You love eating but want to lose weight? At a crossroads, you’re looking for education and inspiration? Meet Chef Ryan Hutmacher, also known as The Centered Chef. Yes, Chef Ryan was recently named “The New Face of Healthy Cooking,” won the nationally televised cooking competition “The Search for the Weight Watchers Chef” on ABC’s The CHEW, and co-founded Centered Chef in 2005. Equally as impressive is Chef Ryan’s life story. At age 24, Chef Ryan was 5’7″ and weighed 235 pounds. He decided to do something about it. He quit his sales job and enrolled in culinary school at Chicago’s Kendall College and even moved to France, where he apprenticed under Chef Jean-Jacques Galliffet at La Cerisaie, Auberge de la Valloire and Le Moulin. This experience of cooking natural, regional ingredients began to mold Chef Ryan’s understanding of pure food and its implications on his own health. Chef Ryan focused on his personal health and now, many pounds lighter, actively practices yoga, participates in cross-training, marathons, triathlons, and even carries the title of Ironman. With Centered Chef (in addition to constant TV appearances, public speaking appearances and wellness workshops), Chef Ryan is able to share his story and personal experiences with others, educating and inspiring with his stories of living life on both ends of the health spectrum. I connected with Chef Ryan after a mutual friend recommended that we get in touch for a CCM piece. When I reached out, Chef Ryan was quick to point out that we have a lot in common when it comes to our opinions regarding there being a need to cook more, scratch cooking, at home with friends for dinner parties. We’re excited to have The Centered Chef Ryan Hutmacher share his (Chocolate Covered) Memories with us …
How did you end up in this niche of the industry?
After experiencing the nature of an office job for almost three years after college, I knew the traditional corporate job wasn’t for me. I’d always loved food, which was obvious, because I eventually gained about 60 pounds from the time I entered college until I quit my sales job and decided to explore this passion for food, as an art form.
Any child/teenage food industry jobs?
In college, I had two jobs to help pay for tuition. During the day, I worked an office job on campus, helping students and recruiters connect for interviews and job placement. At night, I cooked at a local bar and grill. I’ve always had a short attention span, so it was the first time the word “work” actually seemed to vanish away from my thoughts, along with watching the clock tick by, as compared to my office job. From patty melts to fish frys, I loved the skill in being able to create something that was always one step above a simple burger and fries, by putting a little extra effort into presentation and of course good cooking technique. I took pride in my food, and in the skills I’d developed … even if it was a greasy spoon, kind of joint.
What are your earliest childhood memories of food?
My earliest childhood memory of food is making Christmas cookies with my mom. It’s a Midwest thing, but peanut butter buckeyes were my first memory of comprehending how together, ingredients can meld to create something completely different, when used together. It seems obvious, but as a 5 year old kid, peanut butter taste like peanut butter, and Rice Krispies taste like Rice Krispies, but … when you throw a little powdered sugar and butter into the mix, and a splash of vanilla extract … boom, delicious! This was mind blowing to me that I’d seemingly cracked the code to Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, but with my mom’s secret enhancement being texture using crisped rice! I learned about patience in waiting for the chocolate to melt, technique and consistency with rolling and dipping the balls, and most importantly, got perspective on the idea that something bigger was happening with this cooking thing my mom did so well.
Where does your love of food stem from?
The origins of my love for food has evolved over time. As a kid, I loved my mom’s home cooking. Though we relied heavily on canned vegetables, mac n’ cheese, and all things Shake n’ Bake, she would pull out the recipe cards of my grandma’s and do scratch cooking when time permitted. I didn’t know that we didn’t have a lot of money as a kid, so to me, Tuna Casserole and Frito Salad were staples that we looked forward to almost like a celebration. Maybe my mom and dad were acting, but we used to get excited because they seemed excited for these simple, affordable and flavorful creations. Hell, it was the 1980’s and what didn’t have a can of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup in it … and how many permutations of Hamburgur Helper were there? The possibilities were endless! Lol. It was a casserole bonanza back then!
What foods remind you of childhood? What were your favorite foods growing up?
My absolute favorite meal that my mom would make as a kid would be the same thing she’d make for me, even until I was in my early 30’s. Tuna Casserole, baby! God, I still love it. Elbow macaroni, cream of celery or mushroom soup, diced Velveeta cheese (I use the word “cheese,” loosely), canned peas, onion powder, and topped with crushed potato chips and baked until golden brown. From the standpoint of what I do now for a living as a chef, this recipe is certainly not about health and wellness from a nutritional standpoint, but from the nostalgia that it creates with each luscious bite, it has a special place in my culinary repertoire where I know the memory of my mom and the special bond we had is forever. To me, these memories around food can be an amazing catalyst for clarity and motivation, which in turn translates to wellness from a different perspective.
Any specific food memories/stories that you want to share?
