Chef Ann Ogden on Food Appreciation and Teaching Healthy Cooking to Support Cancer Patients

The first day back into work after a nice summer vacation, chef Ann Ogden starts off her day by preparing a presentation on healthy eating for the Living with Cancer conference where she will be speaking the following weekend. We spoke to Ogden about healthy eating, food appreciation and how she got into her career — she had a lot of wisdom to share about embracing healthy cooking.

Can you tell me a bit about where you’re from and how you started as a chef?

I’m from Brighton, a seaside town in the UK. I’ve been around food my whole life: my mom was Italian, her dad was a chef, her uncle owned the local Italian grocery in my town and my dad was a master baker. Dad loved to travel, and he took the whole family on long road trip holidays on the Continent. By the time I was 11 I’d visited most of Europe. I loved all the different food and tastes — I was the kid who asked for the cheeseboard for dessert!

Fast forward to my mid-20s when I’d started working in the fashion industry in London. I was offered a job in Paris and ended up staying there for 12 years before coming to the US. This introduced me in depth to French cooking both in the home and in all types of restaurants, and to Vietnamese cuisine, which I adore. Frequent travel to Italy and later to Japan became a big part of my job, and I learned first hand about Italian regional cooking and about Japanese cuisine. I took all these flavors and cooking styles on board and became an accomplished and creative home cook. I only started to use my cooking skills professionally much later, when my own experience with cancer treatment made me realize just how important having basic knowledge of food and basic cooking skills can be to stay nourished and healthy. This led me to create Cook for Your LIFE to teach healthy cooking to cancer patients, survivors and caregivers.

How would you describe your style of cooking and how are new people responding to your culinary style?

The big lesson I learned from my time in Europe is that food is something to be respected and enjoyed slowly, not a commodity eaten on the fly as we do here in the US. My cooking style encourages people to make healthy eating delicious and something that comes naturally, and never merely sustenance or fuel. People I cook for and with are always amazed that simple food can be so tasty and so easy. Every little meal can be a feast without a whole lot of effort when the ingredients are good and put together with care. Those ingredients include vegetables, fruits and grains, and the care involves all the different ways they can be used.

Could you sum up, in one sentence, what’s the culinary mission of your brand?

My focus is on making cooking easy for the people my site serves, so I like to keep things simple and tasty above all.

Is there a secret ingredient that you love to cook with?

Lemon, juice and zest

What was the dish that initially showed you that there’s more to food than sustenance? That it could be an art or something more?

Aumonières de caviar — eaten at a 3 star Michelin restaurant in Maison Lafitte outside of Paris. They were an ‘amuse gueule’ of caviar on creme fraiche tied up in a teeny tiny, paper thin crepe ‘purse’ secured by a thread of the thinnest chive. I cannot stress how small these were, how pretty, or how intense the flavor.

What are your thoughts on the future of food, and where we are headed?

Our industrial agricultural model for growing meat and protein isn’t sustainable or humane. People are already eating less red meat and plant-based eating is becoming more and more important. I’m not talking vegan here, but about a broader acceptance that a meal without meat can be a good nourishing meal. This will spur a greater interest in mixing of flavors and cultures, especially cultures with more plant-based cuisines who know how to cook this way, which will eventually take us beyond fake versions of the SAD diet.

What is the most interesting or fun experience in a restaurant?

I love to sit at the chef’s table and watch it all happening. I’m in awe of restaurant chefs and workers

What are your traditions and how does food tie in? What will you be cooking this year?

This year I’m experimenting with Persian and Eastern Mediterranean recipes to make more purely plant-based and vegan dishes. My traditions are Italian, English and South Asian. Plant-based foods can easily be tied in with the Italian and South Asian traditions, though my English roots present a little more of a challenge. Luckily I like baking and desserts are good from there.

Is there an ingredient you consider totally under-appreciated or over-appreciated?

I find lemon is under-appreciated as for over-appreciated, cinnamon though maybe it’s just over-used, or too heavily used for my taste

Do you have a guilty food pleasure?

Grilled hot dogs, with mustard AND ketchup

How did your perspectives shift when you began entering the culinary scene?

I became more aware of the industrial side of food, and, although I don’t work in it, of just how hard restaurant life can be

What interests you most about American attitudes toward food?

I don’t know if it’s interesting or shocking, but although I agree with the food as medicine movement inasmuch that eating well can improve our health and quality of life, what hits me most is the attitude of using individual ingredients like pills as in — “eat this food to get that result”. People are encouraged by industry and the media to look for easy fixes when it’s our diet as a whole that determines our health and wellbeing. Unfortunately, we Americans have become so brainwashed by the convenience and speed that cooking and breaking bread together have become occasional events instead of everyday actions. Since I believe that cooking is the first step to healthy eating unless something in this attitude shifts I don’t think this bodes well for our overall health.

What do the next ten years look like for chefs such as yourself?

I think there will be a continued interest in healthy plant-based food and eating that blasts stereotypes. Studies are starting to demonstrate that eating well can cut health costs, so above all, there will be an increased need for culinary education on a wide scale to teach people the basics so that can learn how easy it can be to cook and eat well.

How does your work contribute to your local food community?

We are pioneers in the culinary approach to healthy eating in the cancer community, and in making this approach affordable and sustainable to the widest number of people in the NYC area

About Ann Ogden

Ann’s passion for cooking has started since she was 12 years old. When she was a fashion designer, she spent a lot of time travelling and expanding her cooking repertoire. As a two-time cancer survivor herself, she started utilising her cooking skills to navigate the side effect of the treatment. Since then, she dedicated her time and energy to teaching healthy cooking to support cancer patients — from cancer patients to cancer survivors, to their families and friends.