Determined to Lose

by Tom Speicher, writer/video editor.

Executive Chef Kristi RitcheyKristi Ritchey enjoyed a rapid rise in the culinary capital that is California.

Since traveling across country with her belongings stuffed in a U-Haul, she had advanced from a green college graduate to a sous chef to a trusted “fixer” for a premier restaurant and food service company.

But as she lay in a hospital emergency room, watching medical staff struggle to find a vein for a nourishing IV, none of those accomplishments mattered. She had hit rock bottom.

Earlier that morning, Ritchey had collapsed into her cutting board at the chic Palm Springs restaurant where she was charged with improving the efficiency and quality of its kitchens. A steady diet of 17-hour workdays fueled by energy drinks and espressos finally took its toll on Ritchey’s 5-foot-7-inch, 260-plus pound frame. One of her prep cooks had to rush her to the hospital.

“Being as heavy as I was and not eating properly, my body just shut down,” Ritchey recalls with a sigh. “They couldn’t get an IV in me because my veins had collapsed so bad from dehydration and not taking care of myself. I was at an all-time low. I was alone in a hospital bed with doctors talking about potentially having to put an IV into my neck because they couldn’t get it into my arms. I was scared. I was embarrassed.”

And from that point on, she was determined. Determined to start losing weight. Determined to live a healthy life. Determined to “pay it forward.”

It’s now an October morning approximately six years since her emergency-room trauma. A trim Ritchey is clad in black pants and a white T-shirt with a white apron dangling from her waist. It will be about an hour before the first hints of sun reflect off the neighboring high-rise office buildings in Century City, Calif., but as the executive chef and director of operations of Greenleaf Gourmet Chopshop, Ritchey is already working up a sweat.

Today is Thursday, which means that Ritchey’s to-do list is even longer than in her typical 12- to 14-hour day. Besides routine production for breakfast, lunch, wholesale and catering customers, prep work is required for Greenleaf’s booth at the city’s weekly farmer’s market. Ritchey and her dedicated kitchen staff whiz back and forth behind the stainless-steel counter, putting finishing touches on colorful salads and a slew of whole-wheat wraps.

“We come in early and do prepacked food that we serve at the market,” says Ritchey, as she slices one in a seemingly endless line of wraps. “Typically, our regular clientele goes to the market on Thursdays, so it’s our way to extend our product to them. It’s a simple menu, but it’s the only healthy lunch option in the entire farmer’s market.”

For proof, the 2002 Pennsylvania College of Technology graduate points to a chicken salad wrap. It looks sumptuous even without the promise of mayonnaise.

“We’ve found ways to have great flavor without all that additional fat and things that are bad for you,” Ritchey says with a rapid-fire delivery that belies the early-morning hour. “This chicken salad has a homemade citrus basil vinaigrette in it with fresh pineapple juice, fresh lemon juice and extra-virgin olive oil. We mix in celery, grapes, apples, fresh basil and almonds.”

Greenleaf delivery bikes stand ready to deliver lunches in busy Los Angeles. Photo courtesy Greenleaf Gourmet Chopshop.The result is enticing even at 6:45 a.m. But there is no time to sample the creation. Ritchey is already jumping in her Mini Cooper for the five-minute drive across town to Greenleaf’s other location in posh Beverly Hills, where her staff is busy preparing food to be delivered to 20 wholesale clients throughout greater Los Angeles. As the silhouette of her cream-white convertible reveals itself on the passing storefronts, it’s clear that the 30-year-old has completed a remarkable transformation.

Raised outside Williamsport in tiny Linden, Ritchey says she was the shy, overweight girl. By fourth grade, she weighed 142 pounds. By her days at Warrior Run High School, Ritchey says she lived on the “yo-yo” diet, losing 50 pounds only to gain 75. By the time she graduated from Penn College, her scale read 250 pounds.

No doubt complicating matters, Ritchey’s work, even as a teenager, centered around food. While those initial hospitality experiences didn’t help her waistline, they did point her to the career destination she relishes today.

At 16, Ritchey was a waitress. Tired of apologizing to customers for the cooks’ various mistakes, she moved to the kitchen.

“I never saw cooking as a career at that point. I just saw it as my job,” she says.

That outlook changed a few years later when working at DiSalvo’s Restaurant in Williamsport. Vince DiSalvo, the restaurant’s owner and executive chef, marched Ritchey over to Penn College’s School of Hospitality after being informed that she would be reducing her hours to attend college. DiSalvo wasn’t mad at the college; rather he was upset with Ritchey’s career choice. She intended to pursue the construction trades.

“My father’s passion has always been woodworking. He always had a shop set up in our garage. I built things with my dad all the time. I loved building things,” Ritchey explains. “I thought going into the construction realm and working with my hands would make me the happiest.”

