Inside the remarkable—and healthy—world of local chef and nutritionist David Wells
David Wells can’t recall his first memory of food. He can, however, remember the period in his youth when he went without it.
Wells, who is now an Aptos-based chef and nutritionist with a long, impressive career as a celebrity chef behind him, traces his gastronomical calling back to this time when, as a teenager, he found himself neglected and hungry. His mother sent him to Mendocino to live with his father, who Wells says “wouldn’t even notice if I didn’t come home for a week.” At 15 years old, he got a job washing dishes at a local restaurant just to be around a food supply.
“I knew that as a dishwasher or a cook I would at least always have access to food,” Wells says. He studied the sauté station on his down time with hopes of getting promoted once a position opened up. His plan worked, and by age 16, he was working the lines at the Albion River Inn restaurant.
The job pulled him out of a dark period (“In a lot of ways food really saved my life,” he explains), and laid the foundation for what would become an illustrious career cooking for Steve Jobs and George Lucas, among other achievements. But it’s what Wells is up to now that really caught Good Times’ eye—he’s offering up his nutritional and cooking expertise to help local cancer patients, and people in general, eat for wellness.
We sat down with Wells over a spread of his signature dishes—quinoa tabouli, shredded carrot, currant and almond salad, spring rolls and a “bowl of sunshine”—to pick his brain about food, health, and why he’s hell-bent on helping people rehabilitate their diets. Read on, and dig in.
Hors d’oeuvres: Spring Rolls
After a few years at the Albion River Inn, where Bonnie Raitt was a regular (“She’d come down into the kitchen and say ‘Where’s David?’” he remembers), young Wells relocated to Santa Cruz in 1986 to play linebacker for the Cabrillo College football team. He landed a job at Chaminade, one of Santa Cruz’s finest dining establishments, catalyzing his obsession with healthy, fresh foods. “At the time, it had what was called The Library—a six course meal for $85 a head that changed every month. They put me on the salad station and I was blown away by how much there was to learn,” he says.
From there it was on to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), where he threw himself wholeheartedly into everything there was to learn, later graduating with the highest honors.
Wells’ CIA accolades brought him auspicious job offers from both Hyatt and Marriott hotels, but he opted for a creative endeavor running the kitchen of a Mendocino restaurant. Then 26 years old, Wells was featured in a Bon Appetit magazine article, propelling him, and the restaurant, into culinary stardom (and doubling their sales overnight). The recognition brought on a new slew of opportunity and led to his next venture—co-owning a refurbished restaurant in Fort Bragg, Calif. with Patrick Simmons of The Doobie Brothers.
But just as life was reaching an all-time high for Wells, his personal and professional life came to a standstill: his mother was diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer and given less than two years to live. So he sold his share of the Fort Bragg restaurant and moved home to care for her. “I thought I was moving in to spend the final two years with my mom,” he says. He started working as a private chef and certified fitness trainer to make ends meet, and also went back to school for a nutrition degree.
It was this turn of events—the transition to private chef with the prowess of a nutritionist—that got Wells’ the post as Steve Jobs’ personal chef, a position that he “just couldn’t turn down,” and then as the main house head cook at Skywalker Ranch, the headquarters of George Lucas’ empire, where he fed 250 to 300 people daily. “The main reason I was picked up over there was because people were falling asleep after lunch, and they saw that I was a fitness trainer and nutritionist,” Wells says. While his predecessor dished up Southern-style fried foods and drowned things in cream sauces, Wells altered the menu to include less meat, dairy, and white and refined grains, and added more fresh vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins. “Half of the people [including Lucas] really wanted healthier things,” he remembers, “and the other half were loving [the old menu] and getting fatter by the day. They hated me. I was shunned at first.” But his tough love paid off, and he enjoyed two years as Skywalker’s food guru. [The experience produced many an interesting anecdote, too—such as the tale of the serendipitous day that Skywalker Ranch hosted the lunch meeting between Steve Jobs and Disney over selling Pixar Animation Studios. Although Jobs didn’t know Wells, his former personal chef, was behind the kitchen’s swinging doors, he was delighted to see all of his favorite foods served. “I feel partially responsible for the good faith at that table that day,” laughs Wells. Needless to say, the deal went down.]
After Skywalker, Wells became a teacher at the California Culinary Academy, teaching nutrition, food science and cost control. Through CCA he was “head-hunted” by a Silicon Valley CEO who retained him for four years (enabling Wells to buy a home in Aptos, where he now lives with his wife and small daughters, and can often be seen riding his unicycle).
