A Real Iron Chef
Hans Rueffert (B.A. ’95) begins a new chapter after Food Network competition and cancer battle
In 2005, Hans Rueffert’s life took an amazing turn when he went from a virtually unknown chef to a popular reality show finalist on the Food Network’s “Next Food Network Star.” Then, just two weeks after his top-three finish in the competition — and one day before his 33rd birthday — he was diagnosed with stage 3 stomach cancer. His doctor delivered the blow that he had a less than 5 percent chance of survival.
As Rueffert headed into the battle of his life, his thoughts first turned to his wife, Amy, and their two children, Finn and Ella, then just 6 and 2 years old.
“To explain that to my young children, initially it was a pretty hard pill to swallow,” Rueffert says. “We made cancer out to be the bogeyman.”
In August 2005, surgeons removed half his stomach and half his esophagus. Rueffert, whom viewers of the show had picked as most likely to win the “Next Food Network Star” competition, lost 70 pounds and his weight whittled down to around 140 pounds.
“You know that saying, ‘Never trust a skinny chef?’” he jokes.
Now Rueffert is winning his battle against the disease, but he knows anything can change.
Just last March, his doctors believed the cancer had metastasized to his brain. It turned out to be an infection that had come up through a hole in his esophagus, but the scare was a sobering reminder of his constant battle.
“What’s now normal is the new normal for me,” he says.
Still, Rueffert has designs on the future and none of them include cancer. He is working harder than ever, too.
He regularly cooks up healthful recipes for cancer patients at Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta and mentors fellow gastric cancer patients. Since his diagnosis, he has produced 50 cooking shows and he authored “Eat Like There’s No Tomorrow,” a cookbook about his cancer experience.
Most of the time, however, he can be found in his own kitchen at the Woodbridge Inn and Restaurant. His parents, Joe and Brenda Rueffert, recently passed down the keys to their family business, which they had operated since 1976 in Rueffert’s boyhood home of Jasper, Ga.
“My experience with [cancer] has heightened my appreciation of life, love, family and, of course, food,” he says. “If I can offer up one piece of advice, it would simply be this: Never take anything for granted. Never.”
The Stars Align
I am a restaurant boy. Every childhood memory I have took place in a restaurant or above a restaurant or on the way to a restaurant or returning from a restaurant. And those memories, either good or bad, are forever linked to not only the restaurants, but to the food itself, be it bad or good.
— Rueffert on his blog, hansrue.blogspot.com.
Rewinding to 2005 — when Rueffert saw a magazine advertisement calling for chefs to audition for a new reality program on the Food Network, he immediately dismissed it. But Amy kept prodding him to apply. After all, food had always been a part of Rueffert’s life. He had spent his boyhood amidst the pots and pans at the Woodbridge Inn, and sometimes he would even run down in his pajamas to help his father in the kitchen. He also holds a B.A. in hospitality services from Georgia State’s J. Mack Robinson College of Business.
It turns out his wife’s instincts were right. He was a standout among the 10,000 applicants who sent videos to the show’s producers. The network flew him to New York and it was official — he was competing in the first-ever season of “The Next Food Network Star.”
For three weeks, it was nothing but cooking and competing. He would begin each day at the crack of dawn and never know what it held in store. Most days would drag on until midnight.
“It was tense but fun,” Rueffert remembers.
Every day brought a new challenge, and producers sometimes took hours to make decisions about what came next.
“They locked us in the green room for hours on end,” Rueffert says. “We all had time to bond.”
In what little free time there was during the competition, Rueffert hit the streets of the Big Apple with fellow contestant Michael Thomas — now a regular chef on “The Tyra Banks Show.” They ate in some of New York’s finest restaurants with the $60 daily meal stipend provided by the network.
“Michael knew a lot of dives and had friends at famous restaurants,” Rueffert says. “We toured the back of the house [at these restaurants]. It was a real experience.”
He also got to meet some of the network’s top chef stars, including Paula Deen, with whom he shares Georgia roots. Rueffert was challenged to make her signature biscuits with red-eye gravy and ham, and then present the meal to her.
“I was joking on the set with Deen because I was given boiled ham and it wasn’t country ham – the kind she used,” he says.
David V. Pavesic, professor and former chair of Georgia State’s hospitality program, remembers how as a student, Rueffert stood out from the rest and he was thrilled when he saw him on the show.
“At GSU, we rallied behind Hans to get students and alumni and the Georgia Restaurant Association to vote for him,” he says.
Rueffert made it to the top three, but in the end, he was told he talked too fast on camera. It was an experience he won’t ever forget, however, and he still gets recognized on the street.
