Kitchen Table Conversation with Ken Immer

 Ken Immer is living proof that anyone can alter their diet and transform their life. Having dropped French cuisine for a yoga mat over 15 years ago, everything in his life changed.

He transformed from an alcoholic chef and butcher by losing 50 pounds, dropping his addictions, and developing a healthy lifestyle one day at a time. His path led him to create a vegetarian catering company, then to join with his current partners in an ultra-healthy food manufacturing company called graw foods. Now with Culinary Health Solutions they have developed a scalable system and suite of tools to help people implement healthy lifestyle change. Ken is also an Adjunct Professor at the Culinary Institute of Charleston.

Kitchen Table Conversation

Liv: Let’s kick off with food, what have you had for breakfast today?

This morning I was lucky enough to have time to cook myself a nice breakfast of three jumbo eggs sunny-side up lightly cooked in butter topped with steamed spinach and gochujang, coffee with coconut milk, and a banana.

Liv: Moving to your story, you grew up with a passion for food which turned into a successful career; rising through the ranks to be chef at numerous top Charleston restaurants. You were driven by the belief that delicious food is what made the world go around. Yet, that profession is a high octane one, with long hours and great pressure and it led you down a destructive path of addiction. What happened?

Ha! What DIDN’T happen is a much shorter story… but it’s also pretty boring, so I’ll give you the goods. Yeah, I was a very impressionable 19 year old with a big ego and the talent to back it up. Most of my friends and co-workers were older than me, so I was hanging with people mostly in their mid 20’s and early 30’s who had been steeped in restaurant life for quite some time, and I simply followed their lead. The restaurant business is filled with many different types of people, but the over-arching theme that you can find is that most people are looking for their tribe. There is void or a gap in people’s lives that F&B fills because at the end of the day, it really is about the food (and drink). When you come to the business, what you notice right away is that there is a sense of family and belonging that is extended to just about everyone.  Not necessarily because everyone TRULY just LOVES everyone, but it is the hospitality business, so we’re all kinda hard-wired to be nice and make friends by plying each other with food and alcohol and other drugs. So what we end up with is a mixture of peer pressure, ease of access, need for relaxation, and an openness to experimentation that easily lures just about anyone into using substances. Not everyone becomes a hardcore addict, necessarily, however, because of the hard wiring, it’s a pretty enabling environment which sets up even the least likely to become an addict to head down that path. I was one of them.

Liv: As you approached your 30th birthday, you realized that if you didn’t change your ways, you may meet the same fate as your father, who had a fatal heart attack before the age of 45. What led to that moment of clarity?

Only in hindsight would I be willing to say that it was “always there” in the back of my mind, but that truly was the case. At 19 or 20, it seemed so far away that it just didn’t really have the impact it needed in order to seem ‘real’. I hardly think this is a unique behavior, as it’s likely the reason why many people are “OK” with making unhealthy choices when they are young, but it was simply getting closer and closer to the deadline that made me ‘force my hand’. That, and the life experience that I was racking up was starting to look like I was the fortunate recipient of a lot of LUCK. How many times would I make it through a DUI checkpoint unscathed? How many times would I be lucky enough to not either be driving a car, or be a passenger in a vehicle that actually gets in a horrible accident. How many times would I not get ‘bad drugs’ or overdose? How many times would I not get robbed on the way home from bartending with $300.00+ in my pocket? I was lucky enough to have the wherewithal to actually ask these questions and seek the answers, and consider the whole situation, including the possible health outcomes. I had witnessed many people around me not be so lucky.

Liv: You said that you dropped kitchen life for a yoga mat, and everything changed. That must have been a tough decision to make? What was the allure of yoga, as a beginner?