But from owning a restaurant to cooking for high profile clients and becoming a respected culinary educator, no experience was more formative to Wells’ career than his mother’s battle with cancer. Following the news of her illness, Wells immersed himself in cancer research and nutrition education with a gusto that surpassed his already higher-than-average level of enthusiastic motivation. He emerged from those studies with a dietary game plan for his mom that helped her beat cancer (she’s still alive, 15 years after the doctor gave her a maximum of two years to live) and would become the basis for his true calling—fighting illness with food.
Entrée: Bowl of Sunshine Soup
According to the American Cancer Society, American men have a 44 percent chance of developing cancer in their lifetime. Women face a slightly lesser risk at 38 percent, but the odds still aren’t great. And yet, how foods can both prevent and help heal this all-too-common illness isn’t often a part of the dialogue.
“The medical industry has a hard time condoning nutritional things as magic bullets—and nutrition isn’t going to solve anything alone,” says Wells. “But what we’re finding now, and what third party studies are showing, is that, as part of your plan, nutrition is one of the most important things you could be doing. Medical institutions like UCSF and Stanford are showing that eating foods rich in beta-carotene, lowering your meat and dairy consumption, increasing your phytonutrients and your whole food sources of complex carbohydrates, and combining them with a lot of live, raw, enzyme-rich, micronutrient-dense types of foods, is helpful in fighting cancer.”
This is easy for Wells, a certified nutritionist and all-around food expert, to say, but it’s more of a challenge for typical cancer patients to grasp—which is why Wells attends local cancer support groups, teaches cooking demonstrations for cancer patients, is for hire as a nutritional consultant, and has a website (grandmadave.com) chock-full of recipes for people battling the disease.
Anne Lindberg is the clinical coordinator for Dominican Hospital’s Katz Cancer Resource Center, where Wells has offered nutritional guidance since 2006, when he held his first cooking demonstration for its patients. “At the time there were no cooking demonstrations in town [for cancer patients],” says Lindberg. “His first one was packed—standing room only.” Now, thanks to Wells, she says such classes are more common around Santa Cruz. Wells also led the way in designing recipes unique to the challenges faced by people with cancer. According to Lindberg, the most common of these include taste changes (“When you’re in treatment, food does not usually taste what it used to taste like,” she says), nausea, trouble swallowing (for some types of cancer) and a loss of appetite. His repertoire of recipes—which he disseminates for free on his website—include flavorful, nutrient-packed dishes that are easy to eat and are geared toward people going through the many types, stages and treatments for cancer (his advice gets more specific on an individual basis).
Tracey Whitstone Fox learned just how elusive cancer-specific nutritional guidance can be when her 65-year-old mother, Santa Cruz resident Pamela Whitstone, was fighting stage four kidney cancer in 2010. “The only nutritional advice she got was in pamphlet form from her doctor at the hospital,” says Fox, who is a holistic nutritionist herself. “I would read it and be flabbergasted—it recommended some high-sugar things, and we know sugar feeds cancer. Basically it had poor nutrition advice for anyone [not just cancer patients]. We really didn’t take any advice from the hospital. The fact that they gave her Ensure and Boost drinks blew her mind—she knew they didn’t know diddly about nutrition.”
Fox reached out to colleagues in the Santa Cruz area and was introduced to Wells through Rebecca Katz of the Katz Resource Center. Her mom, who was the wife of a local doctor, knew of Wells through Dominican and “was happy because he’s pretty well respected around there.” Looking back over her notes from their consultations with Wells, Fox, who was her mother’s caretaker during her illness, recalls advice Wells gave on basic nutrition, lifestyle improvements and even about the emotional and relationship sides of the sickness—“all of the things that have an impact on the immune system,” she says. Her mom especially liked Wells’ smoothie and tea recipes—the burdock root tea, in particular.
Unfortunately, the effort was “too little, too late” for Whitstone, who lost her battle to cancer late last year. Still, her daughter believes the healthy guidance had a positive impact. “She did have mental improvement,” Fox says. “When she ate better and did the things Dave and I told her to do, she mentally felt better, like, ‘At least I’m doing everything I can.’”
Wells reports witnessing a shift in health awareness that has made nutrition a bigger part of cancer treatment than it was when his mother was diagnosed more than a decade ago. In fact, many of his clients are now referred to him through their medical doctors. “In just the last couple years, people who are frustrated because they aren’t getting information about food and nutrition through their doctor are asking their neurologist, oncologist, cardiologist, [or] specialist, ‘What can I do?’ and these doctors are calling me, saying, ‘What do you recommend?’ They’re recognizing that these foods are working.”
