Dana Minuta never has the same day twice. Zooming around New York, she works as a chef and cooks for some of the elite on the east coast. If she's not grilling in the Hamptons or whipping up gazpacho in Long Island, you can catch her in the basement of Manhattan's Renzo Gracie Academy. The blue belt has been training for the last several years and knows her way around an omoplata as well as an organic farm. As a female athlete and top chef, Dana is a trusted resource for many of the students at the academy to go to with their dietary concerns (or if they're like me, and want to know where to get the best tacos in NYC—she can tell you by borough).
PA: What is the exact title of your job? Where are the places that you have worked and what has been your favorite experience?
DM: I am a private chef. It's a niche business and I'm really lucky to have fallen into it.
After I finished college in 1999, I ended up working as a deckhand on wooden schooners, then eventually private sailing yachts. I learned quickly the value of eating well—and the power that great food can have on the spirit of the crew. When you sail offshore, you don't see land for days. You're put in the most uncomfortable situations—storms, hurricanes, heavy winds, rough seas. You're working 4 hours on, 4 hours off, and sleeping in a bunk that is constantly bouncing around and usually diagonal, so you never really sleep well. Some crew members would really get stripped of their sanity after a couple of days out at sea. I voluntarily took on the role of provisioning the boat and cooking for the crew for these long deliveries. Sailing from New England to the Caribbean would typically take 7-10 days. I found that when everyone was well fed, not only did the delivery go more smoothly, but the crew (usually 3-6 people depending on boat size) really bonded over the meals and were in better spirits. After 2 years on deck and 20,000 offshore miles, I was encouraged by my captains to take a full time role in the galley because they saw my passion for cooking and realized I had a little bit of talent.
I was eventually hired by charter guests who enjoyed my cooking and invited me to move to Boston to be their private cook. After a year of working for them, I realized I had reached the end of my self taught cooking knowledge. I took all of my hard earned savings, moved back to New York and enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America where I earned my AOS in Culinary Arts, finishing first in my class. I worked in restaurants for a short time. Gramercy Tavern in New York City (under Chef Tom Colicchio) and the North Fork Table and Inn in Southold, New York (under the late Gerry Hayden and Claudia Fleming).
I eventually chose to go back to being a private chef. With my education, experience, work ethic and eagerness to please my clients, I became highly sought after. I started cooking in a truly farm to table way, focusing on local organic ingredients.
Unfortunately, I cannot disclose who most of my clients have been over the years. They have been famous musicians, actors, presidential candidates, clothing designers, television personalities, billionaire hedge funders, philanthropists... it's a long list. I've been doing this for almost 15 years. I am really fortunate to have been appreciated by my more-than-amazing clients. I feel very lucky to be one of the most well-respected private chefs in NYC.
You're a badass: blue belt in Brazilian JiuJitsu, dog mommy, and role model to many of the women at the academy. How does food and health play into that? How do you find time to make good meals and how is that important to you?
I used to see a lot of people at the academy (both men and women) consuming food that is not real. Pre-packaged crap wrapped up in a plastic advertisement. Ingredients on the labels that cannot be pronounced. You can't replenish the body with chemicals if you expect to live a healthy, disease and cancer-free life. I'm really happy I've been able to help a lot of our athletes be more mindful about what they are putting into their bodies. It's no different than dumping synthetic fertilizer on your lawn to make it green, only to have to tear it up in a few years to lay sod because it looked great, but was not getting proper nutrients to allow it to really thrive.
It's not about finding the time to eat well. It's about making the time to eat well.
For many female athletes, we are told different things in regards to maintaining our health: counting calories or macros, eating only raw foods, juicing vegetables, and the like. What are the basics that you recommend?
There are so many fad diets and we live in a consumer-driven society. The science that backs up the studies we read are paid for by large corporations that want to sell us a product. This is why it's important to use common sense and get our clues from Mother Nature.
I look at my teeth. I think about what each tooth is meant to do. I base my diet on that. Our canines are the teeth that were meant to rip and tear meat. They are assisted by the premolars—but the premolars have other functions, too. So overall, about 20% of our teeth are designed for us to eat meat. As a result, I try to keep my animal protein consumption at around 20% of my diet. The incisors are meant to bite into foods like apples, bananas, carrots, celery, etc while the molars are meant for grinding leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, and grains. So, the other 80% of my diet is plant based.