DiSalvo thought Ritchey should be building recipes, not homes. He took her to meet the late William C. Butler, then dean of the School of Hospitality. The duo gave Ritchey a tour of the facilities and prodded her to transfer to the culinary arts technology associate-degree major. Ritchey acquiesced.

“My first day of class, Chef Trometter (Mary G. Trometter, assistant professor of hospitality management/culinary arts) made me feel very, very comfortable, and I never looked back,” she says.

Trometter remembers a scared student who quickly blossomed.

“As the semester progressed, I saw Kristi gain in knowledge and skill through her motivation and desire to learn as much as she could every day,” Trometter says. “I saw her fall in love with cooking and all that the hospitality industry can be. She stopped being afraid and moved with confidence. She had desire.”

Balancing a full-credit course load and full-time hours at area restaurants while “living off of Mountain Dew,” Ritchey graduated in December 2002 with a 4.0 GPA.

Chef Paul E. Mach, assistant professor of hospitality management/culinary arts and one of Ritchey’s favorite teachers, says he was always impressed with her “willingness to listen, understand and execute while exhibiting a positive attitude.” Mach adds, “Kristi’s success was completely expected.”

Ritchey, who makes return visits to Pennsylvania every two years or so, remains grateful to her alma mater.

“My success today started with me going to Penn College,” she says. “Penn College gave me the basis of everything that I do, but I think the most important thing they taught me that I don’t think I would find anywhere else is the passion for what they (the faculty) do. They truly cared about every single individual who came to their classes. They were trying to make a difference every single day. It’s the same philosophy I walk into my kitchens with.”

Ritchey was in a California kitchen about two months after graduating. She desired an elite culinary scene and felt California would offer greater professional rewards than rural Pennsylvania.

Within two weeks of moving to the Golden State, Ritchey had a cooking position. A contact in the Napa Valley (renowned chef Jan Birnbaum) provided to her by Todd Downs, the Fall 2002 Visiting Chef at Penn College, opened doors for her at Restaurant Pinot Blanc, part of the prestigious, bicoastal Patina Restaurant Group. Ritchey advanced to sous chef in eight months. Later, Patina tapped her to help open restaurants in Palm Springs and Hollywood.

Spiced shrimp with grilled pineapple salsa, red jalapeno and cilantro, an hors d’oeuvre Greenleaf serves as part of its catering operation. Photo courtesy of Kristi Ritchey.The move to Hollywood occurred shortly after Ritchey’s harrowing trip to the hospital in Palm Springs. She had lost about 20 pounds since the ER visit, but not nearly enough for L.A., where body image rules supreme.

“I’d walk down the street and people would just stare at me,” Ritchey says. “I’d go into the dining room because I was working at Eat on Sunset in Hollywood, and people would look at me like I was going to eat their meal. It was horrible.”

It’s also hard to believe the 30-year-old athletic woman twisting, turning and lifting heavy coolers filled to capacity with salads and wraps could have been mocked for her physical appearance. Ritchey is back to her Century City Greenleaf location, delivering instructions in Spanish to her predominantly Hispanic kitchen staff. The five coolers need to be wheeled across the street for the farmer’s market, and there is the inevitable lunch rush inside the restaurant to prepare for.

But first it’s time for pushups. Ritchey and eight of her staffers, dressed in their Greenleaf white jackets and ball caps, do as many pushups as possible against the back kitchen’s green floor. At Greenleaf, health is more than salads called “the antioxidant orchard” or sandwiches billed as “turkey with cranberry aioli, apple, arugula and blue cheese on wheat.” Health is a lifestyle.

“The whole concept of Greenleaf is a healthy lifestyle,” says Ritchey, whose chef jacket is accessorized with the words “Chief Leaf-tenant” on the back. “It’s about being able to enjoy really flavorful food and not having to diet. Every single day, hundreds of people are coming through our doors because they want that healthy balance.”

Among its healthy but flavorful thin-crust pizza offerings is Greenleaf’s fig pizza. Photo courtesy of Kristi Ritchey.Devoting itself to fresh, organic and local ingredients, Greenleaf began about three and a half years ago in Beverly Hills offering a dozen creative salads. Today, in its two locations, the restaurant’s menu has expanded to include sandwiches, wraps, side dishes, pizzas and soups. Ritchey has played an integral role in developing and enhancing the offerings with Greenleaf owner Jonathan Rollo, the man Ritchey credits for helping her lose 110 pounds.

Rollo, an accomplished chef and triathlete, used his connections to enroll Ritchey in Barry’s Bootcamp while the two worked together at Eat on Sunset in Hollywood. A favorite of celebrities, Barry’s Bootcamp is known for hourlong, high-intensity cardio and strength-training workouts in which participants can burn up to 1,000 calories.