A Fighting Chance
One of my final meals with a full-sized stomach was at the original Mama Ninfa’s in Houston, the one near the stadium. My pending surgery was the elephant in the room, and we all ignored it as we constructed our sizzling fajitas, layering each tortilla with fresh salsa, sour cream, cilantro and some of the best grilled skirt steak I’ve ever experienced. … I thought of that meal often during the following eight weeks in the hospital, when my only source of nutrition came through a tube plugged directly into my intestines and the only thing I was allowed to ‘eat’ was crushed ice, and even then in extremely limited quantity.
— Rueffert in “Eat Like There’s No Tomorrow”.
No sooner had Rueffert come back to reality after his reality show experience than the cancer diagnosis came. All too quickly, plans to take over the family business were put on hold, and his life would never be the same again.
When his doctor at Piedmont Hospital recommended the gastric cancer specialists at The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Rueffert heeded his advice and went to Houston.
He took to blogging about his illness and experiences while in the hospital. His openness was partly inspired by what he had experienced with his sister and only sibling, Sonja, who had been lost to breast cancer a year earlier.
“Sonja was intensely private,” Rueffert says, “As her caregivers, we never knew what was going on day to day. I thought, if this is ever happening to me, I would have the opposite reaction.”
Rueffert’s story created quite a following among his friends, family, fellow “Next Food Network Star” contestants and fans.
What lay ahead for Rueffert was a long road — from multiple surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation treatment, to nausea, hair loss, energy depletion, dizzy spells, pneumonia, a collapsed lung, an episode of shingles and constant, nagging pain.
“The blog absorbed much of the impact for us and became a user manual of what to expect,” Rueffert says. “It’s pretty rough for me to go back now and read some of those things.”
A month after his initial surgery, doctors discovered a hole in his esophagus that caused substantial internal bleeding. They fixed it by harvesting a piece of his shoulder muscle, but the ensuing seven weeks equaled torture. Rueffert was unable to eat or drink. He came to look forward to those sparing ice chips.
Recovery was a slow and constant process.
“When you take eating away from somebody, it’s like pulling the batteries out of them,” he says, adding that even now, he can’t eat a lot in one sitting. “I can’t just sit down and pig out anymore.”
Keeping his sense of humor during the rough days, Rueffert decided to get a tattoo of a Coelacanth, an elusive fish once thought to be extinct. It landed between Rueffert’s shoulder blades.
Also during treatment, Rueffert’s passion for cooking became a form of therapy. He led cooking classes at Whole Foods Market’s Salud Cooking School in Alpharetta, Ga., and at Out of the Blue, a gourmet shop in Blue Ridge, Ga.
He began taping cooking shows for public television, “Hans Cooks the South” and “Hans Cooks the World.” He also kept busy gardening and visiting farms. And as if all that weren’t enough, he began writing his cookbook and creating new recipes.
A year into the fight, his doctors handed him some good news: He was cancer-free. His weight remained a concern, however, and he would still need a feeding tube.
Though he struggled with these and other conditions brought on by the cancer, Rueffert continued to get a clean bill of health until March of 2009 when he began experiencing severe headaches, dizziness, concentration issues and memory loss.
Doctors discovered multiple lesions on his brain and immediately believed the gastric cancer had returned and metastasized. He underwent a biopsy, and the head staples used to patch him back together left him looking like Frankenstein.
As the pieces of Rueffert’s medical puzzle came together, doctors discovered that the lesions had been brought on by a strep infection that had found its way through yet another hole in his esophagus.
It would take time to recover, but he had dodged another bullet.
Recently, Rueffert reached an encouraging milestone — four years cancer free. Now he’s putting on the pounds — and happily so.
“I’m ready to cast it off and start living outside the shadow of my roller coaster health issues,” he says. “Cancer has changed my life, and in many ways, for the better. But I’m tired of medical things. I need a break. No more tubes and pumps and IV lines. No more ‘emergency’ flights to Texas to have my esophagus cauterized. No more worries and uncertainty.”
The next chapter
“Gesundheit.” That word hangs on a wall in the cooking kitchen at the Piedmont Hospital Cancer Wellness Center in Atlanta, and it has become Rueffert’s calling card of sorts. Meaning “to your health,” it’s also a nod to his family’s German heritage.
On a cool November morning at the Wellness Center, Rueffert is surrounded by his parents, who are busy chopping red cabbage and slicing carrots while he cooks for the audience — most of whom are either cancer patients or survivors just like him.
“I feel best when I’m doing this because I’m not thinking about the arthritis in my hip,” he says. He calls the Wellness Center a safe zone.
