Modesto teen gets in touch with his food

naustin@modbee.comApril 20, 2013 

    alternate textNan Austin
    Title: Education reporter
    Coverage areas: K-12 education, Yosemite Community College District
    Bio: Nan Austin has been a copy editor and reporter at The Modesto Bee for 24 years. She has an economics degree from CSU Stanislaus and previously worked at the Merced Sun-Star and Turlock Journal.
    Recent stories written by Nan
    On Twitter: @nanaustin

— How do you have a healthy lifestyle when you're surrounded by food?

Many of us face that dilemma, but few go to the lengths that high school sophomore Ga-lhiel Dillard did to find answers.

Ga-lhiel, 16, picked that question as the central theme for his Central Catholic High independent research project. A wrestler, he was grappling with that very problem when it came time to pick a project.

He searched online and in person, exploring topics including youth obesity, teen eating disorders, athletic health, fast food's effect on eating patterns and sports nutrition. "I looked things up, at doctors, M.D. websites. But I wanted to talk to people personally," he said.

Ga-lhiel interviewed a former Olympian, who advised him to "be like a coach to yourself" to improve self-discipline. He learned that horse jockeys must stay under 100 pounds.

And he met chef John Surla, who topped out at 410 pounds before taking charge of his own menu. Now 130 pounds lighter — "I lost a whole person!" he quipped — but still surrounded by food, Surla showed the younger man the inside workings of a restaurant.

Ga-lhiel toured the chef's eponymous restaurant, Surla's. "I've seen the kitchen. The kitchen's spotless — that's a plus," he told classmates in introducing the centerpiece of his healthy food tableau.

As his piece's pièce de résistance, Ga-lhiel brought Surla to class for a cooking demonstration Wednesday. While Surla flipped chicken stir-fry with lots of vegetables, the class peppered him with questions.

For instance, how did he learn to flip and fry? Answer: When he was a first-grader, his mother had him practice with a cold pan and a piece of toast.

Unlike on TV, Surla said, "Being a chef is a blue-collar job. You start at the bottom and work your way up. You work really hard."

Ga-lhiel said his "I" Search Paper was "lots of work. Lots of work." But he's pretty certain that hard work will pay off with an "A."

The project is required of all students as part of English 11 class as a way to get them to learn how to do research and work independently, Central Catholic Principal Melissa Bengtson said. "The 'I' is for individual," she said.

Ga-lhiel's twin brother, Ka lhiel, did his on poverty. "He talked about the poverty rate here in the valley. His was really heartfelt," Ga-lhiel said.

But Ka lhiel spent Wednesday's class skewering his brother with questions and making him laugh.

Ga-lhiel took it in stride. "You have to have fun with the things you do in high school," he said.

But the "I" Search also taught him serious things, he said. While he still grabs his favorite, a Daily Double burger at McDonald's, for a treat, he's eating at home a lot more. More vegetables. More water. No soda.

"I eat healthier," he said, and is looking forward to varsity football.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at or (209) 578-2339, on Twitter, @NanAustin,

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