Before ACF Chef Nina Ryan began working as the main dining room line cook at The Greenbrier, she earned a bachelor’s degree in food policy from Ohio State University — and has brought that education with her into the kitchen. This is particularly important to her because she has celiac disease, which has motivated her to not only specialize in gluten-free cooking, but also ensure that diners with any food allergies or dietary restrictions are always top of mind. We spoke to Chef Ryan to find out exactly how her policy education has helped her in the kitchen.
Q: What made you want to study food policy?
A: I’ve been in the culinary world on and off since I was a sophomore in college, and I worked at a gluten-free bakery. I worked there because I love to bake and knew I could bake in a place that didn’t have regular flour—so it was logistical for me. I had already figured out different recipes that were going to work for gluten-free cooking, and I dipped my toes in and decided from there I wanted to work in food policy because I saw a lot of gaps in food labeling laws, specifically for people with food allergies.
Q: Why did you decide to work as a chef, rather than in food policy?
A: I graduated from college and decided working with government agencies wasn’t where I could make the most impact. I wanted to be cooking and teaching other people about food labeling laws, how culinarians can help impact the policy system, and how everything first starts on the plate — whether that’s a plate in someone’s home or a plate in a restaurant.
I started my own food business where I was teaching gluten-free cooking classes for people and I was catering and baking for events. I also started private cheffing for people. I had a client with a list of dietary restrictions that was a mile long, and I thought it was such an exciting challenge to fit exactly what this client needed with all of these unique dietary restrictions, while retaining this client’s Italian background and love for Italian food. I loved that challenge, and I built a name and brand for myself as a private chef for people with food restrictions and allergies.
I then sought The Greenbrier out specifically because it’s one of the most well-respected places in the country, if not the world, for cuisine. I knew that if I was going to have a more refined culinary education, the place I needed to be was The Greenbrier.
Q: How have you incorporated your food policy knowledge into your daily work as a chef?
A: I come at this from two perspectives. I come at this from a perspective as a person with food allergies, and then I come at it from the perspective of a person who has studied a lot about every aspect of the food system. I have an extreme appreciation for all the steps it takes to get food into restaurants. Cooks are very invested in working with great, quality ingredients, but they don’t necessarily know where those ingredients come from. But there’s a lot that goes into the food process and the food system before it gets into a restaurant kitchen or into a home kitchen.
This plays an integral role in my work every single day. I can read labels and understand exactly what I’m looking at, whereas other cooks may not be able to understand the nutrition facts, what that breakdown means, and what additives are in these items. And I’ve been able to help the culinary team become more aware of hidden allergens and food additives so we can sell a better product.
Q: What protocols do you suggest chefs use to ensure customers with food allergies are safe?
A: Cleanliness protocols are food safety protocols. That’s the most important thing I can say. The more you are cleaning your equipment in between items you’re preparing, the safer you and your guests are at every level of the food preparation process. I can’t stress that enough.
Cooks are doing 30 things at once, and I think that’s an amazing testament to the power of multitasking in restaurants and having a certain number of hours to get so many different things done. But taking the extra two seconds to dip your tools in a bucket or scrub them with hot, soapy water makes a difference.
To find out how Chef Ryan uses her gluten-free expertise in the kitchen, watch the “Gluten-Free Baking; Shortcrust Pastry for Pies, Tarts, and Crusts ‘Live from The Greenbrier’” webinar on ACF’s YouTube page. Click here for a full list of the ACF ChefsForum Webinar Series.