The menu is watermelon gazpacho with mint and Thai basil, carrot ginger soup, and white, pinto and kidney beans with curried onion complemented with an Asian slaw of red cabbage and cilantro in rice wine and honey vinaigrette. The meal is capped with a zesty fruit dessert of pluots, or plum apricots, in a lemon, honey and butter sauce.
“From the moment I met Hans, I knew he was going to be the heart of our kitchen,” says Carolyn Helmer, manager of Cancer Wellness at Piedmont. “No matter how he was feeling or what was going on with him, he still has that same courageous message not to give up hope.”
He’s a regular in this kitchen, and the audience members eat up his humor, not to mention the results of his demo.
“I despise recipes,” Rueffert says to the audience. “I like to be inspired by the food and go with it. I rarely make the same thing twice.”
That may be true, but his cookbook, “Eat Like There’s No Tomorrow,” anchored by his cancer survival story, is chock full of recipes.
It’s selling well — 6,000 copies as of November — and people at the Cancer Wellness cooking demo line up to get them signed.
“He’s a real source of support and information about survivorship,” Helmer says. “He’s my Superman. He’s an action figure. He’s amazing.”
While his cooking shows are on hiatus until later this year, Rueffert’s main challenge is running the Woodbridge Inn and Restaurant with Amy. He’s streamlining the menu and adding classic dishes such as baked oysters Rockefeller, veal Oscar and tournedos of prime tenderloin beef.
“We’re a little slice of Europe in the South,” he says.
And while Rueffert focuses his attention to the kitchen, Amy has designs on the inn. Plans call for refurbishing all 18 guest rooms in the 123-year-old house above the restaurant. Gradually, the rooms will exude a European charm, he says.
On a recent Saturday night, Rueffert cooked for 125 hungry diners. The following Sunday morning, people were lined up for brunch.
“I hope my enthusiasm for all this is contagious,” he says.
French Onion Soup
1 tablespoon olive oil
4-5 Vidalia onions, sliced
1 teaspoon coriander, ground
1 tablespoon Braggs liquid amino acids or low sodium soy salt
4 cups chicken stock
1 tablespoon red wine
Day old bread, toasted
½ cup Swiss cheese, grated
½ cup mozzarella cheese, grated
½ cup cheddar cheese, grated
In a large heavy pot on medium-high heat, add the oil, onions, salt, coriander, wine and Braggs and sauté for about 8-10 minutes. You want the onions to take on just a little color, but not go too brown. Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and adjust the soup for seasoning.
To make the cheese caps for the soup, combine the three cheeses and use your fingers to form a cheese disc slightly larger than your serving bowl. Smash the cheese disc on top of a small circle of bread and really squish the two together.
To serve: Place soup in a bowl. Lay cheese/bread cap gently on top. Broil for about 4-5 minutes or until the cheese is just all gooey and running down the sides of the bowl. It’s not a good onion soup if you can’t pick the cheese from the side of the bowl with your fingers.
Spiced Brussels Sprouts
1 pound Brussels sprout, halved
1/3 cup water
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ teaspoon garam masala
¼ teaspoon cumin, ground
¼ teaspoon turmeric, ground
½ teaspoon sea salt, to taste
1 tablespoon cane sugar
Cut the ends off of the Brussels sprouts and half them lengthwise. Put sprouts in a microwave-safe glass bowl and add water. Cover bowl with a microwave-safe plate and microwave for four minutes. This will par cook the sprouts. Carefully remove the plate (steam burns are wicked) and drain the sprouts.
In a medium skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. When melted, add garam masala, cumin, turmeric, sugar and salt and stir to combine. Add sprouts and toss to coat in spiced butter. Reduce heat and cook for another two minutes. Sprouts should be tender, but still have an internal bite to them.
Zucchini and Sun-Dried Tomato Bread Pudding
½ cup sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
6 cups of stale bread, cubed
1 cup of zucchini, grated
1 cup whole milk
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup grated cheese (your choice,
but a firm Swiss would work well here)
In a large bowl, whisk together eggs, milk, garlic, and salt. Stir in the bread, zucchini, cheese (if you’re so inclined), and sun-dried tomatoes and let the whole mixture soak for about 20 minutes. Pour into a baking dish or greased muffin pan and bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 20-25 minutes, or until a knife inserted comes out clean. Bread pudding is fairly foolproof, so feel free to experiment with your own favorite ingredients.
Pluots in honey, lemon zest sauce
Sliced pluots (plum apricots)
Juice of 2 lemons
Sauté pluots and butter in a sauce pan for just a few minutes until soft. Whisk lemon zest, honey and juice of two lemons. Pour sauce over pluots and serve.