Vegetarian Action

Chef Ralph Estevez

An Interview with the Team Chef of the Washington Redskins by Melanie Campbell

I don't know about you, but when I think of football, the last thing that comes to mind is vegetarianism. So, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that not only is Ralph Estevez a vegetarian, but also that this chef for the Washington Redskins incorporates vegetarian meals into the football team's menus.

Ralph Estevez was born in Brooklyn, New York, and grew up in a Cuban-Italian family with a strong passion for cooking. Traveling through foreign countries only intensified this affinity and influenced his cooking style. Eventually, his passion would lead him to the Baltimore International College, School of Culinary Arts.

Since graduating from culinary school, Ralph has spent the past 22 years working as a professional chef for high-profile companies and institutions, including Disney's MGM Studios, Citibank, JP Morgan, Legg Mason, Verizon, and Sinai Hospital in Baltimore. Ralph has also been a chef at major sporting events, such as Super Bowl XXXVII and six U.S. Open golf tournaments.

Today, Ralph, who has been a vegetarian since 1996, is married with two young daughters. He currently works seven days a week as the team chef for the Washington Redskins. In what little spare time he has, he volunteers for the Harford County Humane Society in Maryland and for The Vegetarian Resource Group.

As a frequent VRG volunteer, Ralph has disseminated information on vegetarian and vegan nutrition and done cooking demonstrations at events like the Johns Hopkins University Spring Fair, the Baltimore Book Festival, and the School Nutrition Association Convention. Last year, at the Richmond Vegetarian Festival in Virginia, Ralph prepared a vegan chicken gumbo for his cooking demonstration as a tribute to the Redskins players and coaches who have ties to the Hurricane Katrina-devastated Gulf Coast region. Ralph relishes the opportunity to meet people at the various festivals, especially when they become excited after they find out what he does for a living and how he incorporates vegetarian dishes into his repertoire. Ralph truly enjoys when someone tastes one of the dishes that he has prepared and has no idea that it is vegan.

It was only a matter of time before Ralph's vegetarian lifestyle would influence his work with the Redskins. Athletes tend to have very specific dietary needs, and they know all too well the results of putting unhealthy food in their bodies. Armed with this knowledge, Ralph began incorporating more healthful food items into his menu rotation. He often uses tofu, a Swiss vegan seasoning mix, and xanthan gum as a thickener. His words of advice when it comes to cooking vegetarian is not to get caught in the veg cooking rut (continually preparing the same dishes over and over again). Many vegetarian and vegan dishes can be prepared identically to non-vegetarian dishes with a few simple substitutions.

For individuals currently working in food service who want to introduce vegetarianism into their place of business, Ralph suggests that you arm yourself with as much knowledge and research as possible. Know your cuisines and their history, and go for it. If it doesn't come out right, don't stop until it does. Start out small, maybe soups, and expand from there.

Melanie Campbell wrote this article during a dietetic internship with The Vegetarian Resource Group.