Perhaps the greatest challenge for a chef is cooking for people whose taste buds have been compromised through disease.
I believe in the power of food to heal wounds both physical and spiritual by developing healthy, nourishing meals that can satiate those who, owing to disease, claim to have no appetite. After more than a decade of cooking for people with cancer I still ask, “How am I ever going to make these people taste pleasure instead of feeling pain? Which foods can pierce this veil of illness?”
You’re not just a chef, you’re a soul awakener.
The first time I cooked at Commonweal’s Cancer Help Program, in Bolinas, California, I felt the first bile of panic rising…and then I heard a voice. Not mine. But nonetheless very, very familiar. A woman who I only met for ten minutes in my life, who went by nothing more than “Sugar.” She was an oracle with a burger and fries on the day I’d met her many years ago; she’d plopped down next to me at a café, unannounced—indeed, uninvited. It was shortly before my first Commonweal experience. She asked me what I did. I blathered a long-winded culinary version of my Holy Grail, which she chopped down to size between greasy bites. “You’re not just a chef, you’re a soul awakener,” she clucked. “You, my dear, have the opportunity to allow these people’s souls to be nourished. You are the catalyst. Through cooking, you can free them from the weight of their daily thoughts and pain. You can connect them to a higher beauty through food.”
I stared, stunned, at this Socrates slathered in Heinz. She grinned like a pixie, dabbed at the corners of her mouth with a napkin, got up, and turned around just before she exited the café.
“Food,” she announced to the assembled in the restaurant, “restores the soul.”
I fell asleep to the echoes of Sugar’s words and awoke with a game plan. The first meal I made was a light Mediterranean lunch, complete with a salad made with organic romaine hearts just picked at a farm down the road. A nice—if standard—start, but the fun came in tweaking each dish in a way that would awaken the participants’ desensitized taste buds.
If I had any doubts about the power of these foods to catalyze contentment, it was my trips outside the kitchen that put those qualms to rest. A Moroccan stew with tomato mint chutney might not mean much in a restaurant setting, but to these people it was a miracle. Cancer had robbed them of so much enjoyment, yet at Commonweal they came to realize their disease no longer had a grip on their taste buds.
By Wednesday, when I delivered a steamy tureen of Carrot Ginger Soup with Cashew Cream to the table, everyone applauded. Before they’d even taken a bite. I just grinned, and as I walked back to the kitchen I gave silent thanks to all the ancestral cooks that came before me. Oh yeah, and to Sugar as well for reminding me that I was a catalyst to deliver taste and flavor that could, for even a brief moment, transcend pain and provide pure joy.