Cooking Rules

Boxing Champ Laila Ali’s Fight to Cook Healthy

We got the star athlete to talk about life after the ring, eating with her famous dad, and her new cookbook.

Courtesy Matt Armendariz

Tell me about your food experiences as a kid. How did you first learn to cook? “Growing up, when I lived with both of my parents before they got divorced, we had a cook! So that was my first experience, having really good home-cooked meals. But after they divorced, my mom didn’t cook much and I had to start figuring out how to cook by myself, starting with things like scrambled eggs at about 9, then spaghetti and then more stuff as time went on.”

You had a nearly 10-year, undefeated career as a professional fighter; did you discover your love for boxing or cooking first? “Definitely cooking, definitely. Cooking I’ve been doing since I was 9. I’ve always enjoyed it. I didn’t discover boxing until I was 18.”

Did your father, Muhammad Ali, like to cook? “I don’t ever remember seeing my dad cook. He loved home-cooked meals, he loved soul food, he loved going to a good burger joint, but I don’t know if he even knew how to cook.”

You’ve competed on Chopped, you host the FYI show Late Nite Chef Fight, and you’ve cooked on TV with everybody from Paula Deen to Steve Harvey, but the new Food for Life is your first cookbook. What made you decide to write one? “I’ve always wanted to put all my recipes down in one place. In fact, I’d done it myself before, but I moved and lost the book! When I started sharing with the world that I loved to cook, people started saying ‘why don’t you do a cookbook?’ But I couldn’t do it all myself. That’s why I teamed up with [Food for Life co-author] Leida Scheintaub to do the book. I thought, ‘OK, this woman knows flavor.’ If it was just up to me, this book still wouldn’t be done. As a cook, I don’t really use recipes, and to put everything down, it’s really difficult. But the great thing about my recipes is that they don’t have to be followed perfectly to come out right.”

How was the actual cookbook-writing process for you? Did you have to do a ton of recipe development and testing? “Oh, yeah. I literally took about 11 months and shut everything else down. There was no way I would be able to work on my passion project if I was doing four other things. Leida set up a timeline, and I came up with a list of recipes I wanted to work on together, along with some recipes I’d been using myself for years. And then you have to try all the recipes and try them on different people and go through editing and changes. I had to learn that the way I season things isn’t perfect for most people. I remember when we were testing the gumbo, I took some to my neighbors and they told me it was too salty! I’m glad I partnered with someone who’s got a lot of experience. 11 months is actually really fast for a cookbook. Writing all the headers and stories and stuff that goes along with the recipes? All that stuff takes time! It’s my book. I was definitely involved in the process the whole way, and it was a lot of work.”

Food for Life focuses equally on flavor and nutrition. How did your time as a pro boxer influence how you cook and eat? “Well, as an athlete, that’s where I really learned about the quality of the food you put in your body. That was the first time I had to focus on what I was putting in my body and look at calories and fat and all that kind of thing. And then as a parent, you have to go even deeper, looking at ingredients and GMOs and stuff like that. We’re eating a lot of processed food that’s not even really food—it’s food-like—and people don’t understand why they’re getting sick. Healthy food doesn’t have to be boring, it doesn’t have to be hard, it doesn’t have to be expensive. My book is not a diet. It’s not about eating one style of food; it’s about eating whole foods, incorporating a lot of vegetables and natural foods into your lifestyle. And I do also have a chapter that’s like the next-level stuff for people who want to take that next step into things like bone broth and making your own fermented foods to keep your gut healthy and things like that. Really trying to think of ways you can make your food more nutritious every time you eat.”

The book’s recipes include ingredients and flavors from all over the world; do you have a personal favorite type of cuisine? “The cuisine that comes from my Creole roots would be my favorite. The seafood gumbo, jambalaya, stewed chicken. People look at that and be like, ‘oh, that’s healthy?’ They’re not only delicious and comforting, but I’m also using ingredients that are better for you. When you use oil and flour to make a roux, for example, you can use coconut oil and whole-wheat flour. You definitely can have all those things, but maybe you just can’t have them every single day.”

You have two small children; any tips on cooking for kids? “Keep it simple. Cater to what they like. I’ve had to learn that the hard way because I’ve made all these meals for my kids! So now I find myself going back to the foods they love and trying to add nutrition. It’s really important to me as a mom: I cook five days a week. I might take some zucchini, and peel and puree it and add it to a dish along with the meat. I try that with riced cauliflower too, but my daughter can usually detect it. If I’m making them spaghetti, which they love, I’ll find a good, wholesome pasta—there’s this brown-rice pasta that works very well—and I’ll take some veggies and put them in the food processor to make a sauce and get them some extra veggies. I make them chocolate cake, I put zucchini in it and they don’t even know it’s in there! If your kids like hamburgers, find a way to make it healthier and don’t force them to eat things they don’t want to. And, of course, I bribe them sometimes—I’ll take 2 ounces of green juice and mix it with some apple juice and tell them they’re not getting any dessert unless they drink it.”

How can someone who’s not very good at cooking get better? “Practice, starting with simple recipes. I would focus on the basics, like if you’re a meat-eater, learn some basics about cooking a steak. Get a recipe that’s a really basic oven recipe that’s really easy and then keep it simple. Do a protein, a vegetable and maybe a starch, and put the whole thing in the oven and just be done with it. You definitely have to sit down and make a plan and figure out what you want to do. Also, stock your pantry and fridge: It gets overwhelming if you feel like you have to buy everything single item in the recipe. I have a list in my book of items everybody should buy.”

What’s your single favorite recipe in the book, and why? “Definitely my seafood gumbo. There are so many different takes on gumbo, but I feel like I could win a contest with mine. I remember calling my grandma and asking her how she makes her roux and learning that recipe over the phone. It’s all one pot of magic and comes out great. It’s from my Creole roots, I grew up eating it, and it’s really a crowd-pleaser. You make some, and next thing you know you’ve got a crowd looking to take some home.”

Besides your own kitchen, where do you like to eat in your home of Los Angeles? “I have to be honest: I don’t get to go out as much as I like because of the kids. We usually eat out once a week on Fridays, but they like to stick to their favorite places. We live in the Valley, so there are lots of restaurants in LA that I don’t get to go to. That said, Shibuya is a sushi place out here in Calabasas that has really fresh product. I love it. Lure Fish House in Westlake is really good. Of course I love Mastro’s Ocean Club in Malibu. I’m a bit embarrassed to say it, but for a family-friendly place, we’re regulars at The Cheesecake Factory. The kids can get what they want, I can get a salad, and I love their crispy salmon rolls. My next book, I’m gonna make my own version of those!”

What’s next for you? “I host a show called Home Made Simple on OWN, and I’ll be doing that again next season I’m sure. For me personally, I’m also developing a nutrition line of products like protein, green powder, vitamins, a cleanse. Those are just a few of the items, and I’m really excited about that. I have a couple ideas for names but I don’t want to say anything yet.”

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Laila Ali’s cookbook Food for Life will be released Jan. 23. You can also listen to her weekly podcast, Laila Ali Lifestyle.

Interview has been condensed and edited.