Ryana DeArmond

Ryana DeArmond, head chef of The Green Mango.

Redefining Normal: Ryana DeArmond

More Than Good Enough:
How a successful private chef ended up
in small town Cambodia teaching at-risk girls how to cook.

by Brooke Hartman

We sat at the back of a Chinese noodle shop, fans aimed in every direction, puddles of condensation on the table from our chilled water, and waited over an hour for our hand-made noodles.  It was Ryana’s only day off, and she had ushered us from the bus station, to the dormitory, to the noodle shop to the Green Mango, where she is the head Chef. Half-starved and dripping with sweat, I wondered:  Why in the world would she leave her successful, air-conditioned, time-oriented career as a chef and move to Cambodia?

Ryana going over new recipes with students of the Culinary Training Center.

Ryana going over new recipes with students of the Culinary Training Center.

“Something inside me wasn’t satisfied,” Ryana told me. “And I was willing to search for it.  A lot of people in life settle for good enough. Everything I had was good enough, but I knew with God it could be better.”

Boom. She had me hooked. As a person who three months ago was living a good enough life in Carmel, IN with a good enough job and a good enough house, good enough climates and a general 98.6 degrees of normal, what could give me a holy fever?

In culinary school, Ryana had made a few 10-year and 20-year goals. She wanted to be a sous chef in a big city, and then open her own restaurant. Every decision she made at the time was leading her down that track, and the track made total sense. She interned at an Asian fusion restaurant and was later hired as a chef a block off Michigan Ave in Chicago, with meals averaging $50-$70 per person, per night—and lived a block from Wrigley Field! It’s exactly the life she’d dreamed of. Wow, she thought. I made it.

Because of Ryana, these girls are receiving a level of culinary education most would only dream of.

Because of Ryana, these girls are receiving a level of culinary education most would only dream of.

“Then one night,” Ryana explained, “I was sitting at home and had just been reviewed by food critic with a good review. This is great, I thought, but it doesn’t mean anything. I was spiritually empty.”

Just like that, she packed up, sublet her apartment and moved into her grandmother’s attic in Appalachia. She started asking God what his plan was, because for the past few years she hadn’t considered that at all.  In the meantime, she started an in-home cooking business for the elite in her Tennessee town—for what purpose? To FEED THE HOMELESS AND NEEDY with her profit! Establishing and running her own business meant creating a business plan, designing menus and courses—all in ways that would allow her to cook and help people at the same time. She connected with homeless shelters and went downtown to talk to people and build relationships.

She did this for about a year and a half, and again, it was good enough, she told us, but she just felt like God had more for her.  “My heart wasn’t completely happy. This job was my Burger King—it was good, it served a purpose, but in the end I was not satisfied. Sometimes you just want something more, you know?”

Teaching at the Green Mango combines Ryana’s skills, gifts and passions in a truly unique way.

Teaching at the Green Mango combines Ryana’s skills, gifts and passions in a truly unique way.

I did know. I can remember how satisfied I was at the counseling practice I worked for until I saw a sliver of light from another door leading to an entirely different life.  It’s not logical. It’s not explainable. It’s not normal. But what if it is normal? What if giving up your good enough life for a radical one with God—one that requires total faith and dependence—is actually what a normal Christian is?

“I really started thinking that God wanted me to go somewhere,” Ryana said. She remembered the call missions had on her life in high school. She asked some missionary friends, “How do you do it? How do you make that change from corporate America?  What do you do with your stuff? Your car? Your cell phone plan? How can you be sure that God will take care of you?”

These are all the barriers that keep most people in a life that’s just good enough.

“It just goes back to faith,” Ryana said. “You let go and start walking. If you have stuff, you start selling. Store your car, rent the house, suspend the cell phone plan.”

The same missionary friends told Ryana about CGI’s search for a single, female, trained chef to start a restaurant and culinary training program Cambodia.

The Green Mango Café and Bakery

The Green Mango Café and Bakery

“When I heard that,” Ryana said, “I felt inspired, like whoa! I meet all those needs. I have a love for Asian food and I’d worked at an Asian restaurant. Looking back at my life, all the random pieces started to make sense. In Tennessee I mentored High School girls. My business degree enabled me to start a cooking business from scratch and write menus for different clienteles.”

Ryana contacted CGI after learning about the position, met with the board, visited Cambodia, and accepted the position. She now runs the Green Mango restaurant and the Culinary Training Center. “I look at those 10 and 20-year goals,” Ryana said, “And God still let me have every one.”

As a culinary school student, Ryana never dreamed that her life would lead her to this place. But after hearing her story, both she and I agree: It’s so much more than good enough.