Meet Fri Reyes: Director of Culinary Services and Executive Chef at Scripps Health in San Diego. Growing up, Fri Reyes always knew two things about himself: one, he wanted to cook professionally; and two, mental health matters. In this Chef Works exclusive, he shares his unique journey through the food world, early influences, the transformative power of food, his upcoming memoir-cookbook, and the importance of finding balance and mental well-being in a high-pressure industry.
Chef Works: How did you get your start in the industry?
Fri Reyes: I have always known this was what I was going to do professionally. I come from a big Filipino family. For Filipinos, there’s a lot of gatherings, food, and traditions that revolve around the food we create. The men in my family cook — so naturally, to be one of the boys, you’re in the kitchen or the backyard cooking with the uncles. I went through the whole college thing, and since I always knew that I’d go into the food world professionally at some point, I decided to go to culinary school. I excelled in it. I loved it. And that’s when I decided this is what I want to do with my life. I did the whole restaurant circuit thing for a couple years. But then I needed something that was more sustainable for me. Late nights, long hours… not really a good option for someone who wanted to start a life. So I started working for a company in LA called Sunfare as their R&D Chef. All I did was play with food, create dishes, create menus, train their staff. Eventually I got promoted to the Corporate Executive Chef overseeing the foodservice operations for the whole company. I did a stint in San Diego for a company called Optimal Nutrition before deciding to return to Sunfare. Then Scripps hired me to build their first-ever café for the corporate food service department. Seven years later we have four cafés, a production kitchen, and a catering kitchen — and that’s what I do today. On top of that, I’m currently working on a book.
Chef Works: Can you give us a sneak peek into your book?
Fri Reyes: It’s half memoir, half cookbook. I have certain memories with certain family members, and those “toll gates” are marked with the recipes and the food that we would create together. It’s somewhat of a self-help, too, because I grew up with anxiety and depression, and I used my craft to get through that.
Chef Works: It’s interesting you mention that cooking has helped you with your mental health, especially since the demands of the culinary industry can sometimes work against that. How do you find balance?
Fri Reyes: So I think that that has a lot to do with the individual. I agree this industry is one of those industries that if you are manic, it’s very difficult for you to keep a straight baseline because of everything going on around you. Many chefs have substance abuse problems because that’s the way that they chose to cope with the stresses that come with the job. Knowing the issues I had growing up, knowing I was wired the way I was wired, I knew that going down that path wouldn’t help me. I’m a very obsessive type of individual, and I’m assuming most chefs are anyway. Growing up, I learned how to work with my brain and body enough to understand what to do when I needed some help. I was big on martial arts and kickboxing. I use meditation a lot. Every morning I have this morning ritual where I wake up at 4 a.m., I work out, I meditate, I do prayers, and then I go about my day. Doing those things puts me in a calmer place. And it helps because as a chef for a company like Scripps, it’s not so much that I’m cooking and running a food service department; it’s really that I’m leading a team. For me to be effective in my role, I need to balance and ground myself first.
Chef Works: Like you mentioned, many chefs find that leadership becomes a huge part of their roles. What was it like for you to become a leader?
Fri Reyes: When I became the Executive Chef and R&D Chef at Sunfare, the leadership part came naturally with it. Sunfare is a big production kitchen. There are about 50 employees — some of them are prep, some are cooks, some are platers, some are delivery drivers. I was in the frontline for the day-to-day, so a lot of those different aspects would fall on my plate. When there are so many things on your plate, the most efficient way of tackling it is to deal with people. You have to know how to get through to a person to get the buy-in you need. You can do that through fear, but that’s not how you get respect. But, if you have them understand why you’re doing what you’re doing, they respect you more, then they invest more in what you’re doing. They go from people that come in to plate food, into people that come in to serve a customer. So I built the foundation for my leadership skills at Sunfare. And when I got to Scripps, I was lucky enough to report to a boss that mentored me even more.
Chef Works: What is your understanding of the role of healthcare food service?
Fri Reyes: There are two philosophies when it comes to healthcare food service that I always live by. The first revolves around what we do. My goal is to make Scripps a gold standard of the industry when it comes to healthcare food service. I want us to be the people that people look to, to see what’s possible and not possible when it comes to taking care of their patients through food. My second philosophy is towards the patients and customers. Imagine if you were a patient sitting in a room, there’s a lot of unknowns in front of you, and there’s things that you don’t have any control over. That’s a very stressful situation to be in, right? But for the 30 minutes to an hour that you’re eating a meal, if my team and I can make the best food you can have in your state, then at least it’s a welcome escape you didn’t expect. And that’s very powerful. I feel like food… you can’t just see it as sustenance. It is what it is, but you can’t see it as only that. I think food is almost a means to elevate you and lift you up from what you’re going through.