“If it’s here, it’s healthy” is the motto of Life Time’s LifeCafe — and Ryan Dodge, the executive chef who for 12 years has overseen all LifeCafes nationwide, takes it seriously.
Growing up in the 1980s, Dodge ate the same processed fare many of us did. “We were told, ‘No butter; use margarine,’ which is one molecule away from plastic,” he quips. But he’s always felt more in tune, culinarily speaking, with his grandparents’ generation.
His maternal grandmother lived on a farm in central Nebraska, and Dodge has fond memories of her pickles, preserves, and scratch cooking. “Everything she used was naturally occurring on the farm and in nature around her,” he recalls. “That’s where I connected. That’s where everything resonated with me.”
We recently talked to Chef Dodge about his food philosophy and his story. Here’s what he had to say.
Experience Life | Tell us a little about your childhood and that shaped your food philosophy.
Ryan Dodge | I grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska. It was the 1980s and 1990s, and it was all about processed food and low-fat food. But, I was always more in tune with my grandparents’ generation. We had land out in central Nebraska in the high plains and that’s where I connected. That’s where everything resonated with me. I could be visiting my grandparents and be outside all day from the moment the sun broke to the moment it ended.
My maternal grandmother had a cellar, dark and cold and built into the ground, that contained all of these foods she pickled by herself. Her hands were beautifully delicate but at the same time extremely hearty from work. Everything she did, she did from scratch and everything that she made, she made from things that were naturally occurring on the farm and in nature around her.
EL | So, you ended up at the New England Culinary Institute at the age of 19?
Yes, and I was the youngest person in my class. A lot of people who went to culinary school at that time did so as kind of a midlife crisis — you know, I’m done being a banker or an accountant or a lawyer.
I went to school in Vermont, and it opened my mind to so much that was going on in the world. People in Vermont are very proud of their craft — made in Vermont, grown in Vermont — and it’s a very progressive, support-thy-neighbor, community-based environment. I was very fortunate to be part of that when I was young. There’s a huge outdoor element in Vermont — the ability to go out and look at breathtaking scenery anywhere you turn — which is something that spoke to me and my upbringing. There is also a huge connection to the earth and to what is available seasonally.
I was also fortunate to have my first externship with Chuck Schommer at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky, Montana, where we would take whole animals and use them snout to tail — before it became trendy. We used all of these old-world classic techniques of charcuterie, for example. Chuck also had one of the best wine lists in the country, which I was super excited about. And, I was so close to the Gallatin River. I was completely transformed after Montana. I was in isolation — I didn’t have a phone or a television; I literally had just music and my imagination.
EL | So, to fast-forward a bit, I know you worked at many restaurants after that, including a Michelin-starred restaurant in San Francisco with chef Gary Danko. How did you find your way to Life Time’s LifeCafe?
RD | I joined Life Time in 2010 in Omaha — I wasn’t looking for a job, just a workout. I was in a transition period professionally though, and it was serendipitous the way it worked out. Twelve years later, I’m still with the company.
EL | You’ve said your current passion is food that is “alive” — can you talk about that?
RD | I remember going to Austria and having bread and meat and cheese that were just completely different than what I was used to. Just those three fundamentals: fermented salami, sourdough bread made from freshly milled grains, and cheese that was just alive and had a glow. It was not even remotely the same as what I had eaten before — it was like fireworks in my mouth for the first time. I’m not big on trendy diets — you know, the paleo diet or the carnivore diet or whatever — but I do love fermented food. I am all about that glow. I also love to educate myself on how food defines a culture.
EL | I make my own yogurt, from my mother’s starter which she has kept going for more than 50 years. It’s so tangy — I swear it keeps me alive!
RD | Yes, that’s the kind of experience I had with the bread and the meat and the cheese in Austria. You eat this food, and you feel like it’s almost alive inside of you, in every extremity of your body. The Western diet is not about, “Eat and see how you feel hours later”; it’s dopamine-based — “Eat and see how you feel now.” The more you understand about our microbiome and how it’s fed by good bacteria, the more you understand why the old-world techniques of fermenting and preserving foods and maintaining that good bacteria are so important to our health. I could also talk for hours about the role of mycelium and other fungi in our gut health.
