaves or go bun-less)
- Additional fresh cilantro and lime, optional
Place ground chicken in a mixing bowl, set aside. Process oats, garlic, green onions and cilantro in a food processor until finely minced. Add to the chicken along with soy sauce and lime juice. Mix gently with hands until just combined; don’t overmix. For best results, refrigerate for at least one hour or overnight. To cook, form chicken mixture into four patties. Preheat a skillet or grill pan over medium high heat. When hot, add oil and swirl to coat. Add chicken and cook until golden brown, flip carefully and cook the second side until golden brown (about 4 minutes each side). Turn the heat off and cover the pan for 5 minutes to finish cooking gently. Serve the chicken on the bun and top with the fresh quick-pickled cucumber salad (recipe to the right), additional cilantro and a squeeze of lime.
Quick-pickled cucumber salad
- 1 large English cucumber, thinly sliced or julienned
- 1 large carrot, thinly sliced or julienned
- 1 bunch radishes, trimmed and thinly sliced or julienned
- ¼ red onion, thinly sliced
- 1 cup fresh cilantro
- 1 lime, juiced
- 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
- 1 teaspoon honey or agave
- 1 pinch Kosher/sea salt, optional
Combine all of the ingredients, let sit at least 5 minutes or overnight.
Bennett’s Baked Beans
Serves 4-6 as a side or 4 as a main entree
Michael Bennett’s No. 1 requested side dish is these beans. For tailgating, make the beans the night before and let them stay warm in the slow cooker overnight. These are great with grilled sausages or chicken, or keep it simple by serving with coleslaw and fresh deli cold cuts for a satisfying pre-game meal you can feel good about.
- 8 slices nitrate-free, sugar-free bacon (such as Hemplers), chopped
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 1 red bell pepper, finely chopped
- 3-4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2-3 pinches Kosher/sea salt
- 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
- 1 tablespoon paprika (use smoked paprika for a more intense flavor)
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- ½ cup pure maple syrup
- 15 ounces pureed tomatoes
- 15 ounces kidney beans, rinsed and drained
- 15 ounces pinto beans, rinsed and drained
Preheat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add bacon and cook until crispy. Add onion, bell pepper, garlic, Dijon mustard and seasonings. Stir often; cook until the onion is tender, about 5 minutes. Add remaining ingredients. At this point you also can transfer to the slow cooker and cook on the “keep warm” setting for several hours. You can also transfer to a baking dish and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Or, to serve immediately, simmer on low, covered for 15-20 minutes.
For the dressing:
- ¼ cup fresh pineapple, shredded
- 1 cup homemade olive oil mayonnaise, or high-quality store bought
- 2 tablespoon honey
- 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
- 1 pinch Kosher/sea salt
- ½ teaspoon fresh black pepper
- ½ clove garlic, crushed and finely minced to a paste
- 1 head cabbage, finely shredded (use a combination of green and red for a vibrant slaw)
- 1 large carrot, shredded
- ½ red onion, thinly sliced
- 1 handful chopped green onion
Whisk together the dressing ingredients. Add the vegetables and toss. Cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours or overnight. Toss before serving and add a handful of fresh chopped green onions for garnish and flavor.
Baked “fried” chicken
This is a good base recipe for super crispy, super tender baked and gluten-free chicken you’d think was fried!
- Assorted pieces of chicken. About six pieces. (Bone-in will take longer to cook than boneless breast meat.)
- 2 cups brown rice flour
- 1 teaspoon fine Kosher/sea salt
- 1/2 teaspoon onion granules
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic granules
- 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1/2 teaspoon paprika
- 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
- 1/2 teaspoon finely ground black pepper
- 2 eggs, whisked with 1/4 cup water
- Avocado oil, or high quality olive oil pan spray
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Prepare your chicken by patting dry with paper towels. Set up your breading stations; Place the flour and seasonings in a large bag or bowl. Place the egg/water mixture in a large bowl next to the flour and finally place a large oiled baking sheet next to the egg mixture. Toss the chicken into the flour mixture (1-2 pieces at a time), then into the egg mixture, back into the flour mixture (shake off excess) and then finally on to the baking sheet. Spray the top of the chicken with avocado oil in an oil mister, or use a high quality olive oil pan spray, preferably organic. Bake until the bottom is golden brown and crispy, about 15 minutes, and then carefully turn the chicken pieces. Cook until deep golden brown and crispy and the internal temperature reaches 170 degrees. Remove from the oven and let rest for 10 minutes. Enjoy!