Honestly, it was actually a really easy decision when it happened. I don’t think we ever really make “tough” decisions when we are in the throes of addiction. Part of my personal definition of someone who is an ‘abusing addict’, is someone who cannot do this. They can talk a good game about their priorities (e.g. “I care about my family first.”), but their actions don’t align with that because they spend more time drinking or putting themselves- and therefore their family- at risk. When it was truly time to make the decision, it seemed as natural as popping my next beer. It is important to note that the beginning of my yoga ‘career’ I was truly ready for another solution. It was only after the first several months of practice that my substance abuse started to change. The reason I went to my first class was that I had heard about 1,000 times that yoga was good exercise AND stress relief… all in 1 hour. At the time, my job was SUPER stressful, and I was drinking and using crystal meth pretty hard. I was becoming fearful that I would not be able to keep the good job that I had at the time because of poor decisions I was making that I was attributing to my inability to regulate my stress (read: the rage that I would unleash because of mood swings attributed to my substance abuse was getting me in hot water with my employer). I thought, If I could just ‘deal with stress’ better (and lose some weight at the same time), I could maybe keep this job, and continue to build a successful career. I knew nothing of the real benefits of yoga, nor what it fully entailed. (I was thinking about the group exercise classes that I had attended in the past as a model.) The magic of yoga can happen- and often does- in your first class. I remember feeling so ‘at ease’ with myself physically, emotionally, psychologically, and even spiritually at the end of my first class, that I was hooked from day 1.

Liv: Was yoga your method of recovery from alcoholism, or did you use a traditional methodology, such as AA?

Yes, yoga was my support system. I didn’t actually go to my first AA meeting until 2015! I was already on about 2 years of Al-anon because of a bad relationship before that. I had become officially sober in 2006. The biggest part of the success of programs like AA come from having a community of people who care and support you in your recovery, and I found that in the yoga world. I was ready, and it didn’t matter what ‘program’ showed up, all I needed was the support and love of others.

Liv: You described yoga as offering wisdom about the healing effects of food, and you felt its benefits immediately. Staying focused on foods you loved, and using a philosophy of adding and not taking away is what made it easy to bring balance back in to your life. Tell me what you added? And what were the healing effects of food?

For me, the way it worked wasn’t EXACTLY quite that simple, since the big shift happened when I became a vegetarian during my yoga teacher training (which asked me to give up meat! Something that I certainly LOVED!), but as a Chef, I had a curiosity about food that most people don’t. I wasn’t as ‘tied’ to certain foods like many of the people I’ve coached over the years. But to answer your question, what I did add to my diet was a lot more fresh vegetables, particularly green vegetables, and- lucky for me- more healing, fermented foods such as apple cider vinegar, umeboshi plum paste, and unpasteurized, raw soy sauce. Also sprouted nuts, seeds and grains were an addition to which I can attribute a lot of healing properties. Because these foods were not exactly ‘new’, but just better versions of foods I would already eat and use in cooking, it allowed me to keep eating in a similar fashion (i.e. it wasn’t like I had to suddenly need to start eating a lot of tofu and fake meat) that I was used to, minus the meat. The specific healing effects of the food manifested in a very rapid weight loss, as well as a “detox” that consisted of my body just becoming more capable of its natural processes, and everything just started to feel like it was working better… I was heard many times as saying it was “like I was losing weight in my knuckles.”

Liv: You lost 50 pounds, and turned the clock back 15 years. How did you feel?

I have to say that the feeling of “un-aging” has to be the most thrilling feeling anyone can ever experience. I believe that everyone has a ‘body type’ that they are born with in their DNA.  We are capable of making our bodies look almost any way with extreme activities (from morbidly obese, to incredibly muscled body-builder), but there is a ‘easy spot’ where we will just stay when we are eating the diet that most matches our natural tendencies. By starting to eat in alignment with my true nature, my body naturally shifted towards where it is now, and tends to stay with- what feels like- little effort on my part.

Liv: The changes you experienced provided you with a mission to help others. You became a yoga teacher in the same halls that he first visited as an out-of-shape alcoholic and requests started coming from people to work with you one-on-one. What were some of the requests that you received?