In terms of being an athlete, hell, every human being is designed to be an athlete. We were meant to be nomadic. To walk the earth. To hunt and forage. We don't do that anymore. We sit at home with a remote control and wait for Seamless to deliver our food. So what we all do at the [JiuJitsu] academy is very primal. We force our bodies to do what they were built to do—exercise! As fighters, our exercise is different than hopping on a treadmill or lifting weights. We have to think. We have to be proactive. We have to outsmart our opponents—all the while exercising vigorously. It's what our ancestors did in the wild. Imagine being chased by a bear or hunting for your dinner. I believe that's the rush we get when we train to fight—and why so many of us are drawn to it.
As a female athlete, you have to remember that you are still a female. You produce more estrogen than a male athlete. You are going to have more body fat than your male training partners. You have monthly hormonal shifts. We were not put on the earth to do everything a man can do. We were put here to do everything a man CAN'T do. I think it's important to embrace that. Embrace your curves and know that you have the ability to actually grow a human being. And stop torturing yourself over eating your weight in pizza and chocolate once a month. Enjoy the binge, then get back on track with your healthy lifestyle.
What is your favorite dish to make and where do you buy most of your groceries? Do you focus on organic-only or locally sourced items?
My favorite dish depends on the season. For example, in the spring, I like anything with ramps, asparagus, morels, and rhubarb. I buy the majority of my food at Union Square farmer's market during the harvest seasons in NY/NJ. I supplement with food from Whole Foods and Eataly (they have great fish, BTW).
I definitely support locally grown and produced foods. I am anti-GMO and believe in organics. We only have one earth. And we've royally fucked it up with our factory-farmed foods. I try not to support that machine. I think it's important to support stewards of the land. To support farmers who actually create healthy soil to grow nutrient dense food.
Also, it's important to know that your beef should be grass-fed. Not grain-fed. This is a whole other subject and far too long of an explanation for this blog, so just trust me on it.
Is there a simple recipe that you have that you'd like to share?
One of my favorite snacks is 1/4 cup of Anita's coconut yogurt (available at Whole Foods and made in Brooklyn) whisked together with a tablespoon of peanut butter, topped with sliced banana, goji berries, and cacao nibs. Ask [teammates] Faye Farrales and Falyn Swerer. It's amazing!
In your eyes, how does food correlate to health? How important is it for us to be aware of what we are consuming?
Food is the fuel we put into our bodies to create the energy we need in order to sustain our daily activities. Eating well makes me feel unstoppable. And you cannot out-exercise a poor diet.
I had lost my focus on eating well for several months. I've been going through a divorce and had been out partying too much and not paying attention to my diet. It took its toll. I don't get sick that much but I had the flu twice this year. I also caught every cold that everyone else had. I know it's because I was not focusing on eating well and keeping my immune system strong. I had a lot of fun, but lost a lot of training time. I feel like I'm starting over right now, but it's okay because it was a really valuable lesson. I think life is about balance. We can't be perfect all the time.
When you are preparing for a competition, what are some things you focus on? Some individuals need to "cut weight" to be in a specific weight class. If you have to cut weight, what do you do to make it a safe process?
I've never really "cut weight". I have lost weight over a period of time for a tournament, mostly to challenge myself. In 2014, I was almost 170 pounds at the end of the summer. I decided I wanted to compete at 152 lbs with gi that October. So, I started making changes to my diet. Carbs only in the morning, then of course the 80/20 rule I talked about earlier.
It does not make sense for someone to really cut weight in JiuJitsu. Especially not at my level. You weigh in, then immediately step on the mat. It's not like MMA where you have 24 hours to replenish your body. I decided to go for the lower weight class to challenge myself, but I did it in a healthy way by changing my diet and lifestyle. I have maintained the 146-152 lbs weight for well over a year now, so for me it was the right decision.
While I still don't believe in cutting weight for a JiuJitsu tournament, I found myself in a predicament a few months ago. I had signed up for a tourney that required me to weigh in at 147 lbs. The weeks leading up to it, I hovered between 145 and 150 lbs. I knew all I would have to do would be to eat clean and cut out sugar, bread, and dairy (the three things that have always made me gain weight). However, I noticed that my weight was not going down.
