CHATHAM, NJ - "Everyone needs a hug," and, according to Chef Franco Lania, one way to receive a warm embrace is through cooking.
"There are a lot of people who can benefit from this idea," Franco said. "I'm not saying you need to cook something intricate. Start with something simple and go from there. A lot of it has to do with your nutrition, getting your mind together and pulling yourself up. If you're going through a divorce or a horrific event, or something small in your personal life, this can help."
The Chatham resident is preaching "happiness through cooking' because he knows that it brought him back from a "very dark place," he found himself in after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
Leading up to that September morning, everything was shining brightly for Lania's future. He had just completed his Master Course at the Culinary Arts Institute in Costigliole d’Asti, Italy. He had a job lined up at a new restaurant that was opening in New York City. All he needed was his food handler's certification, which he was going to receive after taking the test in the World Trade Center on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
"I was there early like a good student; it was a gorgeous day," Lania said. "We heard this noise and we didn't know what it was until someone came into the room and said, 'The World Trade Center was hit by an airplane.' We went over to the windows and saw all this stuff falling. Then we realized, there are people falling."
Lania managed to walk down the stairs from 60-some stories up before the second plane hit the second tower.
"The noise was unbelievable," Lania said. "It was like a Pearl Harbor attack. Fear paralyzed people. No one knew what was going to blow up next. I heard that peope were getting out of New York on the ferry, so I broke off and headed to Pier 36. It took me eight hours to get home."
From that point on, it was a downward spiral for Lania. He lost his job because the restaurant never opened, and the personal issues compounded the problems caused by post-traumatic stress. He decided to head to Miami, Fla., where he got a job in little Italian restaurant.
"I was depressed and I was not really eating right," Lania said. "I'd eat potato chips and drink soda while I was cooking for the customers. Finally, I decided, rather than cooking for all these people, I should take a half hour to cook and eat myself. I started by cooking chicken with onions. Just eating good, basic, Italian food, it started to invigorate me. It gave me the strength to pull myself up."
That's the message Lania brings now whenever he is asked to speak. He was invited to talk at Networking World Anesthesia Convention held in Vienna, Austria, last May. He advised the doctors who gathered there from all over the world to take time out to cook for themselves.
"Sure, if you have the money you can pay for someone to cook you a filet mignon and eat it," Lania said. "Some of them were saying they were too busy to cook. One doctor got up and said, 'If you have time to eat it, you have time to cook it.' There were guys with degrees from Harvard and Oxford there listening to me, a guy from Jersey wearing a baseball cap backwards. I was invited to come back and speak again the next year."
Lania also has a degree from Le Cordon Bleu in London where he graduated with the Grand Diplôme. He was inspired to write about how cooking brought him happiness after he met his idol, renowned chef Jacques Pepin, while working on a cruise ship.
"I'd work on the ship and then set aside two hours at night to write," Lania said. "I did that seven nights a week for six months. I had written down 150,000 words."
Lania used the Library of the Chathams as a place to edit and organize his copy, which he plans to publish as a guide to happiness though cooking.
In the meantime, Lania is keeping busy with a number of projects. One is the promotion of his new product, Minnesota Wild Rice Griddle Cakes, which he created during a speaking trip to the Midwest. See the full story here.
Franco Lania gives a demonstration on his new healthy product - Minnesota Wild Rice "Griddle Cakes"
Check out Chef Lania's recipe for Wild Rice Stuffiing with an Italian Twist Here