The same day that I hosted my first cooking class at Natural Grocers, I had the opportunity to meet Chef Kenny Wagoner of the Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Tulsa. I was treated to a tour of both his kitchen and the whole facility. I was very impressed by what I saw, but it sure brought back a lot of not-so-pleasant memories.
When my brother, Charles, was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2010, I researched cancer treatment hospitals and looked into the CTCA in Tulsa. I thought it would be a good fit, not only because it was fairly close to me and I would be able to closely monitor my brother’s care and treatment, but I liked their approach to cancer: treat the patient holistically in a peaceful, comfortable, and welcoming setting. Sure, they offer the latest in “standard” cancer treatment (chemo and radiation), but they also address patients’ spiritual, nutritional, and emotional needs – needs often overlooked during traditional hospital care.
The connection between food and cancer holds a particular interest for me. After Charles’s diagnosis, I hit the books, searching for ways to complement his treatment with the most powerful and nutrient-dense foods. Then in early 2011, Kel and I went plant-based because of what I learned from The China Study and other books. Many of my meals and recipes center around powerhouse foods that give our bodies the nutrition they need to achieve optimal health and to promote healing.
Below I’ve got a Q & A with Chef Kenny. He runs the kitchen at CTCA and gets up close and personal with cancer patients every day. His connection with them is unique because he provides both emotional and physical nourishment via the food he prepares. What an awesome, rewarding, and humbling responsibility.
You might notice from the photos that my salad is a bit different from Chef Kenny’s recipe. I’m not a huge fan of green beans and those available at the grocery weren’t looking so good – so I went with crunchy English cucumber instead. I also opted for tart cherries because I like them better than cranberries. And finally, I omitted the olive oil and used just a splash of low-sodium vegetable broth. That’s the beauty of this recipe: you can tailor it to your favorite veggies or with what you have on hand. It will still be delicious and it will still do your body good. Thanks to Chef Kenny, Kendra Thompson, and Mary Waller for your hospitality and for the opportunity to see what CTCA is all about.
- 11 1/2 ounces dry quinoa
- 1/2 cup dried cranberries
- 6 ounces fresh green beans, lightly steamed and chopped
- 1/2 red bell pepper, roasted and chopped
- 3-4 scallions, chopped
- 1 large orange, peeled and cut into sections
- 1/2 cup walnut pieces
- 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1/8 tsp. ground white pepper
- Rinse quinoa until water runs clear. In a medium-sized saucepan, add the quinoa and water to cover. Bring to a boil, then lower heat to a simmer. Cook until the water cooks off and the quinoa is tender, stirring occasionally.
- Meanwhile, pour hot water over cranberries and give them a few minutes to plump. Drain and set aside.
- In a large bowl, combine the quinoa, cranberries, green beans, roasted red pepper, scallions, orange sections, and walnuts.
- Stir in the olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Season with salt and pepper. Serve.
- I omitted the oil and subbed with a splash of low sodium vegetable broth.
Can you give me a brief description of how you came to work at CTCA?
I was looking for a change after working at my family’s restaurant for several years and a good friend of mine told me that CTCA was looking for a chef. I’d never considered working in a hospital environment so I was intrigued. During the interview process I was able to draw on my Mother’s battle with breast cancer and I was also compelled by what we call our Mother Standard of care to make that decision. CTCA really believed in a food program that was of the highest quality and gave me free reign to do what we as chefs do.
It must be a completely different experience working at the CTCA versus working in a restaurant. I’m sure they both have their rewards, but being a part of a cancer patient’s treatment must be particularly gratifying. How has it changed or affected your outlook about cooking, food, and perhaps life in general?
I have learned a lot from talking with our patients daily. I have learned to really appreciate the important things in life, like family, health and friends. I’ve also learned to not sweat the small stuff that can derail your day. I take a different approach to not only what I cook but how I cook. Utilizing different cooking methods, maintaining a positive attitude, and making sure our culinary team are as upbeat as possible.
I’m a home cook – no commercial experience here, no pressure to cook for the masses – and yet there are days when the last thing I want to do is figure out what to put on the table. You spend most of your day in a commercial kitchen. Do you go home and cook for your family as well? If so, is it difficult to feel inspired? How do you plan for meals at home?
Typically, I’m just cooking for my son so I cater around his needs. On Sunday I like to prepare a couple of pastas or rice and then prep a variety of vegetables or proteins so that I can make a variety of dishes relatively easy.
For patients undergoing treatment for cancer, food offers comfort. But all of us – healthy or not – respond to certain recipes and foods that make us feel better and remind us of home, good times, family, and friends. Having undergone cancer treatment yourself, what were your comfort foods?
Funny enough I reverted to dishes that my mother would cook when I was younger. Irish soul food if you will — lots of potatoes, Shepard’s pie, seafood and a cup of tea.
Food is one area where patients can have some control over their lives during treatment. Are there dishes that patients gravitate towards or request often – be it a main dish, a soup, snack, beverage, or dessert?
Typically our patients gravitate to comfort foods. Foods they remember from better times. Our role as chefs is to deliver on that need but using the highest quality ingredients and manipulating the recipes.
I’m a firm believer in the healing power of whole, plant-based foods and when I researched CTCA a few years ago in relation to my brother’s cancer treatment, I was very interested in their holistic approach to therapy. Do you have patients who put an emphasis on “healthy” eating?
Yes, we have patients who look to food as something they can control. We also have patients with underlying problems as well as cancer, such as diabetics or celiac disease, so we cater to a variety of needs.
How personalized can you get with a person’s meal plan and how do you (or the patient’s medical team) address issues of treatment-related loss of appetite while making sure that he/she gets the calories and nutrients they need?
Our dietitians do an amazing job of communicating with the culinary team when they come across a patient that is having difficulty with their food. The culinary team is well versed in meeting special requests from patients and I or one of the other chefs meet with the patients to determine how best to get them what they want. We have a well-stocked pantry and, if necessary, one of us can run to the store and pick up something.