Chef Ann Cooks for the Community with First Descents

NGI alumna and former chef instructor in the Chef's Training Program, Ann Ziata has been spending her summers with First Descents, preparing health-supportive meals for cancer survivors throughout the country. Here, Ann shares her humbling experience working as a chef with this nonprofit organization.

Up before the sun, I hum my way into the kitchen to get the coffee on. As I whip up some buckwheat banana pancakes, scrambled eggs and triple-berry smoothies, the First Descents participants and staff bustle around the cabin grabbing breakfast, packing their lunches and gathering their gear for the day. I make a mental note to have something other than a cup of French roast because I’ve got a full week of cooking ahead of me.

For the past two summers, I have traveled around the country (Oregon, North Carolina, New Hampshire and Upstate New York) to cook with First Descents. First Descents is a nonprofit organization that leads life-changing outdoor adventure retreats for 18- to 39-year-old cancer survivors. During each week-long program, the participants conquer outdoor challenges (including rock climbing, whitewater kayaking and surfing) to face their fears, building confidence and community along the way.

To say the energy stays high for the week is an understatement; while I’m at my cutting board slicing tomatoes for their wraps, I can hear them, full-grown adults, singing and laughing like kids away at summer camp. While it’s not surprising to see a dance party break out in the driveway before 9 a.m., it surely doesn’t make it any less magical. It’s the excitement of the participants (as well as the few pancakes I was able to sneak a bite of) that keeps me going throughout the day.

Once we get ahead on prep for the week, the sous chef and I will get a break from the kitchen and spend a morning hiking or climbing with everyone. Until then, we're menu planning, food shopping and cooking in anticipation for their arrival. They return from the river ready to hungrily demolish health-supportive yet familiar snacks like salmon and avocado sushi rolls, zucchini bread, and organic tortilla chips with homemade salsa and guacamole. It’s my job to introduce them to whole food meals while making it accessible to them. Nothing too foreign gets served (no hijiki caviar here!) The food has to be recognizable, comforting and energy-dense, since they are doing a lot of physical activity. It’s a fine balance between getting them a bit outside of their usual ways while still making sure that they feel satisfied from their meals.

Everyone arrives outside of their comfort zone. As their chef, I need to make sure that they feel supported and fed. I know that trusting all of your meals to be made by someone else, while a nice luxury, can also feel a bit nerve-wracking, especially to someone with unique dietary needs. So on top of making sure everyone gets enough guac, and that dinner is served at exactly 7 p.m., I need to make sure that Tats doesn’t have the salad dressing (which has cashews), Sunny gets the dairy-free pizza, and that no citrus ends up on T.T.’s plate. (By the way, it’s an FD tradition to go only by nicknames the entire week. To them, I’m not “Chef Ann,” but “Gem,” a name bestowed on me for always traveling with an amethyst for good luck.)

After dessert is served, the sous chef (who happened to be fellow Natural Gourmet Institute instructor Susan Baldassano, I mean, “Bumble Bee,” in New Hampshire) and I join them around the campfire. Getting to connect with the participants is the most rewarding part of this 70-hour work week. The strength and vulnerability they share through the stories of their day on the rock, as well as their lives back home, is just incredible.

The participants are all at various stages in their cancer treatments; some have been in remission for years, others return back to chemo on Monday. Most have never been rock climbing or kayaking before; for others, it’s their first time on a plane, first time away from their kids or first time meeting another young adult who has had cancer. By the end of the week, a group of 20-plus individuals has gone from strangers to family. It is not an exaggeration to say that these weeks have been a transformative experience for me.

The week following my flight back home to NYC, my coworkers, friends and even the cashier at Trader Joe’s have called me out for having a “glow.” I’m honored to be a part of the First Descents family, and, as a chef, to be of service to such a deserving organization.

This story was originally published by the Natural Gourmet Institute. Chef Ann continues to instruct at the Natural Gourmet Center at the Institute of Culinary Education.

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