I think it’s hilarious that most of the chef’s you see on TV talk about “I’ve been cooking with Nana or my mom since I can’t remember.” They go on to say “I would stand side by side with my mom as we’d make homemade ravioli’s, day after day, year after year,” or in my case “buckeye cookies” once a year. However, the irony is that I was such a squirrely and hyperactive kid, my mom would typically end up kicking me out of the kitchen when I’d help her, because I’d get distracted, make a mess, and never finish the job quite like she wanted. This became comical later on as I grew up, because I’d instigate her by snatching her electric mixer paddles or taking the bowl of tuna salad she was mixing, while she had sticky hands, so she couldn’t quite scold me in the moment. It was a fun-loving thing, most of the time. When it went too far, there was a wooden spoon that my butt knew all to well!
Were you a picky eater as a kid? Any foods you couldn’t stand growing up? Have you overcome those childhood fears or do they still remain to this day? Any stuff you loved eating as a child that you would never eat now?
As a kid, I didn’t understand pickled beets and why they were always out on our table during special occasions. I thought they were horrible and that only old people liked them. I now think it’s ironic, because my favorite holiday food that was side by side with those beets, was can-shaped cranberry sauce … lol. For comedy’s sake and to appease my 40 year old sister, we still have a ceremonial can of cranberry sauce at holiday times … but I prefer to make my own cranberry sauce these days, with candy spiced orange peel. And as far as the beets go, now, no matter what, if I see a beet salad on a menu, or anything that says “pickled,” I gotta have it!
As an adult, there’s really one ingredient that I don’t like that I stay away from, at least in it’s raw form. I can’t stand green peppers! Not only do they not digest well for me, which is enough of a deterrent as far as I’m concerned, but they remind me of what an old Polish Man’s aroma may be like, after he’s finished mowing the grass on a 95 degree day. Namely my late grandpa, Eddie. And yes, I’m partly Polish … so I can say that. I miss you, Grandpa!
Any childhood cooking accidents in the kitchen? Any as an adult?
My first memory of using this brand new cooking appliance they called the microwave was pretty funny. I think I was 6 or so, and I thought it would be a good idea to make some boxed brownies using this space-aged technology. I’d watched my mom do it before, so I thought I was up to the challenge and that it would be a nice surprise for when she got back from the store. This was also when I realized that butter comes in many states … soft (like the stuff we left out at room temp in the butter dish), hard (like the stuff in the fridge), and melted (like the stuff that went on popcorn). Well, we were all out of soft butter. I’d seen my mom use the microwave a couple of times before, so I thought I’d give it a try with a stick of butter inside a bowl. I pushed a couple of buttons and voila, it was working. It wasn’t until my sister came running in because she smelled something funny. Apparently I learned that some bowls are not microwavable, so through the cascade of butter that was running down from the microwave, there was also the formation of what looked like thick candle wax in a stalactite form, oozing from the shelf the microwave was on. We didn’t have brownies that night.
Growing up, what was your favorite meal/food/snack to eat outside? Did you enjoy eating outside anywhere in particular? How about now as an adult? Any benches you love to eat on?
Since I was limited to a two block radius on my bike as a little tike, it was a big deal to get that extended to about a mile once those training wheels came off, which was about the distance to the Modern Dairy convenience store. Although push-pops and Drumsticks were my jam, I was a simple kid who loved a Jumbo Freezer pop. My favorite thing to do on a hot summer day was to quickly bike home with my freezer pop, grab an egg from the fridge, crack it open on the manhole sewer cover in front of my house, and watch it cook. As my freezer pop was already melted to its desirable eating state, I would strategically quarantine all of the melted juice in the bottom of the pop wrapped, as I pinched the frozen deliciousness into my mouth, siphoning all remnants of color out of the ice, until I’d submerge it again in the reservoir of juice below. This was the routine, until the ice was gone and I chugged the remainder of the reserved sugar water. Whether or not the egg fried was a different story. By then, a neighborhood dog had already eaten it, or I was already distracted trying to burn ants with a magnifying glass. I was an inquisitive kid with many creative outlets, what can I say?
What do you think of the modern food world (from Whole Foods to franchises like Olive Garden and Starbucks, from the Food Network to Groupon, from Yelp to foodie bloggers)?
This is such a huge question to tackle. So I’ll do it first from the standpoint of a chef. We live in an amazingly creative time, when food itself has been transcended by its form, rather than function. It’s inspired new interpretations of food as not only art, food as entertainment. New culinary talent is pushing the boundaries of the eating experience within restaurants and reinventing the way food is catered. New technology is empowering consumers with a sense of individualism and customization that are fueling this food Renaissance. I think it’s exciting that the legion of people that we now call foodies are eager to educate themselves with the varying POV’s that chefs have, allowing us to carve out our niche and be heard.