Dessert: Grandma Dave’s Granola
These days, Wells isn’t tied down to any one kitchen or classroom, but he keeps busy by spreading his skills and knowledge any way he can
Thanks to his younger brother Anthony (the creative force behind the web and video side of Wells’ business), his website and YouTube channel offer recipes and instructional videos that go far beyond cancer-fighting foods. He has an arsenal of dishes for everything from weight loss and diabetes to asthma and ADD. How can eating better help ADD? “How would it not?” Wells says. “Doctors will prescribe Ritalin faster than they will ask ‘What does he or she eat?’ I think that’s criminal.” Whatever the ailment, Wells’ wish “is that we all take a step backward and consider our food first, before we consider any medication.”
His most viewed YouTube video is for an iodine-rich smoothie that he posted soon after the nuclear meltdown in Japan. “I rolled over in my sleep and thought, I don’t want to bank on the negative. I don’t want to tell people that there will be radiation clouds coming over here, but we need to be able to support ourselves in case something happens. So I’m going to put kelp and kombu and cilantro and the things I know are rich in iodine in this smoothie, and I just did it,” he says. “I thought I should tell people what an iodine-rich smoothie is anyway because they have a cell phone, and they get X-rays.” The video garnered 5,000 hits in the following weeks.
Aside from his web efforts, Wells does pro bono cooking demonstrations at places like New Leaf Community Markets, free nutritional education lessons at local schools and convalescent homes, and will do free “Kitchen Cupboard Rehabilitations” at convalescent homes, schools, hospitals and in private homes of the elderly. Think of the latter like a food intervention: “I go in and rehabilitate their kitchen,” says Wells. “I get rid of their crap and give them healthy alternatives.” (Wells’ landed the nickname “Grandma Dave” when he did a kitchen rehab for a group of seniors at a convalescent home in Marin, who said he “nurtured them like a grandma.”)
Anyone can hire him to do this—but be prepared to say goodbye to your white flour and sugar, refined and processed foods and some of your meat and dairy. “I try not to be too fanatical,” he adds. “I’ll even have part of the cupboard have the old food and say ‘This is the 10 percent of the time usage cupboard—don’t go in here every day, but you can use this white flour if you want to make a pan gravy on Christmas.’”
He doesn’t give the same cupboard rehabilitation to any two people, either. “I take into consideration the individual’s biodynamic individuality,” he says. “If you came to me and said you’re gluten intolerant, have high blood pressure and have a low HDL count … whatever the idiosyncrasy is, I’ll go into the cupboard and say ‘Instead of this, use this’ and explain why.”
Individuals or groups can also hire him to go grocery shopping with them. For these, he says, “Usually what I’ll do is a class where we figure out what dishes they want to learn and then we go shopping, and I teach them about the ingredients.”
To top it off, Wells has a product line of granola and spices, does freelance work (he just designed a restaurant for people starting a brewery in Northern California), and is writing a book. “But mostly I’ve been working with people nutritionally, and I jump at the chance to do that—mostly with people with cancer, but for anyone really,” Wells says. “For people who have severe health problems and need support—not just cancer but heart problems, weight problems, whatever it is—I will give them a meal plan and set them to work with themselves.
“If it’s through food, I do it.”
Learn more at grandmadave.com or by searching YouTube for theGrandmaDave channel.
We can thank Steve Jobs for this delicious Wells specialty. On Wells’ first day working for Jobs he encountered the face of Apple Inc. in his driveway: “He rolled down his car window and threw a wadded napkin at me. It had an old spring roll that looked like he’d spit it out of his mouth in it, and I was like ‘Is this a joke? What do you want me to do with this?’ and he said, ‘I want you to make these for me!’ He’d had it at a restaurant and saved it for when he finally saw me. He told me the name of the restaurant, I went, sat down and ordered spring rolls, and knew what to do from there. Every time I showed up at his house from that moment on, he wanted spring rolls.” The Wells’ variation on this classic Vietnamese delight is mouth-watering while delivering hefty nutritional benefits like abundant digestive enzymes, essential vitamins (particularly A, B and C), and minerals. According to Wells, this dish is also “full of cleansing and tonifying properties essential for healthy nerve and digestive function, and high in fiber, complex carbohydrates and glutamic acid, which may boost immune function.”
