Joshua Ingraham is the face of fitness for chefs. The System Executive Chef at the Cleveland Clinic Main Campus for Morrison Healthcare blends his passion for health and fitness with his flair for creative and delicious food, becoming a major factor in the transformation of what we typically consider hospital food. And he walks the talk.
What's that mean? Well, how many chefs do you know of who are a 4th degree master black belt in Tae Kwon Do, earned second place in the 2016 national Avocado Madness competition, and was among the top three in the 2017 Men's Health Ultimate Guy competition? We know of just one—and he's not done yet.
In the Beginning
Ingraham's passion for food and fitness comes from his roots. He was raised on the East Coast in a family of athletes, starting in martial arts together when he was 10 years old. He played sports throughout high school, including soccer, basketball and baseball, and then went to Southern New Hampshire University for varsity baseball. His professional athletic pursuits took a shift, however, when he decided to get his culinary degree.
But it wasn't a completely unexpected shift. His parents owned a seafood restaurant in Maine when he was younger called Salty's, so food preparation has always been a part of his life. And Ingraham recognized the complementary nature of food and fitness at an early age.
"Being a college athlete, you start to recognize the power of food as a chef at that point," he says. "You can kind of see the more you use food to your advantage as a supplement, you become a better athlete."
His parents had planted that seed of knowledge for him from the start. He recalls that healthy food was a mainstay in their cupboards, and he rarely ate junk food. In fact, he admits that one time he faked being sick to skip school, with a plan to pig out on all the snacks in the house.
"I opened up the cupboard and it's just like Clear Choice sugar free soda, and the Wow potato chips. It was basically an absolute disaster," he laughs. Of course that didn't stop him. "By the time my mom came home, I was actually sick. My stomach was cramping up. I was like, 'What happened to me?' The plan backfired, and she laughed so hard when she got home."
A Defining Moment
Later in high school, Ingraham encountered one of his toughest challenges in his early life, a moment he describes as when he became self-aware. He credits this time for helping him to become driven and laser-focused on achieving success.
"You have to be self-aware in order in order to develop self-control to establish the self-discipline that is needed to grind out the work to win," he says.
Self-awareness —> self-control = self discipline. Write that down.
The moment that led to this self-awareness? He had been diagnosed with a bone tumor the size of a softball in his right leg. To make matters worse, his sciatic nerve was stretched to the brink over it.
Doctors removed the mass as well as part of the muscle in his right leg, leaving a memento in the form of an 18-inch scar.
It was months before Ingraham built up enough strength to walk again. Using his martial arts training, he captured the mental will to get back on the field in time for baseball season.
The Mules of Newmarket, New Hampshire won the state title in varsity baseball that year with Ingraham behind the plate.
The themes of sports and food would continue into his career. He worked for Delaware North companies for three separate sports organizations as the Luxury Suites Chef for TD Garden in Boston (where he catered for the MLS All-Star Game, the NBA Finals, and the Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins); the Executive Chef at Dunkin' Donuts Center in Providence, Rhode Island; and the Executive Chef at Progressive Field here in Cleveland, where he revamped the stadium food concept and managed the culinary team during the 2016 World Series. His non-sports-related positions included Executive Chef at Boston Symphony Hall and Executive Sous Chef for Harvard Law School.
So, you know, no big deal. He's 33, by the way.
While making a name for himself in his day job, he also made it a focus of his to give back, often volunteering at community events and serving food to the homeless through organized efforts with his companies.
Meanwhile, he created ChefsNshape, which he describes as a sort of club that bridges the gap between the food and fitness industries, while physically inspiring positive, healthful change within communities.
"ChefsNshape is made up of chefs who believe that we can become more by giving back our knowledge of food and inspire healthy competitions, like our events Lift for Food and Burn & Earn," according to Ingraham.
The Lift for Food challenge included five chefs and five CrossFit coaches raising money for The Food Project, a group that teaches kids how to garden, by lifting 100,000 lbs. within an hour.
The concept came to Ingraham during a run from his home to a CrossFit class. He passed a van labeled "The Food Project," and was curious what it was. He looked it up, and decided he wanted to raise money to help the organization. He tested the challenge in his CrossFit class with other athletes to see if it would be feasible before the real version.
"We did like 80,000 pounds and the coach was like, 'Chef, we're not going to make it, especially with five chefs who don't take CrossFit.' I'm like, 'We're going to be able to do it.' The whole point of ChefsNshape is that chefs have this crazy ability to get things done," he says.
The day of the challenge, everyone was excited—The Food Project was there with the kids, other community members were there and a professional photographer came to document it all. They started the timer, giving themselves an hour.
"So, 10 minutes go by, and we're done," he says. "Everyone was like, 'That was it, 10 minutes?' and I was like 'Where did Anthony and Mike go?' They went outside and they were puking."
Ingraham knew they'd get it done no matter what, because that's the mentality of chefs.
"These guys are crazy, and that's why ChefsNshape was going to work, because I knew they would do it," he says. "No matter how out of shape they were, they came in and they got it done. They lifted their 10,000 lbs., and then they took care of business outside."
The second program, Burn & Earn, taught fifth graders here in Cleveland about healthy eating and exercise. There was a recipe for a healthy banana split, with ingredients like pineapple, dark chocolate and bananas. Ingraham taught the kids how much exercise was needed to burn the calories in each ingredient. They could "earn" more ingredients by completing the exercise. By doing a math problem with their BMI, they were able to figure out how to earn each food.
"We earned the food that we made together, and we made the healthy banana split and they all ate it," he says. "And they asked, 'Can I have another one?' and I'm like, 'Well, you've got to do the work again.' They got it."
At the end, Ingraham handed out the recipe and the kids mentioned that they don't get these kinds of foods at home. That sparked an idea for him.