So much of the processed and packaged food that people eat now is sterilized — that great bacteria has been taken out of the food. Sure, there’s a nutritional panel that tells you how many calories are in something, but there’s no real nutrition. I mean, Big Food has made billions on the backs of American people by making food that is habit forming. You know, “Why am I eating this cake? My mouth is happy, my brain is happy, and my body is in complete disarray.” Addiction works in mysterious ways. When you’re in a place of chronic illness and chronic inflammation, though, like so many people, it’s really hard to see all this.
EL | I think anyone who has chronic health problems forgets what it’s like to feel good and they just think this is their new normal.
RD | It is really hard. And it’s one of the reasons I’m at Life Time after all of these years. I mean, I’m a chef and I’ve been trained by incredible chefs, but I also really want to help people. The reason I enjoy Life Time is because it’s really about educating people about food and getting them to believe in what you’re doing. At Life Time, what we’ve done is take all of the ingredients that we know are unhealthy for us and we’ve taken them out of the food we serve. We’re not in bed with Big Food. You know, we’re not using high-fructose syrup or additives or anything artificial, and we’re not doing any of the cheats.
Even if it’s a small moment in time, someone popping into the LifeCafe after a workout, I want to make sure we are supporting someone’s health. You know, nobody has to travel to do anything anymore — to work, work out, eat, etc. — but, if you’ve already made the conscious decision to get to the gym, we want to offer you something at LifeCafe that helps you continue to maximize your health.
EL | What’s your favorite snack?
RD | I love a curated trail mix. That’s my jam. I’m always on the move, and I don’t want anything that makes me bloated or gassy — my stomach is sensitive to what I eat. On any given day, the trail mix is a bit different, but for me the fuel that comes from dried fruit and berries, a little bit of chocolate, and then all sorts of nuts — they can be roasted or salted or have a spice blend — sustains me throughout the day.
EL | How about your go-to meal?
RD | My go-to meal is going to sound as boring as humanly possible, but it’s one I consistently eat and it’s just very easy for me to put together. There are these great salad blends that I use — right now, there is a local company that sells a combination of different salad leaves, like romaine and arugula, that they grow on their hydroponic farm. I’ll use those leaves, throw in some diced tomatoes, diced cucumber, diced avocado, and then I’ll throw whatever protein I’m using on top of it. I’ll drizzle it with either a nice olive oil or avocado oil and then hit it with Bragg’s Liquid Amino. A little cayenne pepper and fresh Himalayan pink salt and some pepper, and it’s done. I’m a very straightforward, simple guy, and this is my go-to meal. I can eat a huge bowl of it and not feel weighed down — I just feel freaking great.
EL | OK, now I have to tell you my go-to lunch, which I just made: chopped cucumbers, halved cherry tomatoes, and cannellini beans topped with a dressing made from garlic, Dijon mustard, apple-cider vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper, and topped with some feta cheese. It energizes me in the same way.
RD | You hit it with that dressing.
EL | Do you do sweet stuff? Or is that covered by the chocolate in your trail mix?
RD | I might put chocolate-covered raisins in my trail mix, but what I really love is either a rich, high-fat ice cream or tiramisu — with the appropriate amount of coffee and booze in there.
LifeCafe’s Coffee Crunch Energy Bites
Coffee Crunch Energy Bites
Yield | 5 3-ounce portions
- 11 oz. energy-bites-base recipe (see below)
- 2 tbs. Peet’s Major Dickason’s Dark Roast Ground Coffee
- 1 tbs. cacao nibs
- 1/4 cup almonds, crushed
- Mix together all the ingredients together in a large mixing bowl.
- Divide into five equal portions, and roll each portion into a ball. Enjoy right away, or refrigerate for up to five days.
Energy Bites Base
Yield | 22 ounces
- 2 cups dry oats
- 1/2 cup honey
- 1 cup almond butter
- Two scoops (31 grams) vanilla vegan protein
- Mix all the ingredients together in a large mixing bowl. Refrigerate for up to five days.