For months, chef Michelle Bernstein culled her imagination for the right mix of ingredients and flavors, drew from the many culinary moments that define her career and tapped into personal experiences to create the gift of good food.
The star chef, restaurateur, television personality and author is partnering with the Memorial Cancer Institute — part of the Memorial Healthcare System in Broward County — to create a collection of healthy foods for oncology patients receiving chemotherapy treatments at its hospitals. To Bernstein, everything about the project felt right. She was born at Memorial Regional Hospital and her own mother is battling lung cancer.
“We are just trying to make the foods a little tastier, a little fresher, maybe throw in a little brightness. This is close to my heart because my mother is going through chemotherapy now. Through her, I have learned some of what she can and cannot eat, what affects her palate,’’ said Bernstein. “We are trying to give the patients a little gift, something that says we love you, we are here to take care of you.’’
As part of the one-year partnership, Bernstein is developing signature recipes — and adapting a few from her repertoire — including snacks, soups, sandwiches and salads to help cancer patients ease their way through treatment. Among the dishes: triple crumb berry muffin, raw chocolate cashew and almond energy bar, margherita quiche and cauliflower soup.
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Last week, Bernstein and Memorial’s executive chef, Pierre Flerismond, spent a morning in the hospital kitchen perfecting a granola bar recipe, a popular menu item at her Crumb on Parchment Bakery Cafe in the Design District.
“This has oats, flax seed, pistachio, walnut, almonds, dried strawberries and blueberries. All kinds of good stuff, but I made it with a little less sugar,” Bernstein said, pointing to a large bowl overflowing with the mixture. “It’s all about options. Here during chemotherapy treatment, you might be able to get chicken broth. Now, you can also choose to have my carrot miso soup, which is also soft but filled with miso which is amazing for the body and it has a little more flavor.”
Much of what separates this food is that it is created with a cancer patient in mind. The dishes are more plant-based, some with less sugar and less acid and with more antioxidants. The recipes are designed to be gentle alternatives so patients are more likely to eat; nourishment is critical for tolerating the chemotherapy and healing. Before, patients were offered a box lunch which typically included a turkey, ham or tuna sandwich, a piece of fruit and chips or cookies.
“Our patients might have nutritional side effects from treatment such as nausea, vomiting or taste alterations,” said Cynthia Wigutow, a Memorial dietitian specializing in outpatient oncology nutrition. “We wanted creative recipes that addressed their nutritional needs. Many patients complain of loss of appetite so we made sure the food is more nutrient dense with lots of flavor. We added some healthier options like chopped salads or the tuna on pita for patients who are concerned about gaining weight.’’
Wigutow said the hospital worked with Bernstein on an oncology nutrition symposium for health professionals last January. That led to discussions about how to combine her cooking skills with the dietary needs of oncology patients. A James Beard Foundation Award winner of Jewish-Latin heritage, the homegrown Bernstein is among the marquee chefs in South Florida. Among her culinary endeavors: Michy’s, Crumb on Parchment and Seagrape, the latest venture with husband David Martinez at the new Thompson Miami Beach.
Bernstein’s contract, funded by the Memorial Foundation’s Pink Angels, a cancer support group, marks the first time the chef has teamed up with a medical facility. She chose the hospital of her birth.
Working with Flerismond, Bernstein will personally train the hospital’s kitchen staff. Eventually,foods, which will be free, will be available to adults and children receiving chemotherapy treatment at Memorial Regional Hospital, Memorial Hospital West and Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital. They will be served to those receiving outpatient treatment starting March 1 but will first be introduced at a World Cancer Day event at Memorial on Wednesday.
“Patients who receive their chemo treatments often spend several hours here, and we provide snacks and food to them during this time,” said Maggie Wiegandt, vice president of oncology services at Memorial Cancer Institute. “What you choose to eat during treatment makes a big difference in terms of staying comfortable and feeling better.’’