Food for thought: These dietitians are chefs, teachers

By Kristen Holland Shear

Amy Haynes was still a teenager when she started handling the meal planning and cooking for her family.

She said her mother entrusted her with the task because the teen wanted to learn more about applying good nutrition in the kitchen.

Amy Haynes (left) and Kristen Belcher turned the clinical dietetics program at UT Southwestern School of Health Professions into careers as both chefs and Art Institute of Dallas instructors.

“At that point, I knew I either wanted to go to culinary school or get a degree in food and nutrition,” said Ms. Haynes, a 2000 graduate of the School of Health Professions’ clinical dietetics program. “My mom was and is still a great cook, so she taught me some kitchen basics then basically gave me free rein.”

Though Ms. Haynes, 35, opted to become a registered dietitian instead of a chef, her culinary skills haven’t gone to waste. She simply transferred those skills — as well as her dietetic training learned at UT Southwestern — into her current position at the Art Institute of Dallas, where she teaches nutritional cooking and vegetarian cuisine for its culinary school.

And she’s not the only UT Southwestern graduate making a name in the culinary world.

Kristen Belcher, a 2003 graduate of the dietetics program at the health professions school, also teaches at the Art Institute. She co-teaches the school’s menu management course with Dr. Vickie Vaclavik, clinical assistant professor of clinical nutrition at UT Southwestern; Dr. Vaclavik developed the nutritional aspect of the Art Institute’s culinary arts program.

Ms. Belcher said the class is designed to teach student chefs how to develop menus and use them as a tool for planning and implementing a successful restaurant or hospitality venture. The 33-year-old Fort Worth native previously taught the culinary program’s management and supervision, and safety and sanitation courses.

Ms. Haynes said the best part of her job is that it puts her in the position to change the stereotypical perception of health food. The task is easier said than done.

“Chefs don’t like limitations on things like butter, cream and bacon, so I have to convince them that food can still taste wonderful without adding a lot of high-fat, high-calorie ingredients,” said the married mother of two. “It is my mission to inspire them to want to take on the challenge of making great-tasting, beautiful, but more importantly, nutritional food.”

Ms. Haynes added: “It is vitally important that I get the point across to these future chefs that they, too, have the ability to make a healthy difference in someone’s life, maybe even help someone completely change their life for the better.”

Like Ms. Haynes, Ms. Belcher became a registered dietitian because of her longstanding fascination with the human body and how nutrition influences health.

“My interest grew even more once I discovered the broad nature of dietetics and the unlimited potential within the field,” Ms. Belcher said.

In addition to her part-time teaching position at the Art Institute, she works as a clinical dietitian at North Hills Hospital in North Richland Hills and is preparing to begin graduate studies in public health. At North Hills, she works with the inpatient rehabilitation department, the medical/surgical units and bariatric surgery patients.

“Mostly, teaching is my true passion, and I expect that education will remain a big aspect of my career,” Ms. Belcher said.

But the variety of work settings available to registered dietitians is one definite perk, and the fact that the field is science-based and requires a continued learning curve is another.

Ms. Haynes sees her career following a similar path, though she still dreams of earning a culinary degree.

“My career will always be focused on applying nutritional principles in the kitchen, whether it’s teaching at the culinary school or in another setting,” she said. “I thoroughly enjoy helping people and having the opportunity to make a difference in their lives.”