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In Conversation with Chef Richard Ingraham

Richard Ingraham | January 12, 2021

People | Heart to Table

Exploring the fascinating life of a private chef to the stars

What do basketball, cooking, entrepreneurship, food, hair, and music have in common? They are some of the key and active ingredients in the fascinating life of private chef to the stars Richard Ingraham. For the Florida A&M alum, Art Institute of Atlanta graduate, and Miami, Florida native, cooking professionally was a fourth act that turned into a wondrous adventure. Here’s what he shared in this episode of the Heart to Table Podcast.

“This personal chef life is nothing to play with. People look at it from the outside looking in, and of course you look at Instagram, but you have no idea what’s going on. You see the shine, but you just don’t see the grind.” Ingraham works hard at his craft, and the hustle never stops. Looking back over his life, several themes emerge: adaptability, ingenuity, and resiliency. Yet, none of this would have been possible without Ingraham’s relentless dedication to whatever he pursues.

Unlike other high-profile chefs, Ingraham didn’t hone his work ethic in elite restaurants. He credits his parents and the world of music. After playing the tuba in middle school and high school, things dramatically changed for him when he joined the incomparable Marching 100 band at Florida A&M University where showmanship and musical ability are equally valued. “I took it to a whole ‘nother level, because every single day, I wanted to quit,” Ingraham emphasized. “Every single day. But I just knew that if I persisted, I would be successful. And in being selected to be in such a prestigious band like that, I knew that hard work is what got me there, and what kept me there as long as I was.” He still draws strength from that experience.

Yet, Ingraham chose hairstyling as his profession rather than music, and he was quite good at it. After hairstyling in Miami for several years, Ingraham and his family moved to Atlanta, Georgia. There he pivoted again and enrolled in the culinary arts program at the Art Institute of Atlanta. After graduating and cooking professionally for a time, Ingraham moved to Miami and became a culinary arts instructor at a homeless shelter, and later at a couple of local high schools.

Cooking For The Stars

Ingraham’s career took a star turn when he received a telephone call from Lisa Joseph Metelus, a former client from his hairstyling days in Miami who became a good friend. He left a lasting impression when he styled Metelus’s hair for her high school prom. Fast-forward, Metelus manages Dwayne Wade, a renowned player for the Miami Heat basketball team, and she called Ingraham and asked if he’d be interested in cooking for Wade. The tricky thing was that Ingraham had no idea who Wade was since he wasn’t an avid basketball fan. After a quick check-in with his students, who couldn’t believe his ignorance, Ingraham had Metelus set things in motion.

One might have expected Ingraham to play it safe and make only healthy food for the famous athlete. One would be wrong. For that “try out,” to use an athletic term, Ingraham prepared a spread that would make any Black mama proud: smothered turkey wings, fried chicken, candied yams, macaroni and cheese, lemon pound, and strawberry lemonade are just a few dishes that came to mind. “Hey, I was trying to get the job!,” Ingraham exclaimed. That tasting led to a few more occasional cooking opportunities that became more frequent. Ultimately, Ingraham became Wade’s full-time personal chef.

Nearly two decades after that culinary audition, Ingraham’s still cooks for Dwayne Wade and his family, which includes actress Gabrielle Union Wade, their children and staff. On a typical day, Ingraham cooks for anywhere between four to seven people, and more if the Wades have guests. For example, it’s not unusual for Ingraham to hear in the morning, “Hey, chef. At 12:00 today, I have a management team coming over. It’s seven people. Work your magic.” Obviously, whatever he had planned that day had to shift. Need a menu with something gluten-free? Got it. Oh, wait, you meant dairy-free? Not a problem. Just like the best musicians in a music venue, Ingraham adapts and improvises in the kitchen.

One constant for Ingraham is that his day starts early, even though Wade has retired from playing basketball. “I’m still up at 3:30, 4:00 every single morning. I try to go and get a little workout in, and then I start work. And I’m normally at work, if I’m not working out at the gym at Dwayne’s house, I normally get to work about 5:00 every morning. And I normally leave about say 7:00 in the evening.” Ingraham places a primacy on being organized and anticipating what the Wade family may need or want. His shopping trips involve multiple stops, always starting with his favorite place to get proteins because that choice the rest of the menu flows. He’ll get his starches at another place, and his produce at yet another because he wants to use the absolute best ingredients. Ingraham also makes a point of chatting up the store’s employees, for he values are treating everyone with respect and building relationships. Ingraham knows that those very same employees will go the extra mile whenever he has need of a specialty item.

Things can get quite playful in the Wade household, especially when he’s given hints—sometimes subtle, sometimes very direct—as to what the Wades really want to eat. “Let’s say for instance, if they go to a restaurant and she brings in some gluten-free biscuits, and Gabrielle says, ‘Oh my God, these biscuits are amazing.’ It’s guaranteed she’s going to have some gluten-free biscuits from me the next morning. Because I will not be denied. I will not be denied. You’re not bringing foreign product in here and telling me how good something tastes and going to think that you’re going to get away with that. No. You’re eating biscuits again tomorrow morning. And the morning after that, if I don’t get the satisfactory response that I need.”

When you become organized and you freed your soul because you’re able to move freely, now cooking becomes a joy instead of something that’s tedious. And it’s just about being prepared.

Chef Richard Ingraham

Ingraham is a case study of the constant hustle. In addition to maintaining the full, and sometimes hectic schedule, of being the Wades’ private chef, Ingraham started a company called “ChefRLI.” The company connects private chefs with athletes and entertainers across the country. He’s also written a book, Eating Well to Win which shows its readers how to eat healthy and keep the flavor. Ingraham continues to implement this cooking philosophy for the Wades. “Because if they gained weight, or they’re not looking the way that they want to look for a photo shoot or something, now I have to work even harder to get that weight off of them.” Ingraham elaborated, “So, I have to kind of… Even though it’s great for me when they want to splurge, because I can just get as creative as I want to be and it’s so fun, but I have to be able to reel myself in as well and remember that: ‘Hey, listen. You put those pounds on, you’re going to be responsible for taking them off.’ And it’s harder to take them off than to put them on. Believe me.”

Ingraham has certainly hit his stride professionally, and in the kitchen, he stays in the groove by returning to his first love before food: music. “If you like listening to music like me, whenever I get ready to start cooking, and my family they hear that music going, they’re like, ‘Oh boy. It’s about to go down. He’s kind of doing something.’ You know what I mean?” Yes, chef, yes, we do.