“I was so heavy, and it was such a shock to my body, that I got sick every single class for weeks in a row,” Ritchey says. “I’d get off the treadmill, go get sick, come back and keep going. It was that overwhelming to my body. But the thought of giving up wasn’t an option because I knew I needed to do this for myself, and there were people standing behind me who were supporting me and counting on me.”

In nine months, Ritchey dropped 100 pounds. She then lost another 10. Thanks to regular visits to Barry’s Bootcamp, mixed with kickboxing, marathon running and healthy eating habits (soft drinks and junk food are taboo) Ritchey has kept the weight off for more than three years and is now approaching her fourth-grade weight of 142 pounds. Her inspiring story has been featured on the NBC weight-loss series, “The Biggest Loser,” and in publications from USA Today to the Los Angeles Times.

Greenleaf Gourmet Chopshop, where Ritchey and owner Jonathan Gallo strive to infuse their foods with flavor without adding unhealthy fats and other “bad-for-you” ingredients. Photo courtesy of Greenleaf Gourmet Chopshop.When Rollo offered her the opportunity to come with him to start Greenleaf, the restaurant’s philosophy was a natural fit for Ritchey’s new life. However, she admits it is a challenge to marry flavor and health and their contrasting aims.

“As a chef, I never, ever thought for a second about the health side of a dish, how many calories it would be,” says Ritchey, who served as executive chef of a French-Italian restaurant in Los Angeles before joining Greenleaf. “Those are things that never come into a typical chef’s mind. It’s all about flavor, flavor, flavor. That’s it. At Greenleaf, it’s all about finding the flavor but making sure it’s healthy for you. I think I have larger challenges in front of me now than I ever did in the past.”

It’s clear that Ritchey cherishes that challenge. She wears a smile while dashing between the front counter and kitchen as a horde of customers, mainly entertainment executives and business people, anticipate the Greenleaf experience.

The phone might be ringing off the hook for takeout orders. The grill might be filled to capacity with paninis. The man sitting at the bamboo table might need a new utensil. And the line to place orders soon might be spilling out of Greenleaf’s sun-drenched glass doors. But she takes the time to wish patrons “a good day” as she hands them food she knows will taste good and be good for them. That knowledge is the only nourishment that Kristi Ritchey needs.

“I’m ecstatic with my life and everything that happens on a daily basis,” she says. “From the weight loss to the team that works with me on a daily basis to the adventures that we are taking on with Greenleaf, I’m the luckiest girl in town.”

Recipes from Kristi's Kitchen

Turkey Meatballs
(High protein, low fat)

Yield: Approximately 24 meatballs (2 ounces each)

Ingredient Amount
Turkey, ground, extra lean, fresh 2 pounds
Egg, white only, cooked, minced .20 pounds
Egg, whole 1 each
Rice, brown, cooked 1 cup
Panko 1/2 cup
Carrot, small, peeled 1 each
Celery, stalk 1 each
Onion, white 1 each
Garlic, cloves 5 each
Oregano, fresh, minced 1 tablespoon
Thyme, fresh, minced 1 tablespoon
Mint, fresh, minced 1 tablespoon
Salt, kosher to taste
Pepper. black to taste
  1. Cook brown rice according to directions on package and allow it to cool completely.
  2. Finely chop the carrot, celery, onion, and garlic in a food processor. Be sure to drain excess liquid after.
  3. Combine all ingredients and season with salt and pepper.  If fresh ground turkey was not available, frozen turkey may be substituted.  The mixture may need slightly more panko to absorb the extra moisture.
  4. Roll the meatballs to desired size (depending on application).
  5. Gently cook in tomato sauce (or our tomato soup) for approximately 15-20 minutes.
  6. Be sure to not cook the meatballs too fast, as they will dry out. 

NOTE: This recipe can also be used to make turkey meatloaf or turkey burgers (simply omit the rice and increase the amount of panko for burgers).

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Tomato Soup
(Vegan, dairy free)

Yield: Approximately 1 gallon

Ingredient Amount
Tomatoes, ripe, fresh 10 pounds
Carrot, small, peeled 2 each
Celery, stalk 2 each
Onion, red 1 1/2 each
Garlic, cloves  4 each
Basil, fresh 1 bunch
Tomato Paste 2 tablespoons
Salt, kosher to taste
Pepper. black to taste
  1. Rough chop all the tomatoes and reserve the liquid released while chopping
  2. Chop the carrot, celery, and onion.
  3. Heat stockpot (or pasta pot as long as it holds at least 1 ½ gallons) and add 1 tablespoon of canola or olive oil.
  4. Add the onions and garlic and gently cook without browning the onions and garlic
  5. Add the carrots and celery and continue to cook until the vegetables are soft.
  6. Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring frequently, for another five minutes.
  7. Add the tomatoes, reserved juice, and fresh basil. Finish with one and half gallons of water.
  8. Bring to a boil and lower heat to simmer.
  9. Simmer for approximately 1 hour (possibly more if the soup hasn’t reduced to proper consistency).
  10. Remove the basil and puree in blender until soup is smooth.
  11. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.