8 spring roll wrappers (rice), medium
12 snow peas
2 carrots, medium
1 cucumber (English)
1 leek (blanched)
1 bunch cilantro (chopped)
1 bunch scallions
1 of each bell pepper red and yellow
4” chunk Diakon radish
1 head cabbage
8 Shiitake mushrooms (poached or sauteed)
1 bunch mint (chopped)
1 jar Furiake shake( can be purchased at Asian market)
1 bunch basil (chopped)
1. Julienne all vegetables and chop all herbs.
2. Blanch leeks and sauté or poach mushrooms.
3. Moisten rice paper rolls in between paper towels or with spray bottle let sit for five minutes.
4. Uniformly place vegetables into the center of each roll.
5. Top with herbs, scallions, shake and sesame seeds.
6. Gently roll the rice paper, if needed,and seal the ends with a small amount of water.
7. Cut in half, on a bias, and cover with damp paper towel until ready to eat.
Peanut Dipping Sauce
1 Tb. sesame oil (light)
1 cup organic peanut butter
2 Tb. ginger root- chopped
1 Tb. garlic- chopped
1 Tb. lemon grass- chopped
2 Tb. scallions- chopped
1 Tb. sesame seeds- toasted
2 Tb. rice vinegar
2 Tb. agave nectar
Sautee ginger, garlic, lemon grass, and scallions in sesame oil. Put all other ingredients into food processor and pulse. Add water to adjust consistency.
Yeilds: 1 1/2 cups
Bowl of Sunshine Soup
Wells developed this recipe to encourage chemotherapy patients to eat when they aren’t feeling well. “The ginger has more than 400 chemical compounds in it that are amazingly healing and they help people with nausea and different ailments,” he explains. Combining ginger, butternut squash and orange, the soup is high in beta-carotene, Vitamin C, potassium, fiber and folates and low in calories, But its popularity is mostly due to the fact that it’s something “people find themselves craving even when they’re not hungry”—a plus for chemo patients.
1 Tb. olive oil
1 lg onion, sliced
1/4 cup ginger, peeled and sliced
2-4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 cup rice vinegar or sake
1 lg butternut squash, peeled seeded and rough cut
3 quarts H20
3 Tb. orange zest (orange part of skin only)
1/2 bu. cilantro, chopped
1/2 bu.scallions, thinly sliced on bias (angle)
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Heat soup pot on medium heat w/olive oil until smoking.
2. Sautee onions, garlic, and ginger for 2 to 3 minutes until translucent.
3. Add rice wine and simmer for
2 to 3 minutes.
4. Add butternut squash and
2 quarts of H20.
5. Simmer slowly for two hours.
6. Ladle contents into a blender and puree. CAUTION: Always be very careful pureeing hot food as contents may erupt. You may want to remove the top and cover with a plate. Always leave some space for heat to escape.
7. If needed, you can adjust consistency with remaining quart
8. Return pureed mixture to rinsed pot, heat and simmer.
9. Add cilantro, orange zest, and scallions.
10. Season with salt and pepper and serve.
Yield: 10 (12 oz.) servings
Prep time: 45 minutes
Cooking time: approx. 2 hours
Grandma Dave’s Granola
Although granola has long been considered the healthiest of health foods, “most granolas have a lot of hidden garbage, most commonly oils and sugars,” explains Wells. But you won’t find that stuff in his version of the classic cereal/snack. “I use brown rice syrup, orange juice and vanilla to sweeten it,” he says. The hearty granola, which is sold in bulk at regional Whole Foods, is made up of quinoa, pumpkin seeds, cranberries, whole grains, almonds and sunflower seeds. Visit grandmadave.com for a quick ‘n’ easy recipe that transforms this mix into tasty granola bars.
Eating with Cancer
The dietary suggestions Wells has for people battling cancer vary depending on the individual, what type of cancer they have and what stage it’s in, and if they are being treated with chemotherapy. But the following are his basic, across-the-board tips for cancer patients:
*Cut back on sugar. “Cancer is an obligate glucose metabolizer which means that it needs sugar to live,” says Wells. “So your first step should be to lower your sugar consumption.”
*Rethink what you eat before bed. “Look at your sleep habits and what you eat before bed,” he says. “Start from the time you go to sleep and work backwards from that, concentrating on foods that enhance your sleep.”
*Get moving. Mobility, movement and exercise can only help.
*When going through chemotherapy, find beneficial foods you want to eat. “With chemotherapy, it’s a catch 22—if you don’t eat every few hours you can get more and more nauseous. So it’s good to have little things around to satiate you.”
Photos: Keana Parker and Kelly Vaillancourt