If you let social media tell it, the road to happiness is paved with perfectly staged photos, freebies, and instant success. However, real-life has a different story to tell. Often, the journeys of those we admire and seek to emulate are full of twists, turns and multiple failures, sprinkled with huge leaps of faith. It can take years for the success we see as ‘instant’ to actually occur. Just ask Chef Richard Ingraham.
These days, his Instagram is filled with photos of him chilling with client and NBA superstar Dwyane Wade, whipping up tasty eats for him, wife Gabrielle Union-Wade and their self-proclaimed ‘shady’ baby, Kaavia James – but it wasn’t always this way.
The soon-to-be 50-year-old (yes ladies, take a double look at that photo!) Miami native never dreamt that all that time spent helping his momma cook dinner as a young boy would lead him to a career as a private chef for one of the NBA’s most iconic stars. Especially since he spent a good decade doing everything but picking up a pot spoon. Now, one phone call and a leap of faith later, Chef Richard has leveraged his passion into a full-fledged empire, which includes Chef RLI, a network of private chefs that serves some of the biggest names in sports and entertainment.
ESSENCE caught up with the family man and author of the cookbook Eating Well to Win, to find out more about how faith led him to his true calling, what advice he has for those he inspires and what spices he thinks will take our cooking to a whole new level.
Did you always know you wanted to be a chef?
Chef Richard: I started cooking when I was 10, really just playing around in the kitchen, trying to prepare dinner for my mom, things like that, but it was never a thing of me saying, ‘I want to be a chef.’ I actually graduated from high school and, after going to college for a couple of semesters, I realized that wasn’t the move for me. Believe it or not, I ended up going to cosmetology school and becoming a hairstylist for about 10 years.
So what made you switch careers?
Well, I did the hairstylist thing for 10 years and then I wound up moving to Atlanta, and said to myself, “You know what? I want to do something a little bit different.” One morning, about 3 a.m., I saw this advertisement for the Art Institute of Atlanta, and I went and checked it out. They had the culinary program, and I said, “You know what? I think this might be my next step.”
I enrolled, ended up working in a local restaurant, and just started from there. Actually, I taught culinary arts at Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta for a while and then continued to work in various restaurants, before moving back to Miami, where I’m originally from.
How did you end up working for Dwyane Wade and Gabrielle Union?
One of my old clients gave me a call and said, “Richard, I heard that you no longer do hair.” I said, “Yeah, you know, I’m a chef now.” She said, “Well, how would you like to cook for an NBA player?”
I said, “Well, I mean, I guess so. Who is it?”
She said, “Dwyane Wade.”
At the time, I really wasn’t following basketball that much, and he had just come into the league, so I had no idea who he was. She said, “Well, I’ll tell you what. Google him, and then you call me back and let me know if it’s something that you want to do.”
I did my Google homework, went in for the interview and before I knew it he was using my service maybe once a month, and then it graduated from there to maybe once every two weeks. Then I had to figure out what I wanted to do. Was I was going to continue to teach or jump out on faith and try to see if I could work with him full-time. Now here we are now, almost 18 years later. I’m cooking for him and his wife, Gabrielle, and the kids, everybody.
That’s so cool! Can you share what their favorite dishes of yours are?
Funny you ask because I actually developed my Flash Sauce because Dwyane wanted some wings one day and I wanted to do something that would give him a flavor different from anything he had before. So I whipped up this sauce and I called it ‘flash,’ because at the time that’s what he was known as when he was playing. It’s become one of his favorite things.
One of the favorite things for Gabby is a crab cake with a quinoa and heirloom tomato-cucumber salad. It’s in my book, Eating Well to Win.
What’s one of your favorite dishes from your book?
I would have to say one of my favorites is the garlic shrimp and white bean ragout. The reason I like it is that it’s comfort food, then with shrimp, it adds a little class to it. It’s something that you can have at any point in time. You grill some nice French bread to go along with it, pile the ragout on top and eat it just like that. It’s a very versatile dish with a lot of depth and a lot of flavor.
What advice would you give to at-home cooks that might be thinking about becoming personal chefs? How should they get started?
I think that what people should do is start doing small dinner parties for friends. I say this to people all the time, let your friends, your real friends, know what you’re doing, not yes men, not people that are just going to say, “Oh, this tastes wonderful,” just because it’s you. Get your true friends in, and let them know that you’re trying to start a business, and do small dinner parties for them. Then, after you do it for them, then you do another one, and you tell them to invite somebody that they know. The word will start to get around and next thing you know, people are asking you to come and do a small dinner party for them. That’s how you can build your network.
Also, you have to have the skill level. It’s one thing to be able to cook at your house for yourself and for your kids, but it’s another thing when somebody is paying you to cook for them on a daily basis. The thing that separates a personal chef, like me, from say a chef in a restaurant is every single day I’m cooking something different for almost 10 people. I’ve got some people that are vegan, some people that don’t eat gluten, some people that don’t eat dairy, etc, so I’m cooking something different breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. And I’m not repeating the same thing in a month! So you have to have your repertoire together and be open to researching and learning new things.
For the at-home chefs, who are not trying to be personal chefs, but want to keep their food flavorful, what spices to you suggest they keep on hand.
I love smoked paprika. Cumin, Jamaican jerk seasoning, Creole seasoning, Ponzu, it’s a fortified soy sauce with a little citrus in it, and of course, my Flash Sauce.
If you had to describe your culinary style and flavor with three words, what would they be?
‘We’re just different!’