Rhadia Hursey is a chef who has certainly forged her own path. As a mature student in culinary school, she was told, “You guys will never make it”.
Well guess what? Rhadia and her older classmates are still cooking while the younger ones have fallen by the wayside. And now her passion, food as medicine, is her driver. She has a big road ahead of her.
A board member for the New York Women’s Culinary Alliance, with degrees from the University of Maryland, College Park, and the Centre for Culinary Education at Chattahoochee Technical College, Rhadia has combined her study of healthy eating with her own business, cooking for private clients. And that is a funny story.
How did your journey begin?
“I was a military kid. We lived at bases as culturally diverse as California, Florida, and Washington DC. With African American and Mexican ancestry, our food at home was a wonderful blend of cuisines and flavours. I tried other pathways during my teens and twenties, but by the time I was in my thirties, things seemed to just fall into place. Culinary school was where I wanted to be.”
How did culinary school shape your career?
“I went to culinary school as a mature student in my early 30s, as I had always loved cooking. Looking back to the 90s, the industry was so different to now, or maybe getting involved in it opened my eyes to the career possibilities that cooking offered.
Culinary school was fun, you’re cooking and eating – everyone put on 10 pounds. It’s also very challenging. When I started, you have your 18 – 20 year olds, then the over 30s and we were told, “you guys will never make it,” and the older ones are still working in culinary! There was this attitude that the only pathway was being a restaurant chef, and I knew that there was no way I was going to be able to work like that, it was too restrictive, and proscriptive. My chef was old school, and expected everyone to work in a restaurant. I just knew that wasn’t for me.”
What was your career breakthrough?
“You know, it really came down to knowing myself, and I guess that came from starting late, and bringing a lot of self-knowledge and life experience to my studies. I may not have lasted if I had started earlier. Knowing I didn’t want to work in restaurants, I explored other avenues. I got a job and worked in health care, Monday to Friday 7 – 4, and I tried working in media, for a magazine. But in the end, I decided to be a private chef and make more money without the pressure and brutal hours and culture. The idea that, “if you work in a restaurant you have to be pretty bad ass”, didn’t appeal at all, so I decided that being a private chef working for myself was the only way to go.
And while I wasn’t aware of it at the time, my career actually started at culinary school. While I was in school I picked up a client, who was on the Paleo diet, and he asked me if I knew the diet. “Absolutely! Yeah,” I replied. Thinking on my feet, and though I knew nothing about this new lifestyle, I was determined I’d learn as soon as possible.”
Was it hard to build a network of private clients?
Hmm, not as hard as I thought it would be! My client introduced me to his friends who were all Paleo, and I became known as ‘the Paleo chef’, and the other Paleo clients all seemed to belong to the same cross fit gym, so word got around super fast. I guess it was being in the right place at the right time, and being confident in what I could do. And studying like crazy so I had deep knowledge of what I had to deliver.
What made you come to New York?
I was in Atlanta, Georgia, happy cooking for my private clients when my husband who works in television, got a new job, and we relocated to New York. I was happy to do that, and immediately started seeking out corporate catering work, and started building my business again.
Why is working in health care so important for you?
Back in Atlanta, my grandmother got really sick in a nursing home there. She had been healthy most of her life, but suddenly developed diabetes and lost 30 pounds in three months. I was devastated, and she said the food was so bad in the home that her health just went downhill, fast.
So I decided that I needed to find out what it was like working in health care and a long-term facility for seniors. What was the process? What was the construct? I felt I had to figure out why they have the challenges in those kitchens, and poor skill sets. Settled in New York, in 2015, taking over a facility as chef for Archare in Manhattan, I found I had cooks who had started off as dishwashers and had progressed to the level of cooks, but with no training. I was appalled, and suddenly realised that this, working in this area, was what I was meant to do.
How did that work inform your business now?
When I was the chef at the long term care facility, we had 600 people to feed, three times a day. We were unique because our clients went in age from 0 to 100 – there were children, aids sufferers, patients with Huntington’s disease, and the facility even had a renal floor, so trying to develop a menu that everyone could eat was challenging, but we did it.
One of the programs that we developed allowed us to go off the menu once a month. I wanted to create something special, something that would lift spirits and prompt memories. So we created ‘a meal in the life’, and every month we’d pick a country and do the cuisine of that country. It brought variety and culture into their diet – one month we had Germany, and served German sausages and sauerkraut. One man hadn’t had food like that since the war, when he was in Germany as a soldier. He got emotional about the food memory, and cried with pleasure.
In food for health care, is the budget the biggest challenge?
Yes and no. It depends on what end of the spectrum you are working. I had a private client, who is an older woman who needed someone to cook for her. She had health issues she had picked up from the hospital system, and the job was to live out and then live in house in the summers in the Hamptons.
I didn’t have a budget, and one month I spent $30k on groceries, and while that may seem crazy, the weekends were busy and we could have 12 or 15 people to cook for breakfast lunch and dinner. It was a dream job really, I could be creative and I didn’t even have to clean because she has a full staff.
Then at the other end, I worked in a hospital in charge of their café, where the food quality was better than in the care facility, but the budget was still tight. An opportunity came up to work with Elena, who runs wellrootedkitchen.com and is my business partner. She’s also a chef, and passionate about food for health, so we’re doing health and wellness, involving cooking demonstrations, for CentreLight Health Care. They have 14 centres across the 5 boroughs of New York, so that keeps us busy.
I’m responsible for coming in and providing nutritional education for their members – seniors with chronic medical conditions. They come in for breakfast and lunch and have a take home meal and they are all low income seniors.
Why is the government stepping into the food is health space?
The program we run is funded through the government because it helps keep the seniors in their homes longer so they don’t have to go to nursing homes. It’s simple economics really, and good long term planning. Everyone benefits if the disadvantaged get the help and nutrition they need to live disease free lives in their later years. I help plan menus, education classes, expose them to food they’re unfamiliar with. For example, we get rid of rice, and replace it with quinoa – it’s much better for blood sugar.
I train staff, so we create a restaurant environment, setting expectations, on how we treat the seniors. Their visits give them such a lift, and it’s wonderful to see the staff treat them with respect and kindness.
We have several centres like that throughout the county moving into health and wellness for Fortune 500 companies – so it’s not just the aged and poor who need education on nutrition and healthy bodies. We’re doing retreats like teaching cooking, team building exercises, health and wellness at work.
So where to now?
Probably by next year I’ll be phasing out of the private chef market and into the health and wellness in the corporate world. Funny how life pushes you into a direction, and then you suddenly go, “Oh yeah! Something from 8 years ago set me up on this path!”
I’m working on my website, developing recipes, making videos of me cooking, travelling, writing. I went to Rome last year and I’m constantly adding content daily. My goal for that is a site where people can come for healthy recipes and then have decadent stuff too for fun. Life is balance, and fresh chemical free treats won’t hurt you if your diet is clean.
You know, I know that everyone has a food memory, and they stay with us forever. So being able to serve a meal, to give pleasure and jog memories, this is why I do what I do – everyone has that – could be something that your mother made, that your grandmother made. But it’s a deep part of your make up. And I love to tap into that. In my family, we had the food, we had the music, and my goal is to do the same thing in my consultant job now and create that cultural food program. With a healthy emphasis, of course!”