Ingraham wanted to create a tool to enable healthy eating to start at home, with the family. And thus was born Bunny Muffins, a children's book that he wrote.
Bunny Muffins is both a recipe book and a story complete with a little drama (they lose the carrot! Where can it be?), challenge (how do we preheat the oven?) and responsible resolution (cleaning up and washing hands).
"If I can give it to a family and that gives them another half an hour with them in the kitchen, I know from personal experience how it turns out," he says. "You become a better person. You have more to offer. You are a healthier individual because you value that time in the kitchen."
The next course
Ingraham recently made the move from Progressive Field—"I love the Cleveland Indians. They're still a part of my family," he says—to the Cleveland Clinic with Morrison Healthcare.
The position seems tailor-made for him, combining a passion for food with health-boosting ingredients and preparation. But they're looking to shake things up to give a completely different connotation to the term "hospital food."
"I don't know if you've been in a hospital, but hospital food is ...challenging," he says.
But Morrison Healthcare recruited Ingraham to help change that at the Cleveland Clinic Main Campus. Ingraham received a call from Chef Cary Neff, Morrison Healthcare's VP of Corporate Culinary Services, who has a background in spa cuisine, and it seemed like a natural fit.
"After meeting with other Morrison Corporate Chefs (Sr. Corporate Executive Chef Brian Salter and Corporate Executive Chef Stephan Naleski), I realized that there's some serious talent here within Morrison, and I wanted to become a contributing factor to this incredible group of leaders," he says.
With the system in less than ideal shape, according to Ingraham, he knew he'd have his work cut out for him. But in the first three months on the job, his team had already seen major improvements, one of which being the turnover rate—previously north of 40 percent; now it sits comfortably around a quarter of that.
"That means our team has stabilized this operation," Ingraham says. "They believe in the power of food, which is kind of our motto. That's Morrison Healthcare."
"Our staff and members of the Cleveland Clinic leadership team wear green 'believe in the power of food' bracelets. It shows unity on both fronts and how committed we are together to deliver flavor," he says.
Ingraham notes that it starts with the experience for patients. He welcomes all the new people as they come into the Cleveland Clinic. He gives them his business card and the menu for the day, and lets them know to reach out to him with any questions, explaining that he's the executive chef for the property.
"You see some people light up and go, 'Oh, the chef is here. I'll take one of everything.' Then you have other instances where you walk in the room and you can tell that there's really, really something wrong. And that hurts, because I'm an emotional guy. That just reminds me why I made this change," he says. "Now I'm in a place every day where it means something when I make a better food choice, and I'm surrounded by better food choices."
He looks beyond the patients to the staff as well. His next project is to get the nurses to eat better food, because they're so dedicated to the patients that they often don't have time for a proper meal during their shifts. He's starting a food club of sorts just for nurses with power food lunch bags that he'll send to them during their rounds.
The goal is to change the entire culture of the food served at the Cleveland Clinic—both for staff members and the patients. Morrison Healthcare is seeding a movement for "food forward thinking," including sustainability and locally sourced ingredients, with the support of their many Corporate Executive Chefs (20+ in total).
"Morrison’s structure of Corporate Chefs and Cary Neff’s vision shows their absolute commitment to the future success of this company," he says. "It was also very alluring to me to see the support and possible future career path laid out right in front of me."
The Main Campus is well equipped to carry out this initiative, according to Ingraham.
"Main Campus is unlike any other hospital in Morrison Healthcare," he says. "This is the only one that they have that is this big. There are 14 different food pantries—they're like little kitchens. The idea is to have so many because they want to get the food as close as possible to the patients."
This setup gives them better ability to support dining on call, a sort of hotel-like service at a much higher level than some other hospitals.
Right now, Cleveland Clinic is ranked the number two hospital in the country, and one of the best in the world, with offices in Dubai and England as well. It's been ranked as the number one heart institute for 23 years in a row.
"When we make this change and we start to implement our goals on the type of food here, we want to challenge that number one spot because of our food. I think we have that opportunity because of the uniqueness of this hospital, and the power behind the team of heavy hitters that Morrison Healthcare and the Cleveland Clinic have assembled," he says.
Calling Cleveland Home
Ingraham moved to Cleveland three years ago, but now considers it home. Born in Maine, he lived in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, and always felt comfortable in a small town environment. He liked Cleveland right away.
"It has that kind of small town feel, but it's a big city," he says. "For me it's comforting because I immediately thought, 'Yeah, I could call this place home.'"
He digs the Metroparks, the lake, the weather ("The winters have been nothing") and the food. But the people are what sealed the deal for him.
"I really enjoy the atmosphere of Cleveland. I love the people. I love Lakewood [where he lives with his wife, Emily, and their two children]—I think it's just a great representation of the culture around here."
The business side of the city is pretty great, too. Coming from Boston, things were a little cutthroat, a little different, he says. But in Cleveland, every interaction he's had with a chef has been fantastic.
"I want to be a part of this food scene, for sure," he says. "I can't speak enough about the types of chefs that we have because they're doing the right thing. You feel that when you go to these restaurants. You know that they're spending time, they're respecting their food, their ingredients. I think that's what sets our food scene apart from a lot of other ones, because we've got this connectivity. There's something about the chefs—maybe it's in the water. We're definitely very supportive of each other."
And sure, Boston may be a fine city, but Ingraham is not shy about being an adopted Clevelander.
"I'm proud of this city," he says. "When I go [back to the East Coast] and I talk about Cleveland, everybody is like, 'What are you, from Cleveland?' I'm like, 'Yeah, it kind of feels like I am,'" he says. "I have adopted this city as my home because in anything I do, I always say I'm from Cleveland. This is my home."
We're glad to have you, Chef.