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'You can’t take care of other people unless you’re healthy'

How Mayo’s Wellness Executive Chef brings family, nutrition, and wellness to the table in new cookbook.

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Mayo Clinic Wellness Executive Chef Jennifer Welper.
Savannah Howe / Special to Rochester Magazine

To Rochesterite and Mayo Clinic Wellness Executive Chef Jennifer Welper, food is so much more than a way of life. It’s the start to life, the basis of life, and the key to a longer, happier life.

That’s the mission behind “Cook Smart, Eat Well,” Welper’s first—and Mayo Clinic’s newest—cookbook. The book’s 272 pages feature recipes vibrant in both color and flavor and universal to just about any lifestyle, from the college student to the mother of three to the busy executive.

But for Welper, the book is more than a culmination of nutritious and convenient recipes. It’s also a story of overcoming grief, struggling with permanent goodbyes, and finding a beacon of purpose in the darkness of loss.

The family table

Born and raised in Caledonia, Welper was working on the East Coast before Mayo’s wellness executive chef position brought her back to Minnesota eight years ago. Out East, she’d been using her culinary nutrition degree from Johnson & Wales University to work as an executive chef at the Hilton Head Health weight loss spa in South Carolina. But her memories of the kitchen date back to a time when she could barely see over the counter.

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“My mom was something fierce,” Welper recalls of her mother, a stern and no-nonsense woman who had her two children at 19 and 22 before diving into the working world as a software support specialist to provide for her family. “She never let anything stop her. She pushed through so many things in the ‘80s and ‘90s.”

Welper’s mother was passionate about dietetics and health. Her grocery list consisted of keywords like “diet,” “sugar-free,” and “lite.” It was from her that Welper learned the importance of sustaining the body by avoiding sugary foods and choosing whole, nutritious options where possible.

But on her grandparents’ dairy farm—where Welper and her brother spent much time while their young parents worked and went to school—she was introduced to a new passion in food. She would later combine this passion with the rules and regimes of nutrition taught by her mother.

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“Grandma and I did a lot of the hospitality stuff. Setting and clearing the table, baking, running for ingredients,” Welper says. From the warm kitchen of her grandparents’ farmhouse, Welper learned how to cook with equal parts butter and love. “I grew up in the kitchen.”

But when Welper was later rocked with loss—first that of her grandfather after a long struggle with heart disease, diabetes, and weight control, and years later the loss of her mother after an unexpected stint in the ICU—she had to answer a difficult question: How can nutrition in food and love in food be combined to nourish the mind, body, and soul?

“It always inspired me that [my mom] did so much for so many other people, but she forgot about herself. And that’s a big part of the cookbook, I think, is that we need to take care of ourselves, right? You can’t take care of other people unless you’re healthy,” Welper says. “Nutrition is so vital for all of us. And I think some of us could be around longer if we took better care of ourselves.”

Cooking smart and eating well

Welper blended these two unique forms of love in the kitchen—cooking smart and eating well—when curating the recipes for her book. On the surface, “Cook Smart, Eat Well” was a project to share advice on meal preparation and healthy eating. But on a more personal level, it was Welper’s attempt to press on through the grief after her mom passed away, a time when Welper was finding it hard to focus in the kitchen.

That loss was the fuel Welper needed to spark her lifelong goal of writing a cookbook. And with Mayo’s previous cookbook slated to stop printing, the timing was right.

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“I needed something to really keep myself going in a positive way,” Welper says. “And so I thought, I can kind of kill two birds with one stone. I can heal myself, do something great for work, and change lives in a better way. That was the best way to deal with my grief.”

Welper believes her mother is looking on with pride—and has the sign from above to prove it. Her book was published on January 4 of this year, a date randomly chosen by her publisher. It’s also the three-year anniversary of the day of her mother’s passing.

“I wouldn’t have been able to have this career, this life, without her working her tail off, going against adversity,” says Welper. “I feel like it’s my responsibility to make her proud.”

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Mayo Clinic Wellness Executive Chef Jennifer Welper.
Contributed / Mayo Clinic Press

“Cook Smart, Eat Well” is the average Joe’s approach to meal prepping. Its focus is maximizing time, equipment, ingredients and kitchen space. The book allows space for and doesn’t shame shortcuts, substitutions, or cooking from scratch—”you’re meeting yourself where you’re at,” Welper explains, and the book simply provides the framework for execution.

“I think a lot of us have our heads wrapped around meal prepping being a whole recipe here, a whole recipe there. Like everything’s from scratch and that’s the only way to be healthy. And that’s not it at all. It’s about cross-utilizing your ingredients.”

Healthy doses of wisdom

Welper has also take
n to the classroom to share the importance of a lifestyle rooted in nutrition, fitness, and wellness. She teaches healthy cooking classes through Mayo Clinic’s Healthy Living Program, where anyone—not just Mayo patients—can learn hands-on tips in meal preparation and cooking that will also support healthier choices in all aspects of life.

When she’s not breaking bread with new friends, Welper can be found cooking for the Minnesota Vikings and the Minnesota Gophers on the weekends, a large-scale operation that she calls “a beautiful atmosphere of culinary chaos.”

One of the people to take Welper’s mission to heart is her own personal biggest fan, her father. After recently suffering a stroke, Welper says her dad experienced what many people do: a face-off with their own mortality and the potential of time with loved ones cut short.

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Part of living life to the fullest is living life to its longest, so Welper’s father has placed a newfound sense of importance on healthy eating and nutrition. And his daughter can know that, if her work makes a difference to just one person, it’s one of the people that matters the most.

Outside of Mayo, Welper continues her grandmother’s legacy of using food as a fabric to bring people together. Through her personal business, JW Acres, she prepares in-home chef’s table dinners, where guests purchase a seat at Welper’s personal table and explore her curated menu alongside strangers.

“What I like about chef’s tables is that you might not know the other people at the table, but it builds such a connection. It forces us to put our phones down, and it’s just a different experience. We can all usually find some way to connect through something, somehow. And I love doing that over really good food. It’s just an experience that I think we’ve lost over the years.”

Related Topics: FOODMAYO CLINICEXCLUSIVE
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