Campus News

Medical students ditch their white coats for chef’s coats

Medical students work in the Culinary Arts department kitchens of SUNY Erie Community College as part of the Introduction to Culinary Medicine pilot course. Photos: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki


Published March 4, 2020

“Culinary medicine and nutrition are subjects that most medical schools don’t dedicate enough time to. Together with my medical, culinary and dietetics colleagues, we are committed to changing that. ”
Helen Cappuccino, clinical assistant professor of surgery
Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences

A new, interprofessional course being taught this month to UB medical students doesn’t take place in a lab or a classroom. Instead, it’s happening in the Culinary Arts department kitchens of SUNY Erie Community College. And instead of white coats, the students wear chef’s coats and toques.

Along with UB graduate student dietitians, they’re taking “Introduction to Culinary Medicine,” a pilot course in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB that’s helping them understand food and health in a new way.

They apply their lessons immediately, preparing meals every Wednesday afternoon in the kitchens of the Culinary Arts department at SUNY Erie’s City Campus. They’re also learning about some of the things that prevent patients from eating healthfully.

‘Mealtime is a special time’

The idea for the course came together as culinary medicine was emerging both nationally and locally. But faculty member Helen Cappuccino, clinical assistant professor of surgery in the Jacobs School, traces her interest in the food/health connection back to her childhood.

“Being raised in an Italian family, so much of our family life was transacted around the table,” says Cappuccino, who is also assistant professor of oncology in the breast surgery division at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. “Eating good foods that were flavorful and nourishing was always important, but it wasn’t just about getting calories in. It was about the family bonding at the table, about moderation, about trying new things. Mealtime is a very special time — for laughing, for loving and savoring at once.”

As a breast cancer surgeon, Cappuccino keeps current with studies of how different foods might impact cancer. Her patients often bring it up.

“A cancer diagnosis often shakes people to their foundation,” she says. “It makes them introspective and questioning of everything they did and thought they knew. Diet is no exception. I spend a lot of time talking to them about factors they can control, including diet, smoking cessation, physical activity, maintaining optimal body weight and alcohol.”

In 2014, Cappuccino had the opportunity to attend a course at the Goldring School for Culinary Medicine at Tulane University. When she found out that SUNY Erie faculty members Kristin Goss, associate professor and chair of the Culinary Arts department, and Dorothy Johnston, assistant professor in the department, had attended the same course, they began to discuss how to bring culinary medicine to Buffalo.

All three knew each other as members of the Buffalo chapter of the Chaînes des Rôtisseurs, the local chapter of an international food and wine society.

Kristen Goss, associate professor and chair of the Culinary Arts department at SUNY Erie Community College, gives some guidance to a student as he shreds carrots.

Bringing culinary medicine to Buffalo

“Through the same food and wine group, we connected and began our mission to bring a culinary medicine course to the Jacobs School,” Cappuccino says.

SUNY Erie culinary arts faculty had begun developing a curriculum not just for their own students, but also to share with local medical and dietetics students. The goal is to eventually make this kind of curriculum available to local health care providers.

“A cancer diagnosis and realization of what I could change personally and professionally started this initiative five years ago,” Goss says. “I shared an office with our department chair at the time, Dorothy Johnston, and honestly stated, ‘I need to make our culinary nutrition class better and this is where I want to start.’”

With assistance from Johnston and Cappuccino, who has supported the SUNY Erie Culinary Arts program through her affiliation with the Chaînes des Rôtisseurs, Goss says they began to develop the course, with Nicole Klem, program director of the dietetic internship in UB’s Department of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, and Lisa Jane Jacobsen, associate dean for medical curriculum at the Jacobs School, spending countless hours coordinating between the institutions in order to make the course a reality.

“This recent collaboration has been a tremendous gift,” Goss says.

Chef instructor Kyle Haak watches as students chop vegetables.

Intensive elective

The Jacobs School pilot course is being offered as an intensive, month-long elective. “Students do modules online about the science of food, why food is medicine, and then they go to SUNY Erie to learn about healthy recipes and the principles of food preparation,” explains Jacobsen clinical associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology.

The curriculum involves a journal club, a standard aspect of many medical school courses where students meet to discuss the latest scientific papers in a particular field. They also practice what they’ve learned on standardized patient volunteers, individuals trained to simulate real patients with specific conditions.

“They learn to elicit nutrition histories and how to counsel patients on nutrition,” Jacobsen says, adding that, as with much of the medical school curriculum, the course includes an emphasis on understanding the factors that prevent patients from living as healthfully as they might want to.

“In the module on food insecurity, the students are given a very limited budget. They will be expected to take the bus to the supermarket, buy food for a family and come back to the kitchen to prepare it,” she says. “They need to learn about barriers to healthy eating, which could be financial, or transportation, a lack of knowledge. All these cultural influences could have an impact.”

Jacobsen notes that physicians are often called upon to discuss nutrition with their patients, whether the patient is diabetic or pregnant or has hypertension or a common gastrointestinal complaint.

“Culinary medicine and nutrition are subjects that most medical schools don’t dedicate enough time to,” Cappuccino says. “Together with my medical, culinary and dietetics colleagues, we are committed to changing that.”