Gray Wolf Ranch’s ‘Team Mom’ & Chef Extraordinaire
Executive Chef Kelly Bell came to Gray Wolf Ranch nine years ago with an extensive background in the restaurant industry. “I’ve been cooking for almost 30 years, and I love it, but I love these guys even more,” she says.
Kelly, who views every meal as far more than “just food,” believes the young men she serves deserve to eat well. “Nutrition is crucial in early recovery. These guys have totally trashed their bodies, and they need to be well-fed,” she said. “I see mealtimes and snacks as opportunities to connect with the guys while keeping them nourished and providing what their bodies need to heal.”
In the Gray Wolf Ranch kitchen, everything is made from scratch and incorporates organic, non-GMO produce (locally grown, when possible) and humanely treated hormone- and antibiotic-free meat. “It was interesting for me to make the jump to Gray Wolf Ranch after working with fine chefs in fancy restaurants,” Kelly said. “I enjoyed my job, before, but I was making restauranteurs a buck. Now, I’m helping change lives! The most important ingredient in my kitchen is love, and the guys can feel it.
Like many homes, the Gray Wolf Ranch kitchen is a gathering place. “Residents migrate to the kitchen, and they spend a lot of time with me while they live at the Ranch,” says Kelly. “If there is a spark for the culinary in them and they show an aptitude for cooking and food prep, I engage that interest. We have some guys who had no idea how much they’d love cooking! It has been a heartfelt pleasure to mentor these young men that end up in culinary school and work at amazing restaurants.”
On the flip side, Kelly knows not everyone is cut out to wield a kitchen knife. “Part of ‘finding themselves’ means the guys try different things while they are here. It’s awesome to watch them discover who they are,” says Kelly. “And I still spend tons of time with residents who aren’t interested in cooking, since everyone helps with kitchen duties. I also teach everyone how to set a proper table. It’s a lost art, really, and it’s a great thing to know.”
Food That Fuels Emotional & Spiritual Growth
The Gray Wolf Ranch kitchen is almost always open since it’s the heart of the home. Residents have access from 7 a.m. to bedtime so they can find healthy snacks and wholesome comfort foods. According to Bell, menus change daily. “We may repeat cultures during a month, but the only two main courses I routinely repeat are burgers and pizza.”
Focused first on meeting the unique nutritional needs of recovering residents, Kelly says she “sneaks vegetables into just about everything,” and bakes comfort foods like homemade bread and cookies every day. “These guys are bumping up against really major issues,” she says. “Co-occurring disorders, heavy trauma from their past, and tough life stuff. They’re doing a lot of emotionally heavy lifting, and that homemade cookie or beautiful meal might be the best thing that happens to them that day. I love being the person that provides that for them.”
Taking special care to accommodate dietary restrictions, Bell provides customized menus for vegetarian and vegan residents as well as those with nut allergies, gluten intolerance and other food-related issues. “There is a lot of fear and control around food,” says Kelly, “These guys already have so many other things to spend their energy on, so I make sure meals are tailored to their unique needs—even if that means making five separate entrees.”
Celebrating Food With Purpose
“I know I play a maternal role—or maybe the ‘cool aunt’—for many of the young men living here. They put me in that place, and they often tell me things they haven’t broached with their counselors or are embarrassed to tell peers or sponsors,” Kelly says. “I take that opportunity to steer them in the right direction and encourage them to discuss every issue with their therapy team. I walk the line between completely loving them and still holding them accountable for their recovery.
Another of Kelly’s favorite job perks is the opportunity to celebrate with residents, staff and the broader community. Each year, she and the kitchen team invite the guys’ families to join them for a Thanksgiving or Christmas Eve meal. “Christmas dinner is elegant, while Thanksgiving is all about the sides,” says Kelly. “For some of these young men, it’s their first holiday away from home. They might have even ruined the last one, and that’s a heavy burden to bear. We bring them into a safe environment with their families while they still have the support of therapists and Gray Wolf Ranch staff.”
Gray Wolf Ranch prioritizes family events and celebrations throughout the entire year. Kelly and her staff provide food for monthly family programs, and the facility celebrates every holiday, including Easter, Independence Day, Memorial Day and Hanukkah. “I served brisket and latkas for the last day of Hanukkah, and it was a hit,” she said. “We serve guys from a lot of different cultures, so I take time to learn that region’s cuisine. I learned Afghani cooking for one of our residents. Another was Chinese-American and wanted his grandma’s specialty—so I taught myself the recipe.”
A Taste of Home
Though Kelly wants Gray Wolf Ranch residents to feel at home, she stops short of cooking their parents’ specialties. “We have a strong food memory, and I don’t want to impact an individual’s feelings associated with a mom’s or dad’s special recipe,” she said. “That food memory is sacred. I won’t interfere with it because I’d be doing that family a disservice.”
According to Bell, taste buds and olfactory senses trigger deep, strong memories for virtually everyone. “I have a funny little trick related to this,” she explains. “I put a pinch of dried coriander in almost everything I make. One day, these guys will taste coriander and remember the Ranch. They’ll remember what it felt like to be sober—whether they still are or whether they are struggling with relapse. I want that memory to be cemented in their mind: the joys of being sober and enjoying good food.”
Nutrition That Promotes Healing & Community
“Nutrition is a key part of therapy for these guys, and I feel like I have the very best job at the Ranch,” says Kelly. “I get to care for people. Not just the residents, but their families, sponsors, our staff and everyone doing good work around here. One of the most important parts of my job is just paying attention. Celebrating birthdays with the residents’ favorite cakes or baking their favorite cookies when they’ve had a difficult week. Most importantly, I want them to feel completely loved while they are here.”
According to Bell, Gray Wolf Ranch’s staff is what makes the facility genuinely unique. “Our entire staff is so devoted to these young men,” she said. “They will move heaven and earth to care for these students. Every one of them.”
To learn more about Executive Chef Kelly Bell and her team or to discuss your son’s dietary needs with our staff, call 206.629.8473. To begin your Gray Wolf Ranch journey, you can also fill out our confidential online form, and an admissions counselor will be in touch promptly to serve you.