Growing up as a teen with Crohn’s disease, Ryan Van Voorhis, 38, felt his path forward was clear: He was going to become a social worker to help other people the way his own health care team helped him deal with chronic illness. But after 13 tough years in the field, Ryan was ready to make a giant change and pursue his true passion: cooking.
Cooking with a chronic digestive disorder? If you think that sounds tricky, you’re right. But Ryan’s health experiences blended with his food-is-fun attitude have paid off, and he’s now working as a full-time private chef in Chicago with the company he co-founded, Nude Dude Food (yep—their standard uniform is pants and an apron with no shirt underneath).
And not only is Ryan sharing delicious-but-healthy food with the people of Chicago, but he’s using his many powers for good in other ways, too. Every summer, he volunteers as mental-health director at Camp Oasis, a camp for kids with IBD.
We sat down with Ryan to ask him all about his life with Crohn’s and how it's influenced his path as a chef and beyond.
HealthCentral (HC): You’re a Crohn’s patient and a chef. Has living with Crohn’s had any impact on your decision to work with food?
Ryan Van Voorhis: I wasn’t always a chef. I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in high school, and after many years of treatment, I decided to pursue a career in social work and therapy to give back to others who were suffering, similar to the professionals who helped me through my worst times.
"Not only did cooking healthy meals improve my Crohn’s, it also improved my mental health by serving as a creative outlet."
It wasn’t until 13 years later when I was burned out physically and mentally from social work that I considered a career change. I learned to cook the basics at an early age from my parents, and once I was diagnosed with Crohn’s, health and wellness became much more important to me. Cooking healthy yet flavorful meals was something I became very passionate about in my adult life. Not only did cooking healthy meals improve my Crohn’s, it also improved my mental health by serving as a creative outlet during my career as a social worker.
My cooking really developed after moving in with my best friend, Seth, whom I met in high school. Together we would spend four or five hours testing recipes and cooking multi-course meals for ourselves, then friends and family, until more and more people started to take notice at our culinary skills.
Health and wellness has always been a focus for us, but we love to be surrounded by people we love and enjoy, helping them lead a healthy lifestyle in and out of the kitchen.
HC: Chef life is notoriously stressful and hectic. Does that ever directly affect your Crohn’s?
Ryan: The beauty of being a private chef is not having to churn out hundreds of dishes a night in a crazy-hot kitchen and putting in insane hours, like most restaurant chefs. I’m grateful to be doing something I love for smaller groups of people, which allows me to focus on precise execution from the kitchen to the front of house—it’s truly a one-of-a-kind experience.
Being a private chef isn’t all rainbows and sunshine though. I may not be cooking for hundreds of people day in and out, but I touch every aspect of my business, from sourcing ingredients, answering email, handling the accounting, and mopping the floors.
Its nonstop, and that means I do have to be cognizant of my health and make sure I’m taking care of myself so I can operate at the level I need to for my clients. I’ve found beginning most mornings with a workout incorporating cardio and weight lifting helps relieve my stress and sets me up for the day ahead.
HC: So many IBD patients have complicated relationships with food. What would you tell someone who is currently struggling with eating or nutrition?
Ryan: First off, consult your doctor or a dietitian. But as a chef with IBD, I get this question a lot—not only from IBD patients, but clients in general. Nowadays, there are so many food sensitivities and allergies, and we’re constantly making modifications to our clients’ meals.
"I do have to be cognizant of my health and make sure I’m taking care of myself so I can operate at the level I need to for my clients."
As for IBD patients, it can really vary, but there are some foods that cause abdominal pain, gas, and bloating that should be avoided: basically, short-chain carbohydrates and sugar alcohols, also known as FODMAPs (which is short for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols). The best way to identify trigger foods is to use an elimination diet, and then slowly reintroduce certain foods into your diet.
HC: What are your top meal or snack suggestions for someone who is currently in an IBD flare?
Ryan: Every person is different, so please listen to your body and consult your physician. However, I find when I flare, eating a low-residue diet calms my gut and gets me back on track—things like bananas, rice, toast, and lots of water. It’s crucial to stay hydrated during a flare.
HC: Have you ever thought about creating books or recipes specifically for IBD patients?
Ryan: We’ve definitely thought about creating a cookbook, and it’s something we may consider as we grow as a company. We use cookbooks all the time for inspiration, and I’d love to do a health-focused one for patients with IBD. I guess we’ll see what the future holds.
As for recipes, we’re getting better about writing them down. The problem with recipes is that everyone’s tastes are different. We’re constantly adding ingredients and seasoning as we cook to get the flavors perfect, but it’s not ideal recipe-writing conditions. We’re trying to get better about documenting some of our favorite dishes!
If you’d like to learn more about Ryan and Nude Dude Food, catch them on Instagram at @nudedudefood and @rvanvoorhis.
[This interview has been condensed and edited.]