Where Food and Medicine Intersect
By Emily J. Weitz
Emily Kessler is a chef who specializes in medically collaborative cooking, but she’s not willing to sacrifice the caliber of her cuisine. Her experience working at Blue Hill at Stone Barns and other Michelin star restaurants in Manhattan gave her a background in fine food, and she is regularly invited back to the James Beard House to cook. But it’s in the healing powers of food where the Greenport-based chef found her true calling.
So what came first: the food or the medicine?
That’s a hard thing to place. I would say they came hand in hand. My father is an incredible osteopathic physician, and I grew up with him schooling me at the dinner table. He would tell me my body is like a car, and the type of fuel I put in makes it run differently. I was always taught that medicine and food go hand in hand. We grew up in New York City, and we’d always be at restaurants. I always had this obsession with food, and restaurants, and being a chef. So it always worked hand in hand. It’s like the chicken and the egg. I’m not sure which came first because they were both there as long as I can remember.
When did you identify the connection between food and medicine?
My sister went to South Africa and contracted a parasite from drinking bad water, and it destroyed her gut. As a result, she developed food allergies. Coming from this family, we never were confronted about how to eat well and eat great food with these kinds of limitations. We started trying to recreate restaurant quality food in a way that was safe for my sister. We would try to find out how to replicate certain foods with these limitations.
Then I would see my father come home from a long day, and he was frustrated because if only his patients would eat these healthy ingredients. I knew I could help people like my sister who has food allergies, but also people like my father in the medical community. I saw that I could fill that gap and be that liaison. [By cooking food specifically for clients’ needs] I could help that client be in compliance with their diet. They could open their fridge and know what they can eat. It helps the doctor and helps the patient.
Do you work directly with doctors?
In most cases I do. Most of my clients are referred to me by doctors who have heard about me and are looking for that. Nutritionists are doing great things, but then it’s still the client’s responsibility. In my case I do the shopping, I stock the pantry, I do the cooking. I do everything. Every time I meet with a new client, I sit with them for an hour and find out their needs. Most doctors who care about nutrition will be doing blood tests and hormonal tests so we can look at those, as well as inflammatory responses to foods or environmental stimuli. There should be a lot of testing.
How is it beneficial to bridge the gap between food and medicine, as opposed to eating to live and popping pills to treat medical issues?
If you take a vitamin C pill, it will never be the same as eating a whole orange. Nature adds other nutrients and other fibers. It’s the power of the whole. Eating the whole orange is always going to be better than popping a pill. Nutrition is a puzzle and you need to put it all together the right way for it to work. There are some great quality supplements, but the majority of those over the counter pills, your body isn’t absorbing. They’re just coming right out.
It’s so important for people to eat the right way for their body. I want to stress that eating correctly doesn’t mean eating tofu and alfalfa sprouts. If you’re craving a particular thing, eat that and you’ll do well by your body. There are so many medical studies that show how important nutrition is. I need to listen to the client to see how food can help them. That’s where I think the difference is between taking a pill and having medical and nutritional intervention.
What are some of the medical issues you will work with through food?
Most mainstream doctors will say nutrition is a huge component of autoimmune disease. People with Crohns disease or MS [can really benefit from dietary interventions]. Cancer is a huge one. I am not saying that food cures cancer, but when you are on chemo, it’s important to eat food that strengthens your body and strengthens your immune system. People who eat well and listen to their bodies can heal much faster and recover from chemo symptoms much better. I don’t think food is an alternative treatment to medicine. They complement each other.
For someone with diabetes, you can add something like cinnamon to the diet, and that helps balance the glycemic load. So over the course of time you’ll see their levels will be safer and more balanced. There are lots of foods like that. So it’s not just about taking things away, but also adding. Diabetic patients are hugely affected by their food.
How do you help someone integrate your teachings into their lives so that working with you becomes the first step on a path to better health?
Clients that contact me are often not that into cooking. They want someone to come into their home, cook food for the week, and they don’t need to think about it. My job is to go in and listen to them, and create food they love so they’re happy to comply with their doctors’ orders and what they need. I ask what they’d eat if they didn’t need to worry about their diet. I ask what they crave. We talk about ingredients, texture, flavor, genres, Asian, Greek, Italian. I get information about what they love and hate and I put it together with what foods they should be avoiding and what they should be eating more of. I look in their kitchen, their spices, their setup, types of ingredients they use on a regular basis. I create a sample menu for the week, they say yes or no, then I go and prepare it for them.
If they want cooking lessons or they want their pantry stocked, I can do whatever they need. The majority of clients are happy to open their fridge and have me do everything, but I’m happy to do whatever it takes for a client to feel happy and successful and involved.
What are some of the most healing ingredients you work with? Some foods or herbs you come back to again and again?
Wild blueberries are very different in terms of nutrition from their supermarket counterparts; they have lots of cancer fighting properties. Cruciferous veggies like cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage are great in cancer fighting. Turmeric is anti-inflammatory, and great for people with autoimmune diseases or complications for surgery or gut issues. If cancer runs in your family, I might recommend eating bison instead of beef because beef breaks down into araphidonic acid, which is carcinogenic.
Emily Kessler cooks on Long Island and in New York City. To learn more, go to emilykessler.com.
Healthy, and Delicious
Kessler hesitates to designate a certain dish as “heart-healthy” across the board because she knows each person as his/her own constitution that makes certain foods preferable to others in a given situation. But the following recipes have profound health benefits and taste like gourmet cooking.
Chicken Coconut Curry
2 tsp. curry powder
1 tsp. turmeric
1 13-and-1/2 ounce can coconut milk
1/4 tsp. allspice
Freshly ground black pepper
½-cup cilantro, chopped (optional, but so good for you)
1 lime, for juice
4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts
Bring 2 cups of water to boil in large pot. Add brown rice and salt. Lower heat, cover, and allow rice to simmer for 45 minutes. Fluff rice with fork.
Heat 1 Tbsp. of coconut oil in small saucepan. Add curry powder and stir for 1 minute. Add coconut milk and simmer until liquid is reduced by half. Reserve.
In a large, heavy skillet heat 2 Tbsp. of coconut oil.
Season chicken with salt, pepper, all spice. Brown on both sides. If your chicken has skin, cook it with the skin side down first so that it gets brown and crispy. Once chicken is cooked, cut into thin strips. Combine coconut curry sauce and chicken and stir. Add lime juice to taste. Garnish chicken with cilantro, and enjoy.
Miso Salmon with Sautéed Garlicky Bok Choy
2 Tbsp. sweet white miso
1 Tbsp. rice vinegar
1 Tbsp. honey
1 tsp. soy sauce (tamari if you are gluten free)
2 6-8oz pieces of salmon or any thick fish
2 Tbsp. of high heat oil (canola, coconut, veg, avocado etc.)
3 garlic cloves, chopped
2 heads of baby Bok Choy (depending on the size, you can adjust this) washed and sliced with one-inch width.
Brush glaze onto salmon. Broil on high until the top of the salmon is bubbly and the glaze caramelizes. This can take about 7 minutes. I prefer my fish medium rare but you can cook it a bit more or less depending on what you prefer.
While salmon is broiling, heat a pan over medium heat with oil. Toss in sliced Bok Choy. Wait a minute then toss in chopped garlic and a pinch of salt. Sauté until just tender. I enjoy when it’s a bit crunchy. The garlic should be fragrant but not brown which creates a bitter taste.
Place fish on top of Bok Choy and enjoy