While noted chef Hans Rueffert’s battle with stomach cancer may seem like a cruel irony to some, the health crisis has only emboldened the Jasper innkeeper and restaurateur to cook — and eat — healthier.
“I spend almost 100 percent of my time talking about the relationship between what we eat and how we feel,” he said, speaking last week to an audience in Gainesville.
His life-changing journey began in 2005. Two weeks after taping the finale for the Next Food Network Star, Rueffert fell ill and wound up with the cancer diagnosis.
Over the years, he has endured 15 surgeries. Doctors took out his stomach and esophagus, moving his intestines into their place.
He eats normally, not “like a bird, but with a knife and fork,” he said jokingly.
Still, “I feel the effects of food almost immediately,” Rueffert said. “It’s almost like giving myself an injection of nutrition.”
The result of that, he said, is “if I eat heavy, overcooked, greasy, processed foods, I feel heavy, overcooked, greasy and processed — tired, lethargic, foggy-headed.
“But if I eat fresh, healthy vibrant foods, I feel fresh, vibrant and healthy. That almost sounds like a kindergartner kind of philosophy, but the reality is, it’s true.”
He said, “I can’t control the weather, I can’t control traffic, I can’t control my genetics ... but I can control how I’m going to feel based on what I eat.”
Rueffert, owner and chef at the Woodbridge Inn in Jasper, told his story at the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce’s HealthSmart Expo Oct. 11 at the Gainesville Civic Center.
He also gave a cooking demonstration at the event, preparing a salad of greens and grains. Topping off the salad was a vinaigrette dressing with a touch of blackberry jelly.
He advocates people switching more to a plant-based diet of about 80 percent vegetables and 20 percent meat.
For one thing, “meat, whether ... or not you have a stomach, is incredibly difficult for our bodies to digest,” Rueffert said. “It basically has to decay before you can get any of that nutrition out of it.”
By making the switch to plant-based foods, “you’ll find you have higher energy and the digestion system working much better.”
One of Rueffert’s favorite foods is quinoa, a healthy grain gaining in popularity on grocery shelves.
“It’s a complete protein, which means it has all the amino acids our bodies need,” he said. “It’s a great rice substitute. People say they’ve tried it, but it doesn’t taste like anything. That’s like going to an art supply store, buying a canvas, putting it on the wall and saying, ‘I don’t think I like that picture.’
“Until you do something with it, it’s just an ingredient.”
Rueffert said he puts quinoa “in everything.”
“If I’m making pancakes for my 2-year-old, I add it to the pancake batter,” he said. “By leaving it neutral, it becomes the perfect food to sneak into everything.”
Rueffert also cooks with millet, a grain often associated with bird food.
“But you would not buy it in the pet section,” Rueffert said. “It’s high in protein, very easy to digest and has a great texture to it.”
He suggested other food choices, such as sea salt used sparingly, vinegar and olive or avocado oil, to make foods healthier. Unprocessed foods should always be top priority, then frozen, with canned foods a distant third.
Rueffert insists, however, that “I’m not the food police — if you’re craving something, eat it. But I try to eat 80 percent healthy and 20 percent whatever I want to eat.”
“Food should be something beyond nutrition, beyond calories,” he said. “It should be who you’re sitting at the table with, what conversations you’re having. It’s a collective experience.”