An unexpected email from a former patient helped Amanda Bontempo, MS, RD, CSO, CDN, find a new home for the hands-on Get Cooking class offered by NYU Langone’s Survivorship Program for people with cancer.
For five years, the Survivorship Program had partnered with the Natural Gourmet Institute to provide people with cancer a cooking and nutrition class to learn about nutrients and how to make informed food choices in order to stay strong and healthy. When the Natural Gourmet Institute closed unexpectedly in April 2019, Ms. Bontempo, program manager of survivorship and wellness, set out to find a new location and partner that would meet the needs of the popular program.
One potential site that Ms. Bontempo scouted during her search was the Miette Culinary Studio in Little Italy, which organizes cooking classes, cooking parties, and corporate team-building events. The space was warm and inviting and seemed perfect for what the program tries to accomplish, but the fee was a stretch for her budget. Then, she received an email reply from Lisa Bernhard, a former patient at NYU Langone’s Perlmutter Cancer Center who co-owns Miette with her husband, Paul Vandewoude, a Belgian-born chef with 35 years of experience.
“I recognized Amanda’s name because I did my nutritional survivorship counseling with her when I finished chemo at Perlmutter Cancer Center,” Ms. Bernhard says. “She was so encouraging and helpful to me, Paul and I were really delighted to work with her on this.”
“Lisa was ready to collaborate with us given her personal experience with cancer and the support and healing effect that nutrition allowed her,” Ms. Bontempo says. “It was a natural evolution to continue the class from the Natural Gourmet Institute to Miette Culinary Studio with Lisa’s assistance.”
A cancer diagnosis is scary and can leave people with a sense of helplessness. Get Cooking helps people maintain a sense of control in their lives. The nutrition lectures provide evidence-based guidelines and address popular topics like sugars, sweeteners, and what it actually means to “detox” or be “organic.” The hands-on component teaches knife skills and cooking techniques. Recipes focus on seasonal, whole foods including beans, lentils, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
“While Lisa was going through treatment, we talked about all of the things that she could actively do to stay healthy and minimize side effects,” says Ruth Oratz, MD, a clinical professor of medicine and Ms. Bernhard’s oncologist. “Healthy and well-balanced nutrition are key. Because of her culinary expertise and experience at Miette, Lisa understood the importance of diet and nutrition.”
A key part of the Get Cooking program is the inclusion of caregivers in the experience. Ms. Bontempo encourages people to bring a caregiver, perhaps someone who prepares food with them, to attend classes as well.
“So often we focus on patients—as we should—but cancer is not something that is experienced by one person,” Ms. Bontempo says. “It’s really experienced by caregivers, family, and friends, too.”
Feedback from patients and caregivers has been positive. “I never knew cutting an onion could be so therapeutic!” one participant wrote. “Chef Paul was great—informative, funny, and you can tell he really cares,” wrote another. One participant exclaimed, “What fun! You kept my mind off the pain and miserable health situation.” A caregiver commented, “I am the spouse of a cancer patient, and being able to attend an activity together is enjoyable and appreciated.”
Ms. Bernhard says that she wishes the Get Cooking program had been around when she was receiving chemotherapy.
“When you’re being treated for cancer, nutritious food choices are hard to make because you’re tired and you don’t feel well,” she says. “I think it’s really exceptional to have somebody lay it out in a very inspiring way.”
“After receiving their diagnosis, patients immediately ask what they can do for themselves because so much is out of their control,” Ms. Bontempo says. “The Get Cooking program provides data-driven recommendations to transport patients and their caregivers out of the feeling of paralysis and into one that provides autonomy and agency to regain that control.”
Get Cooking classes, which are held seasonally, are only possible with the support of Marleen I. Meyers, MD, clinical associate professor of medicine and director of the Survivorship Program, Ms. Bontempo says. “Dr. Meyers inspires patients to embrace nutrition and wellness in their survivorship journeys,” she says.
The Get Cooking program advertises its seasonal classes at the cancer center using flyers to engage patients actively receiving treatment. However, people are always encouraged to talk to their oncologists and oncology dietitians about the program.
“It is so magical to see this all come full circle with Lisa and Paul now helping patients and staff at Perlmutter Cancer Center,” Dr. Oratz says. “We truly do create community here.”