You are what you eat.
This metaphor on life is what makes Chef Emily Schlag’s job so rewarding. Chef Emily, who is also a registered dietitian, is the director of the new Center for Culinary Medicine and Teaching Kitchen at the SBH Health and Wellness Center. The center is scheduled to open this summer.
During her career, she’s seen first-hand how teaching people to change their diet and giving them the hands-on tools they will need to prepare their food can be truly life altering. Twisting the phrase famously uttered by football coach Bill Parcells, “If they want you to cook the dinner, at least they ought to let you shop for the groceries” – the former Giants’ coach was referring to acquiring his players as well as coaching them – Chief Emily teaches her students what healthy food they need to shop for and then shows them how to cook it in the tastiest manner. After all, you can teach people about the importance of eating foods like quinoa and kale, but if they don’t taste good, no one will want to eat them.
With a lifelong love of food, Chef Emily previously worked at the Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine at Tulane University in New Orleans, the first dedicated teaching kitchen to open at a medical school. Here, she cut her teeth on the “Health Meets Food” curriculum, which was designed to alter the dialogue between healthcare professionals and their patients about food and health.
She’s now brought this knowledge to the new SBH Health and Wellness Center. Here, she will blend the art of cooking with the science of nutrition and medicine, providing an evidence-based approach to patient care. Educating through a “food-first” approach, the center will include both beginner and intermediate classes, with students receiving lessons in nutrition as well as hands-on and online cooking classes. The classes will help participants relate the skills they learn in class into their own cooking and eating habits at home.
The SBH Health and Wellness Center was built to create a synergy between the Center for Culinary Medicine, the Healthplex Fitness Center and the Rooftop Farm (which will provide fresh produce and honey). Together they will provide a “one-stop shop” that can help residents of the Bronx – the least healthy county in New York State – become healthier and have more control over their lives. The Cabrini Foundation, which provides funding to improve the health and well-being of vulnerable New Yorkers, bolster the health outcomes of diverse communities, eliminate barriers to care and bridge gaps in health services, recently awarded the center a $200,000 grant. This will provide free cooking and exercise classes for 125 community members entered into the program. These will be hand-selected patients who suffer from such chronic illnesses as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity. (To learn more about patient eligibility, contact Daniel Bonilla 718-960-9473, firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Patient Case Study
To reduce readmission rates, Tulane University Medical Center was encouraging heart failure patients to enroll in cooking classes at the Goldring Center as a means to improve their overall health. Jack (not his real name) was one of those patients.
“It was challenging to get these patients to come, but those who came loved it,” Chef Emily remembers.
“For his first class, this man, in his 60s, came into the kitchen walking with a cane. He was unsteady on his feet, his hands shook and he needed the medical student paired with him to help him use his knife.”
Over the weeks ahead, she noticed subtle, then more obvious changes in Jack’s health and appearance.
“Pretty soon his cholesterol and blood pressure were down, his A1C was under control, his hand tremor was gone and he lost weight. He had a bit of a spring in his step that he certainly didn’t have at first. One day, he said: ‘If you eat healthier you will feel healthier and live longer.’ It was an epiphany of sorts. He was so thankful.”
At the new SBH Health and Wellness Center the focus will be on education. Chef Emily and her staff will offer nutritional information and hands on cooking classes to members of the community, physicians (who can earn CME credits) and medical students, local schools, and interested private groups.
“People listen to their doctors more than anyone and if they can be seen walking the walk, not just talking the talk, it will make a difference,” she says. “If someone sees them eating a salad with beans and broccoli, maybe they will try it as well.”
In preparation for the official opening of the center, Chef Emily has been providing cooking demos on preparation of foods ranging from pickled red onions, to New Orleans-style red beans, to kitchen sink salad. (To view the videos visit www.youtube.com/channel/UCY6CHqk9EdUwakWazpguKYg.)
Beginners classes will cover the basics, including how to hold a knife, cut an onion, read a recipe, and roast just about anything. “People often want to skip the beginner classes because they already know how to cook, but getting back to the basics can really help with speed and efficiency when cooking,” Chef Emily explains. “I can’t tell you how many times people have told me they’ve been cutting onions wrong their entire lives! They’re so happy to realize there is a much quicker and easier way to cut most produce.” Intermediate classes will build on the culinary nutrition principles learned during the beginner classes and will focus on more advanced cooking techniques and recipes. Students will learn how to eat healthy and well by following recipes that use oil instead of lard, substituting brown for white rice, baking goods with whole grains, and relying on homemade seasoning blends to build flavor without going overboard on salt.
Such a program is of paramount concern in the Bronx, a county rife with food scarcity and insecurity. At a recent focus group, community residents spoke about their difficulty in finding healthy foods near where they live. “Everything around here is fast food,” said one. According to another, “There are no smoothie places. Instead, there’s Popeye’s, Wendy’s, Burger King.”
They said they want an opportunity to buy fresh fruits and vegetables and healthy beverages, and learn how to take those foods they’re familiar with culturally and make them healthier, and to learn how to cook those cuisines (e.g. Mediterranean) they perceive as healthy.
As an example, for those students who want to continue eating the Latin-style foods they grew up with in a healthier fashion, Chef Emily says she might include creating homemade salt-free Adobo or Sazon seasoning blends rather than use store-bought varieties that tend to be very high in salt. A tostones recipe might be baked rather than fried, and a locrio de pollo dish would likely find an increased amount of vegetables (e.g. onions, pepper, garlic), with tomato sauce and olives added for flavor, with lower sodium content.
Research, after all, has shown that food can fight disease, reduce medical costs and heal broken communities. Chef Emily wants to teach her students that food that is healthy can also taste good. She hopes to convince them that armed with the right knowledge they can learn to treat chronic conditions like hypertension and diabetes in their families and their community more effectively with a recipe and a cooking pan than with a prescription.