How I Did It: Chef Cary Neff Serves Up International Spa Cuisine

How I Did It: Chef Cary Neff Serves Up International Spa Cuisine

Cary Neff
Cary Neff

Cary Neff is the president of Pear Restaurant Group L.L.C., the restaurant consulting group that operates Naked Pear Café, serving what Neff calls “simple, delicious, and pure food.” But he first came to fame as executive chef at top spa resorts Miraval and La Costa and author of the New York Times best-selling cookbook Conscious Cuisine (Sourcebooks, Inc.; $17.95). caught up with the culinary professional about how he got started, his registered, healthy food style, Conscious Cuisine, and how to overcome the industry challenges. Several years ago, you introduced something called “Conscious Cuisine.” Explain what that is.

Neff: I created Conscious Cuisine® in 1995 to describe the food style that I served at Miraval Resort and Spa in Tucson, Arizona. Conscious Cuisine® is simply the conscious effort to enjoy food that delivers on its promise to have satisfying flavor and good nutrition. Embracing the Conscious Cuisine® food style helps diners reshape their plates by selecting fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables, least-processed whole grains, and lean proteins to create balanced, nutritious meals rather than meals dominated by large portions of meat or fried foods. Conscious Cuisine® also teaches diners how to mindfully reduce excessive and unnecessary fats and calories when preparing meals by using fresh herbs, spices, functional ingredients, high-quality oils, cheeses, and other flavorful ingredients that allow you to use less.

How does being a spa chef differ from being a restaurant chef?

The major difference between heading the kitchens of world-class spas and traditional restaurants is that greater attention is given to portion size and the healthful benefits of food. When working at a spa, there is a greater focus on creating nutritionally balanced meals along with a heightened awareness of food allergies, dietary restrictions, and use of functional ingredients. Prior to working in spas, I thought very little about calories, fats, or the wellness attributes of the ingredients and cooking methods I used.

When did you know you were going to be a chef?

I was very lucky to know that I wanted to be a chef at the age of 15. It began with a clever plan to take a class in high school where I could eat an additional lunch or snack. I fell in love with the power that food has in helping to create memorable experiences for others. I eventually took every food class offered in high school, including vocational training in food service management. I began working in restaurants first as a dishwasher then quickly moved up to cook.

About how much money can a new chef expect to make on his or her first job?

Being a chef is absolutely a lucrative job. The average salary is comparable to average salaries in medicine or law. And the long hours are the same, too. You can make $30,000 to $30 million–it all depends on the chef. Being a chef can also provide a long list of intangibles. Job security is No. 1 and in food service, jobs are plentiful in every state. There’s also travel. Well-trained chefs have the opportunity to work in various states, countries, private homes, on cruise ships, at destination vacation spots, on movie sets, for corporate dining–the list goes on and the opportunities are endless.

What have been some of the challenges you’ve faced as a chef?

Time management and dealing with time away from home. Those are sacrifices you’ll have to make in order to do well in this industry. The demands are physical and mental. But the results are well worth the sacrifices. Food affects people’s lives; it’s part of lasting experiences and memories.

Neff, along with other food industry professionals, will be profiled on throughout this month, in conjunction with Black Enterprise magazine’s November 2011 “A Passion for Food” issue.

Check out the latest features on industry heavyweights, including Marcus Samuelsson and The Neelys, on newsstands now.