When it is the “pink hour” in Santa Barbara and the sun is slipping away behind Point Conception, he can often be found tending to his champagne vineyard. His annual bottling parties are eagerly anticipated by his friends and family, and those lucky enough to come by one of his cheekily named artisanal wines (“Annie’s Crush: Midnight Ice/Morning Rise) consider themselves blessed.
You may be imagining a fabulous wine estate somewhere up the coast, fueled by an endless supply of trust fund money. If so, you would be off on your own fantasy. This man’s vineyard is in a small plot of land, commonly held by a downtown condo association, one block off State Street. His bottling parties are held in his garage, with the filled boxes stacked up to the ceiling in his living room, and although the grapes he is cultivating are those used to make champagne, he will tell you that the product will be just your typical “backyard white wine.”
This is Santa Barbara after all, not Santa Barbara Magazine.
I usually run into John La Puma whenever I make it to the Saturday downtown farmers market. “What are you cooking up?” I ask, looking for either an invite to the table of this professionally trained chef or at least to snag a culinary secret for my own kitchen exploits. “I’m looking for whatever is reaching its peak, and then I will let that inspire what I prepare,” is La Puma’s answer as he caresses an avocado with a familiar smile that suggests he knows esoteric secrets about these homegrown delectables.
And indeed he does. La Puma holds up a dark green avocado that looks to be about to burst forth in all of its glory. “See this? How buttery the texture of the skin? It’s almost at the point of perfection, something we only get here, close to where they are grown. We’re spoiled here in Santa Barbara, because almost everywhere else avocados that have reached their peak are rarely found in markets.”
He picks out a few more buttery-skinned avocados. “Did you know that avocados are second only to olives in heart-healthy monounsaturated fat and in lutein? That helps protect eyes from macular degeneration and lowers cholesterol and triglyceride levels.”
“No, I didn’t know that,” I say as I fill my canvas bag with avocados.
Like the avocados he chooses and the wines he makes in his garage, La Puma is homegrown. Now 50, he grew up in a Santa Barbara that probably embraced a more democratic Arcadian dream. His parents moved the family out from New York in 1967 because, according to his mother, Linda, it was a healthier environment to raise six active kids. Their San Roque backyard was indeed an earthly paradise, with rosemary and artichokes in bloom, an orange and lemon tree, and of course, avocados. His father had an organic garden providing fresh vegetables and herbs well before the Montecito potagers became fashionable. A product of the local public school system all the way through-Peabody Elementary, La Colina Middle School, San Marcos High-he graduated from UCSB in the Creative Studies program with a major in biology.
This kind of art and science synergy, so nurtured by our benign environment, propelled La Puma out into the world. Along the way, he picked up a medical degree, notoriety as an expert in Medical Ethics, training as a professional chef, an expertise in weight management, and a stint as a chef in a Chicago restaurant.
All of this varied experience is currently in evidence with the launch of his second book on medical nutrition (his first, The RealAge Diet, was a New York Times bestseller), called Chef MD’s Big Book of Culinary Medicine. The subtitle is revealing: A Food Lover’s Road Map to Losing Weight, Preventing Disease, and Getting Really Healthy. He is also on view every week on the Lifetime channel in What’s Cookin’ with Chef MD.
In Chef MD’s Big Book of Culinary Medicine, La Puma details 40 major illnesses and what foods to increase and what foods to decrease in order to prevent or even treat these conditions. He makes the bold but scientifically supportable claim that 70 percent of heart attacks are preventable with dietary changes. He also contends that 80 percent of all cancer is preventable with lifestyle changes and that a large part of our lifestyle that we can control is our diet. As an example, he offers up the tidbit that eating a handful of walnuts 20 minutes before eating a fatty meal such as steak and pasta can prepare us for avoiding the artery-clogging effects of a fat-laden meal by making the arteries smoother and more elastic.
This field, as conceived by La Puma, has the kind of egalitarianism that we often take for granted here on the western edge of our continent. “You don’t have to be a doctor to practice culinary medicine,” he says. “We can all learn how to get more nutrition from what we eat, how to feel full and fully satisfied faster, and how to avoid the bad stuff in our food.” And that, according to La Puma, is a recipe for maintaining a healthy weight. He also contends that, with education, we can all be a Chef MD. “The kitchen we cook in every day is really a medicine cabinet.”
La Puma will easily say that his move back to his hometown has had a big impact on his current work and vision. “Coming back here has allowed me to not only bring home what I learned in Chicago and elsewhere but to better integrate it with all of the interesting and rich communities here-the home winemakers, the organic farmers, the really active fitness community, the great restaurateurs, the medical staff I am proud to be associated with at Cottage Hospital. Out of this mix has popped ‘Chef MD.’”