Santa Barbara is home to many doctors, chefs, authors, and entrepreneurs. Dr. John La Puma is all four. A UCSB grad who attended Peabody Elementary School (before it became a charter school), La Colina Junior High School, and San Marcos High School, La Puma now operates his own clinic downtown. The physician’s focus on lifestyle measures — he writes “recipes on prescription slips” — extends to other areas of his work and stems from his years spent working concurrently as a cook at Chef Rick Bayless’s restaurant Topolobampo and as a medical professor in Chicago. (La Puma also graduated from the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago.) He has since written numerous books on nutrition and founded his own company, ChefMD. La Puma, a boardmember of the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County, recently chatted with The Santa Barbara Independent about the mingling of medicine, food, and health. Below is an edited version of our conversation:
You talk a lot about the concept of “culinary medicine.” What do you mean by that? I define it as blending the art of cooking with the science of medicine to give restaurant-quality food that helps to prevent and treat disease. Here in Santa Barbara, some of the best food is really being cooked at home. We’re so lucky to have the bounty of ingredients that we have that grow locally. Most of the country isn’t as lucky as we are. Culinary medicine is something that doctors ought to know and patients should be able to ask about.
Why does our society seem to prioritize prescription fixes over food fixes? Pharmaceuticals are overvalued. But there is some evidence that’s changing, too. We’re seeing a lot more interest in approaches that try lifestyle first. There are more and more women in medicine. The shift in the demographic enrollment in medical school is now a slight majority of women. When I was going to medical school decades ago, there were six women in my class of 106. And I’m not that old. I think women have improved communication in medicine — less prescribing and more interest in what caused this problem and how can we get at its root.
When you lived in Chicago, you worked as a doctor and as a chef at the same time. How? Why? I worked from noon to midnight on Fridays for almost four years. What I loved about it: the flavors and textures and colors. I got to be part of a restaurant community and part of a team. In medicine, teams are undervalued and not appreciated. In restaurants, unless there is a fluid working team, the whole ship sinks.
How can restaurants make food tasty and healthy at the same time? Chefs are often better teachers than doctors about food. Physicians don’t get much training in healthy eating and cooking, but chefs are responsive to what customers are asking for. Platters are not appropriate for meals. What’s the next new superfood? I see restaurants trying to lead people out of obesity. They can educate and tantalize with the same kind of healthy cooking techniques used for millennia around the world, with cuisines that are naturally healthy, such as Asian and Latin food. I have really high hopes for restaurants.