The night before the tournament, I went to bed at 147 lbs. I woke up the next day at 153 lbs. I was baffled. But as it turned out, my monthly cycle decided to surprise me by being a whole week early. And yes, if you are a woman, you can put in 5 pounds overnight at the arrival of your cycle. So I basically did a weight cut. Not sure how I did it, but I managed it. I used water pills, spent a lot of time in the sauna, exercised, and hardly drank or ate. I never expected a 9-pound weight loss, but it happened.* I went onto the mat very weak. I was hungry, thirsty, and tired. I thought sheer willpower would be enough to let me win. I got snapped down in a guillotine and from there I remember nothing but being very disoriented. I lost the match. I learned a lesson on a personal level. Now knowing my body, I will not be comfortable competing at a certain weight unless I am 5 pounds under the week before.
*Pari's note: There is a difference between "cutting weight" and "losing weight". Cutting is intended for the individual to lose weight that will be rapidly regained or replenished (fighters cut weight to have an edge over their opponent; weighing-in at a smaller weight is a way to almost "trick" your opponent, as size often correlates to strength), while losing weight is a longer-term endeavor. Ideally, if you are trying to lose weight, you don't want to regain it rapidly, and cutting will almost always have you regain weight quickly. How Dana cut weight is a method similar to many fighters; however, the goal was short-term and you see how seriously she takes care of herself. Additionally, she had a team watching her to ensure her well-being. As an individual who battled an eating disorder, I feel like it is my responsibility to make this clear. Cutting weight is not safe long-term and should only be done under supervision of a trainer or a coach.
Can you sneak some junk food in "clean eating"?
I cheat ALL THE TIME. At least over the last few months I have. I'm going back to the clean eating 6 days/week, then 1 MAJOR cheat day where I can eat anything I want. That really worked best for me. Plus it gets all of my cravings out of my system. I feel so crappy by the end of the day, I can't wait to eat healthy again!!!
Doing JiuJitsu forced you to clean a lot of things up. How did doing that enhance your life?
I made a lot of great changes in the first 6 months. I found myself not going out and drinking because I simply could not handle the training hungover. I definitely started eating a lot cleaner. I found that being on the mats—and staying a little longer to talk to people and get to know them—curbed my need to go out. I am a highly social human being (in case you hadn't noticed... hahaha!). Now all of my best friends are my BJJ teammates (and some of the wonderful Muay Thai people upstairs! Love you all, too!!). And I have to honestly say that getting through my divorce with some semblance of sanity would simply not have been possible without my Renzo family.
Also, my body has changed in such wonderful ways thanks to Brazilian JiuJitsu. I am so strong now. I have so much more muscle. I have an ass for the first time in my life! Most importantly, I feel so confident.
You're a role model. You're definitely someone the other women look up to and feel safe around. Weight and health is something very sensitive for many. What is some advice you have for people who struggle with their weight or diet?
Thank you. I don't really think of myself as a role model. More like a cool big sister who will hand you a pack of condoms and never tell mom you're sneaking out of the house! I'm brutally honest as many know. I'll coddle some when they're going through their hardest times—then crack a joke so they stop taking themselves so seriously.
We only get to live this life once. There is no one way to do anything. It's important to remember that one bad meal is not going to make you unhealthy. Just as one good meal is not going to make you fit. So stop torturing yourself and live life. Find the balance that is right for you.
Educate yourselves and read some books on food, health, and nutrition. Some of the books that have influenced my diet most are: "Organic Manifesto"by Maria Rodale, "Omnivore's Dilemma", "In Defense of Food", and "Food Rules" all by Michael Pollan (the last one is a SUPER quick read so try it first for a great general overview), "Eating on the Wild Side" by Jo Robinson, "Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal" by Joel Salatin and "The China Study" by T. Colin Campbell.
Know that you are the ONLY person responsible for YOUR happiness. You must educate yourself and do the work. No one can do it for you. Never depend on anyone else to make you happy. It comes from within.
Finally, embrace who you are. Embrace every curve. Every imperfection. Stop looking at your teammates in the locker room thinking "I wish I had her arms, or her abs, or her legs or her butt." You need to put the work in—with training and diet to become the best YOU. When you are strong, fit, healthy, and happy from within, it radiates into your entire world. Other people will feel it, and then you can become a positive influence for others. As far as I'm concerned, that's the best thing you can do as a human being: to positively influence other people to make the most of their lives.
Photos courtesy of Dana Minuta