NOTE: This is a great vegan option for a soup.  This recipe works great as a sauce for the turkey meatballs and pasta as well.

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Salmon with Quinoa and Citrus-Tomatillo Salsa
(High protein, low fat)

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredient Amount
Salmon, 4 ounce fillets 4 each
Quinoa, uncooked 1 1/4 cups
Cilantro, minced 1/2 teaspoon
Onion, green (scallion), minced 1/2 teaspoon

Tomatillo  4 each
Grapefruit   1 each
Orange 2 each
Lime, fresh juice only 1 each
Jalapeno, red, minced 1/2 teaspoon
Cilantro, minced 1 teaspoon
Onion, green (scallion), minced 1 teaspoon
Salt, kosher to taste
Pepper. black to taste
  1. Cook quinoa according to directions on package.  Once cooked, allow to cool completely.
  2. Dice the tomatillos. Then segment the grapefruit and oranges reserving the juice as well.  Cut the segments of fruit into smaller cut to match the tomatillos.
  3. Combine all salsa ingredients, including the reserved juices.  Season to taste with the red jalapeno, salt and pepper. Allow flavors to marinate together. If the citrus is too tart, the salsa may need a pinch of sugar substitute or splash of agave.
  4. Heat a nonstick sauté pan and 1 tablespoon of canola oil.  Add salmon to the pan face side down and place pan in oven. Cook in 400 degree oven for approximately 5 minutes. Cook less or longer depending on your preferred doneness of salmon.
  5. Combine the cooled quinoa with the cilantro and green onions.  Strain the excess liquid from the salsa into the quinoa as well to add flavor.  Adjust the seasoning of the quinoa salad with salt and pepper as necessary.
  6. Plate the quinoa salad. Top with salmon filet and then finish the plate with the salsa.

NOTE: The citrus-tomatillo salsa goes great with chicken, pork, white fish and even tortilla chips, too. Blood oranges may be substituted for the grapefruit in the salsa recipe.

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Turkey Chili

Yield: Approximately 1 gallon

Ingredient Amount
Tomatoes, canned 1 pint crushed up with juice
Chicken stock 2 quarts
Kidney beans, dried 1 pound
Turkey, ground 1 pound
Garlic 6 cloves, minced
Onion, white 1 each, small dice
Bell pepper, green 2 each, small dice
Oregano, fresh 1 bunch
Parsley, fresh 1 bunch
Thyme 1 bunch
Agave 1 tablespoon
Chipotle peppers, pureed 1 tablespoon
Tapatillo to taste
Lemon juice to taste
Salt & pepper to taste
  1. Soak kidney beans overnight in water then drain next day when ready to cook.
  2. Brown the onions and garlic.  Add the bell peppers. 
  3. Add the kidney beans, crushed tomatoes, and chicken stock
  4. Bring to a boil and turn down to a simmer.
  5. Add the chipotle puree
  6. Simmer until the kidney beans are soft.  Approximately 1 hour.
  7. Check thickness. It should be thick.  If it hasn’t reduced enough, allow to cook more.
  8. When at desired consistency, add herbs.
  9. Adjust with tapatillo, lemon juice, agave, and salt and pepper
  10. ENJOY!

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Winter Roasted Cauliflower and Pomegranate Salad

Yield: 1 portion

Ingredient Amount
Arugula, baby 3 ounces
Cauliflower, bite size pieces 3/4 cup
Pomegranate seeds 1/4 cup
Turkey bacon, crispy, chopped 1 1/2 ounces
Red onion, crispy 1/4 cup
Olive oil 1 ounce
Lemon juice, fresh  1 ounce
Pomegranate juice 4 ounces
  1. Roast the cauliflower in a high heat oven or grill until al dente.
  2. Reduce the pomegranate juice to a syrup.
  3. Mix all ingredients (except pomegranate reduction and crispy onions) and season with salt and pepper.
  4. Plate the salad and drizzle the pomegranate syrup over the salad while still warm and top with crispy onions.
  5. ENJOY!

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Trail Mix

Yield: 1 serving

Ingredient Amount
Greenleaf Granola   1 cup
Walnuts, pieces, raw  1/4 cup
Almonds, blanched, sliced 1/4 cup
Cranberries, dried **     1/4 cup

Mix and enjoy

**May add or substitute dried blueberries or apples

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