The one that I heard the most, that actually caused me to start my vegetarian cooking/catering company was “I want to eat what you’re eating”

The rest of them were mostly just personal questions about specific situations that people were faced with regarding their own desires to ‘eat healthier’

Liv: How did you help others?

It started simple enough as just offering recipes, tips and tricks on the spot, but what it quickly evolved to was asking people about their needs, capabilities, and preferences and started to give them a more ‘personalized’ recommendation. These recommendations were- more often than not- less about recipes, but, rather, about lifestyle and choice making.

Liv: Tell me about the philosophy of eating to be happy and healthy.

This is the perfect segue from your last question! When we look at people’s needs, capabilities, and preferences and make recommendations that consider their whole lifestyle and how they make choices, what naturally arises is a way of eating that is both happy and healthy. This is what I like to call Culinary Health: The Art of Eating.

We will almost ALWAYS eat what we want and what we love, and many people pin a lot of their personal happiness on eating a certain way. This is especially evident when we look at the food choices we make when we are particularly stressed or in pain. We will use food to help us feel better! Many of the foods we choose in this situation are among our favorites, and we associate with being happy. There are no rules outside of ourselves about what foods can be in this category. The only rule is that we love it, no matter what it is. Healthy food, on the other hand, most people believe has nothing BUT rules, and those rules are completely outside of ourselves. Therefore, it seems that those two groups of foods don’t intersect. There is a common narrative that yummy, delicious, favorite foods are automatically NOT healthy, and that healthy food is like ‘cardboard and Styrofoam’. If we believe this to be true, then we also tend to believe that we can never be happy AND healthy, and must choose. Turning the whole thing upside down is the basis of Optimal Culinary Health. You can be happy and healthy, and there is a huge intersection between the list of your favorite food and foods that can be healthy. The way that we get here is to put more priority on making food choices that considers personal Culinary Health. There is “new” evidence, when it comes to weight loss for instance, that the diet that people lost the most weight on was not a ‘particular’ diet, but rather the diet that they stayed on the longest.

Seems pretty straightforward and simple, but as we know, it is anything but straightforward and simple. If we understand our own personal art of eating, we can start to realize that there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods, jut the consequences from how we eat them. How often? What is there source? In what amounts? How did we decide? 1 piece of cake is not going to kill 99% percent of people, but lots of it, and often, could. The art of eating is making choices that promote our good health, but not at the expense of our happiness. So it’s all about finding a relationship that works. We limit some foods, other foods limit themselves. We make choices we like most of the time, and we eat medicinally when it is necessary, and before it becomes a requirement. It’s a delicate balance, but it’s easy when we understand our Culinary Health and our personal relationship with food.

Liv: As part of your transformation, a vegetarian diet became what worked best. What did that look like? Are you still vegetarian today?

Having been a skilled butcher as an integral part of my cooking career, I was a little concerned about my ability to be successful right out of the gate when I started my Yoga Teacher Training, so I filled up the refrigerator with hard-boiled eggs, cheese, and made a rule that the only animal flesh I would eat would be raw tuna in the form of sushi. That lasted about 2 weeks… Most of those eggs didn’t get eaten, and I quickly realized that I was really not that interested in the tuna anymore either. The absence of the sheer volume of meat that was a staple part of my diet, literally forever, was enough to result in my feeling more energetic, it improved my complexion, and I started instantly losing weight. From then on I just really started eating vegetables in every way that I knew how to cook them, exploring old recipes from my restaurant days that happened to be vegetarian. So, suffice to say that initially my meals were pretty elaborate. Eventually, I sought to eat more like a ‘normal’ person who was vegetarian might eat, and started buying some of the processed products and ‘fake meat’ stuff, and I was completely underwhelmed. It was then that I truly understood why “healthy vegetarian food” had the lousy reputation it did… It had EARNED that reputation! This is where that I realized that my new job in life would be to marry those two things: delicious AND healthy into one! I am still MOSTLY a vegetarian. I was never very militant about my choices. For instance, I never would ask “if the soup was made with chicken or beef broth”. I consume cheese and eggs frequently, and I do allow small portions of meat into my diet when opportunities present themselves, and it seems to ‘make sense’ in the moment. I am always listening to my body.

