Kendall College (Credit: Kendall)

If the partnership between University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine and Kendall College were a recipe, it would call for two years of prep time.

That’s how long it took a PhD student at University of Illinois-Chicago, two holistic-minded physicians at University of Chicago, and a chef/registered dietician at Kendall College to gather the ingredients to launch the pilot program teaching future doctors culinary medicine.

The program, which wraps up its four-week pilot this week, seeks to supplement medical students’ clinical training with hands-on nutrition knowledge. The aim is that medical students will walk away, not just with a better idea of the food chemistry that can aid a patient in reducing hypertension or high blood pressure, but also time in the kitchen that can help students improve their own health and give genuine nutrition advice to their patients.

In the classroom

Ingredients for a healthy recipe.

The idea first came to Sabira Taher, a PhD student at the University of Illinois- Chicago’s school of public health, via a serendipitous press release. Taher’s older sister is a doctor who works with underserved populations in Chicago, and often sees patients with a risk of chronic diseases, like diabetes. She told Taher, who got her masters in public health at New York University, how she desired more nutrition education to give better diet advice.

Around the same time, Taher came across a press release touting Tulane University School of Medicine’s Goldring Culinary Medicine Center, which provides a teaching kitchen and culinary curriculum for medical students. The lightbulb went on: Taher decided to start a center for culinary medicine in Chicago.

“Comprehensive nutrition education isn’t common in medical schools,” Taher said. “Surprisingly very few med students receive comprehensive diet and nutrition education for disease management, even though many students clamor for it.”

On average, doctors receive 19 hours of nutrition education throughout their entire time in medical school, according to a study done in 2010. So those who are passionate about teaching nutrition in Chicago quickly hopped on board. Taher first connected with two doctors at

UChicago medical students in class at Kendall College.

UChicago: Dr. Geeta Maker-Clark, coordinator of the integrative medicine program and Dr. Sonia Oyola, family medicine clerkship director. She then successfully cold-called chef Renee Zonka, then dean at Kendall College, who just happened to be a registered dietician and a proponent of food as medicine. Maker-Clark and Oyola would handle the classroom teaching, while Zonka would lead in the kitchen.

Though the team quickly assembled, it took the next two years to convince one of the top medical schools in the country that they should send their notoriously busy students to the kitchen on top of their regular schoolwork. But with a grant from the Women’s Board of University of Chicago, and curriculum developed through Tulane, they got the green light for a four-week pilot program hosted at Kendall this spring.

In the kitchen

On a recent Friday afternoon, about 16 mostly first and second-year University of Chicago medical students listened as Maker-Clark explained the benefits of “umami,” which she described as that “savory, robust” flavor that separates the food we cook at home from the food in restaurants. Half the battle is psychology, she pointed out–teaching an old palette, new tricks. That is usually easier when food tastes good.

Students chop onions.

“Always talk about adding, rather than taking away,” Maker-Clark advised students.

Students discussed ingredient ideas for common chronic health issues, adeptly explaining why a patient with joint pain would want to cook with turmeric (it’s an anti-inflammatory, and quickly absorbed when paired with black pepper).

Zonka admitted the students, though brilliant in the classroom, weren’t as initially skilled in the kitchen: “They’re green,” she said with a laugh. “But they’re trying.”

One of their first lessons was learning how to chop an onion. When the class went down to the test kitchen to practice recipes and techniques, it was clear they applied their study skills to food prep practice: the onions were as meticulously diced as if a scalpel sliced the vegetable.

“I wanted to learn more about nutrition for myself, and how to better educate patients in nutrition, which we weren’t getting in class,” said Alyssa Wiener, a first year medical student in the class, adding that in the classroom, nutrition is often talked about in minerals and macronutrients. “It’s hard to say that to most people. It’s not relevant or easy to incorporate into their life.”

To make the course especially relevant, over the four weeks students developed recipes specific to four diseases: hypertension, obesity, cardiac problems, and diabetes. In this particular class, students learned how to properly chop broccoli, sear low-sodium pork tenderloin, and prepare mashed sweet potatoes. In June, the students will do a community workshop with Sweetwater Farms on the south side, using ingredients they pick on the urban farm to create recipes for residents.

Chef Renee Zonka demonstrates how to cut broccoli.

Beyond that, the team hopes to expand to a full eight-week program in the future. Taher hopes to bring in more Chicago-area medical schools, and eventually create a center for culinary medicine in Chicago.

Zonka’s passion for nutrition in culinary school is already apparent in the curriculum she developed at Kendall, which nearly qualifies students to sit for a Certified Dietary Managers exam after graduation (they have to take one extra class). But she wants to see more culinary students considering nutrition as an extension of a culinary degree. “People are living in long term [care] facilities for a longer time. They want good food. They want it to be delicious,” Zonker pointed out. “That’s where the culinary comes in: having that training is a gold card that can get students into any job.”

Ultimately, Maker-Clark said it comes down to ensuring those who will be caring for patients in the future first learn to take care of themselves.

“It all comes full circle,” she said. “They are able to make those small, incremental changes in their own lives, and then take it to patients. That counsel is worth its weight in gold.”


Karis is a Minnesota native and Chicago resident writing about tech and startups for Minne Inno and Chicago Inno. Got a newsy tip (or a coffee shop recommendation) for either place? Email: Tweet: @karishustad