This past September, our graduate Marti Wolfson joined the staff of Blum Center for Health in Rye Brook, New York as its Culinary Director. The Center, started by Dr. Susan Blum, is an integrative health center with a focus on functional medicine, a patient-tailored approach that among things considers the role diet plays in wellness. Here we took the opportunity to ask Marti about her role as resident culinary instructor, chef, consultant, and food and healing expert.
Marti, you have a diversified and extensive background in health and alternative healing. In addition to attending Natural Gourmet and your current job as Culinary Director for Blum Center, tell us what else you’ve studied and practiced.
As a dancer and gymnast, since the age of 6, I was always fascinated with the body – its form and function. My undergraduate degree is in Dance and Exercise Science from Skidmore College. While in school I took my first Pilates class and was hooked – so much so that I did my thesis on Pilates, which was published in the Journal of Dance Medicine and Science.
Looking back, that double major involved everything I went on to study: movement, performance, nutrition, exercise physiology, kinesiology, and research. After college, I became a certified Pilates teacher and went on to become certified in other body conditioning modalities such as Gyrotonic. In 2007, I became a certified BodyTalk practitioner. BodyTalk is an energy medicine system that returns the body to a state of relaxation by synchronizing all of our parts into one unified whole.
Pilates was my entryway to understanding the connection on a physical level; yoga did this for me on a mental and spiritual level; and my studies in food and healing have taught me so much on a physiological level. During my year at NGI I became very passionate about cooking for people living with cancer, thanks to Laura Pole’s public class. I also had the opportunity to attend a course, Cancer Guides, with the Center for Mind Body Medicine in D.C, which focused on cancer patients having a voice in their health and how important nutritious food is in the healing process.
How and where did your association with Blum Center for Health begin? What drew you to this particular job when you already had so much going on professionally?
Sometimes the best opportunities happen when you’re not even looking. I was running my own wellness business in NYC, as a private chef for cancer patients and seeing clients for Pilates and BodyTalk. One day I was hiking in Sedona when I got a call from a colleague who referred me to Dr. Susan Blum, a functional medicine doctor, who was expanding her private medical practice into an integrative health center which would include a cooking program. I was hired last September before we broke ground so our relationship developed before our doors opened in January.
The position had so much of what I was looking for to develop my career and interests. First and foremost was the ability to work with a team of integrative health professionals. Secondly, Dr. Blum is a brilliant doctor who believes and practices food as medicine and mindful living. Medicine, cooking and meditation are fully integrated at the Blum Center for Health.
Our mission is to educate people about how they can live the fullest life by consciously preventing disease and restoring health through positive lifestyle choices. It’s not about eating vegetarian, vegan, raw, paleo, etc. It’s about listening to your body, staying informed, and finding health by learning what makes you feel good inside and out.
What does Culinary Director do on a daily basis? You are teaching, clearly. Are you developing curriculum? What’s your typical day like?
I don’t think I have a typical day, which I love! As the culinary director, I am constantly busy building the curriculum and all programming in our kitchen. Our program reaches out further than just our classes. We have a wonderful corporate cooking program in which corporations can use our culinary services as a team-building activity or an in-house presentation.
So I am out in the Westchester community doing everything from “Iron Chef” competitions to food education classes with Fortune 500 companies. We also do fundraisers and community wellness fairs where I do food demos. This summer I’ve been very active at the farmer’s markets doing cooking demonstrations. I also do a lot of private culinary nutrition consults and private cooking lessons.
I really enjoy customizing a lesson for the individual. You have to be creative and understand the person in front of you. I’ve had everyone from weight loss patients to a college girl with celiac disease. For her, we came up with a whole class on cooking gluten-free in her dorm room.
This fall I’m starting a monthly movie night based on food as medicine and environment themes. I’ll also be doing a monthly supper club which will feature a multi-course farm-to-table dinner. And there are ongoing on-camera and print media interview opportunities.
The Center seems to teach just about everything culinary – skill-based classes, food quality classes, special diet classes, ethnic cooking classes, detox classes, to name a few. Do you teach all of those things?