Liv: You love open water swimming and are currently training to swim the English Channel. How did you fall in love with swimming and how did such a challenge come about?

The Channel Swim is a big goal to accomplish before I’m 50, but who knows where this journey is going to take me. Lots and lots of smaller swims along the way, and it’s really more about the journey and process for me than about doing that swim no matter what. There are even some bigger swims that I have in my sights as possibilities depending on how this whole swimming thing works out. One day in 2013, I decided to swim laps in a heated indoor pool instead of doing my outdoor calisthenics practice because it was starting to get too cold (winter was approaching). My plan was to just swim through the winter, and take things back outside in the spring… Needless to say, I never went back outside! Hanging out with a bunch of swimmers and triathletes opened my eyes to a lot of possibilities, and after I did my first 2.4 mile race in open water, it was clear to me that I had found my tribe.

Liv: Your path led you to setting up Culinary Health Solutions, with your partners. Where you have developed a scalable system and suite of tools to help people implement healthy lifestyle change. What does that look like? How can that system help a person who is in your shoes, when you made the decision to turn your life around?

We created a program called 4 Steps to Healthier Eating that is based on our Culinary Health Philosophy that is delivered to participants through a software application that is accessible on any connected device, computer, tablet, and smart phone. We also do live trainings and seminars for organizations and corporation as part of their wellness programming. It’s all based on my personal experience with my own transformation as well as my experience coaching others. We also drew from my partner’s experiences and when all that was put together, out popped CHS and the program.

We help assess an individual’s Culinary Health to help them identify their personal healthy eating plan strategies, and therefore empowering people to be their own best health coach. When they need specific advice and personalized help, we have a network of wellness coaches, fitness trainers, life coaches, and dieticians who are certified in Culinary Health philosophy who can help people through the toughest challenges and choices as they make these monumental life changes.

The goal is to do it as slowly and steadily as is necessary for it to be actual lifestyle transformation, and not just a band-aid change that can be undone in a hot second. Because we believe that a healthy and happy life starts with feeding yourself in the best way that works for the individual, addicts and those who are already in recovery could benefit from learning about their own Culinary Health.  Many addicts, regardless of their substance of choice, approach food as a one of their substances, so when you understand your Culinary Health, and use that to change your diet, it actually has echoing effects on the rest of your life. This is what can make the decision to stop using seem “easy”.

For me, when I started eating in a more healthful way FOR ME, I started losing interest in my substances. It actually took me about 4 years to get 100% sober from when I first started my yoga journey. Had I understood the process as it was happening, it probably wouldn’t have taken 4 years. My skill set around food made it so that many of the obstacles that most people face with changing their diets were not an obstacle, but, in fact, a tool for me. Our program has the ability to shorten the time needed to become empowered and self-reliant to be able exhibit better self-control when it comes to both food and other substances, and the best part is that it has absolutely nothing to do with becoming a Chef or developing any skills around food preparation that are not interesting to the program participant.

Having spent a lot of time in ‘group therapies’ of various stripes over the years, one thing that has hit me is that many people who participate in these meetings are often unhealthy, many overweight, and obese. There is little attention paid to the benefits of nutritious food it could be the missing piece to help people become more successful in both 12 step programs and in other group therapy endeavors.

Liv: Penultimate question: what is your favorite meal/dish?

Ugh, Liv, I hate this question!! As a Chef it’s always so hard to narrow it down, but when you twist my arm, it’s probably a really good Pad Thai, however, the real answer is “anything someone ELSE has cooked!”

Liv: Last, what are your top five recovery tools?

  1. Yoga
  2. Nutrient-dense foods
  3. Meetings
  4. Speed dial
  5. Healthy competition (such as my competitive swimming)

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