As an idealist at times, I believe that never before has food been a more important platform to help connect people and create community. In my experience, sometimes food allows for the only form of true socialization that occurs in our hectic, daily routines. This interconnectedness through food culture allows people to experience newer interpretations of the foods they already find nostalgic, as well as the courage to brave the uncharted waters where food and science are now co-mingling. I think this mode of interconnectedness is metaphorical for the way we interact with one another as social creatures, surrounding ourselves with people we already share common values with, but with food as the connection, we may venture out of this comfort zone, where diversity is an invitation to overcome preconceived notions. To me, this is the true potential of food, where stereotypes and stigmas are shrugged away, and only laughter and full bellies exist. This is how I use food to inspire wellness in my work. The social interactions interactions that I create with it is my art form.
As with any movement, there are contrasting views and interpretations that are not so candy coated. Where I think food culture has a tendency to get muddled is in the glorification of food through many of the shows people watch. Education and entertainment are often blurred with the content and misinformation that is portrayed on TV and online. Though I get that drama and sex will always sell, it’s amazing how it’s made “the food” plays second fiddle to drama, gluttony and sometimes even public humiliation that some programming thrives upon. Now there’s nothing wrong with a little competition, because it keeps everyone honest, but instead of food bringing people together in the end, at times it innocently falls victim to the ratings.
EDITOR’S NOTE: For more on Chef Ryan’s POV, check out his TED talk “It’s Not About The Food” at TEDx Vail.
What recipe do you want to share with us?
So I want to share a recipe, but I have to preface it with the fact that even as a health focused chef, I’m the first to admit that “healthy versions” of classic, indulgent recipes are typically an epic fail, when compared side by side. I know this from personal experience when I first started cooking professionally as a personal chef who had clients that I supported with weight loss. From Mornay sauces made with soy milk for vegan macaroni and cheese to fat free salad dressings, I’ve tried it all, and some of it wasn’t pretty. You can’t call something Biscuits and Gravy if it ain’t made with roux, milk, sausage and fat drippings, especially when there’s seemingly clever substitute for something as simple as the biscuit. I firmly believe that a little of the pure thing, is better than foregoing flavor for portion.
That brings us closer to the recipe I want to share and the reasoning why I want to share it. Now, my mom used to make the most amazing French Silk Pie with raw egg yolks, heavy cream and a mixture of milk and dark chocolate with this amazing butter and graham cracker crust. Now, here in lays the problem. With my diverse group of friends and hosting dinner parties, some people are vegan, some lactose intolerant and some are even gluten free … or so they say they are this week 😉 So, even though I want to make mom’s pie for a special occasion to not only make my friends happy with a dabble of something indulgent, but I want to honor my mom’s legacy with this ridiculously decadent family recipe. Since it’s a no go and I don’t want to try to formulate a new version of something that’s already perfect, so I go for something else I created that’s super simple, indulgent, satisfies anyone’s chocolate fix and of course, appeases all eating habits. It’s my Chocolate Avocado Mousse, which has been tested, retested and perfected, using the simplest ingredients, including cocoa powder and, of course, avocado.
The Centered Chef, Ryan Hutmacher, is founder of Centered Chef, a culinary consulting firm focused in corporate wellness. As “The New Face of Healthy Cooking,” Weight Watchers and ABC television’s The CHEW talk show crowned Chef Ryan the national winner of “The Search for the Weight Watchers Chef” competition.
Aside from his current title as the First Ever Weight Watchers Chef and being nationally recognized as a 2014 Event Innovator by BizBash Magazine, his culinary expertise and media experience have been featured regularly on local and national networks including NBC’s TODAY Show, ABC’s The CHEW, CBS, FOX, WGN, CLTV, and UPN, where he showcases functional ingredients that can be prepared both easily and healthfully.
He’s contributed to publications including Weight Watchers Magazine, Good Housekeeping, Men’s Health, Chicago Athlete, USAT’s “Fuel Station” and Competitor Magazine and has been featured by Crain’s Business Chicago and Triathlete Magazine, for his work as an entrepreneur. During his recent TED talk, Chef Ryan shared his point of view that, “It’s Not About the Food” when it comes to wellness, but rather community. As an Ironman and marathoner, he actively participates in the endurance sports community and focuses his passions around teaching his “clean, simple & sexy” cuisine.
Although his chef jacket defines his line of work, Chef Ryan considers himself an ambassador of wellness, creatively combining the culinary arts with nutrition. His culinary journey began with his own health transformation almost 10 years ago. After years of struggling with weight management, he sought to re-invent his career as well as his ailing health. It was around that time that Chef Ryan co-founded Centered Chef, which began as a simple prepared meals company, then evolved into an innovative culinary studio in Chicago, where clean-eating experiences were integrated into both social and educational platforms.
From farm-to-fork catering services to customized cooking classes, Chef Ryan’s concepts support the notion that healthy and delicious can be equally attainable. With evolving his platform, Chef Ryan now travels the country doing public speaking and sharing his knowledge of conscious cooking while educating groups of people to have a deeper connection with themselves, their community and the foods they eat.