Yes, I do. It’s the best part of the job. One day I’m teaching a cancer-fighting foods class, and the next day a class on balancing hormones. No matter what I’m teaching, I try to combine nutrition education, culinary skill, and mindful eating. We meditate in every class – it’s part of the whole experience of getting people to slow down, truly taste what they created, and be thankful for the food they prepared. My hope is that people leave with a unique food experience that inspires them to buy more whole foods and be more confident in the kitchen. I believe that the less we cook, the more disconnected we are from our food choices and our health.
Who is taking the classes at Blum Center? What’s the demographic? What goals do they have regarding their health?
Students are typically middle-aged mothers. They are generally looking for tips to how to feed their family better. This ranges from how to use greens more to alternatives to cooking meat. I really give credit to the women who come because they want to do the best for their family while not cooking four different dinners every night. I also get a lot of people with interests in my Best Vegetarian Protein class, avoiding gluten, and weight loss.
For corporate classes I get a good mix of men and women. These are usually busy executives who need tips for eating healthy while traveling and keeping their metabolic numbers in line.
For you, what sets Blum Center apart from other medical establishments taking an integrative approach?
I think what makes our center so unique is the full integration of the medical practice and the kitchen. I have worked at spas, which focus on food as medicine, but the doctor’s office and kitchen are still divided. At Blum Center, Dr. Blum and I bridge the two by looking at the most common medical conditions she sees and then develop the cooking classes that will support patients in their treatment.
People don’t have to live with chronic gut problems. Once they see Dr. Blum for Functional Medicine, they can then come into the kitchen with me and learn about gut-healing foods. It gives people more tools and power when they make the connection that specific foods can trigger or prevent symptoms.
What are the basic tenets or building blocks of your own food philosophy? Whose work or what approaches to food have influenced you most?
I have experimented with every “diet” under the sun, so my philosophy has shifted quite a bit. At this time in my life my food philosophy is most closely aligned to Michael Pollan – “eat food, not too much, and mostly vegetables” It kind of says it all for me. It’s about eating real or clean food, focusing on a plant-based diet, listening to your body, and knowing when you’ve had enough.
It’s not just the food itself that affects your metabolism. How slowly you eat also has an effect. I first heard about this mindful eating approach from Marc David. It helped me understand that the energy we put into our food translates into how we digest and absorb it. Annemarie Colbin’s work also had a huge impact on me.
Rebecca Katz’s work, cooking for people with cancer, has carried me through the toughest times with my clients. Specifically, her books have guided me in nourishing people during times of illness. I’ve told Rebecca that if she were a doctor of cooking, I would be her resident. Her books are brilliant, and I recommend them to people all of the time.
You have done a considerable amount of teaching. Do you have some sage advice for NGI students who are aspiring culinary instructors?
Throw yourself into as many experiences as you can in the beginning, whether it’s catering or personal chefing, and don’t say no to volunteer opportunities either. All culinary jobs will give you tools to draw on when you are in a position as a teacher. The more you persevere in the culinary arts, the more you will build confidence and creative energy that will only make you a better instructor.
Students look to you for guidance and encouragement. You need to function by the seat of your pants because you never know what’s going to happen in a classroom, even when you think you have it all under control. I’ve been an instructor in one discipline or another for over 10 years. I try to remember that I am a student as much as an instructor. At the Center we have a saying: Empty the mind to fill it up and inspire.
You take interns from our Chef’s Training Program. What are you looking for in an intern? What can a student learn by doing their internship at Blum Center for Health?
I’m always taking on interns who have a great passion for the healing power of food. Their interests might be to teach, private chef, cater, or be an entrepreneur. Whatever their interests, they need to be ready to learn and jump into everything the kitchen has to offer.
Many people go to NGI from previous careers, so I’m also looking to see what other skills they come with. The internship is very unique for several reasons, the first being that Blum Center for Health is a new business. An intern gets to see what it’s like to build a culinary business from the ground up. Secondly, I give the intern every opportunity to be involved in all aspects of running a cooking school: designing menus and recipes, working on catering events, assisting classes and private lessons, doing cooking demos in the community, managing inventory and shopping. You will learn all the necessary skills to being a professional in the culinary field, whether you go on to work for yourself or for a company.
You’re always studying something new. What are you studying now?
In October, I am taking a Functional Nutrition course in Colorado with the International Functional Medicine Organization to hone my food as medicine knowledge and apply it in the classroom and with clients.