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3-Course Interview: Leah Sarris 

Sarah Baird talks with the director of Tulane University’s Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine

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Chef Leah Sarris is the program director of The Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine (www.tmedweb.tulane.edu/mu/teachingkitchen) at Tulane University, where she runs a teaching kitchen that instructs medical students and community members how to create healthy meals on a budget. Sarris spoke with Gambit about the culinary medicine program.

What does the Goldring Center do?

Sarris: Our center started two and a half years ago as a first-of-its-kind program to teach doctors about nutrition so that they can more effectively have lifestyle interventions with their patients. Doctors typically don't get a lot of nutrition training in their curriculum. We teach the doctors — and now community members — everything from caloric density and portion size to reading labels and how to meet the needs of vegetarian deficiencies. We also teach doctors and community members more general skills, like budgeting for meals and what to look for when you're seeking healthy food at the grocery store.

  In our cooking classes, we cook together, then eat the food we've made together and talk about it. One of the meals we start out with is spaghetti, because it's so familiar and accessible for people. We make it four different ways: "lunch lady" style with tons of beef and white noodles; a second version with half the beef, which can be saved for another meal; a third version incorporating vegetables and whole wheat noodles; and a fourth version that's completely vegetarian and features lentils. People end up really loving the lentils, and no one likes the all-beef, traditional version more than healthier versions we create.

What are some success stories from working with the community?

S: During some of our first classes, we operated out of the Ruth Fertel Clinic at Tulane as a kind of high-functioning pop-up. We were teaching a lot about cooking with fresh vegetables over the course of the series, and at the end, one of the women who had been to all the classes came up to me. She said, "You know, I never used to cook with fruits and vegetables, but now my whole family is laughing because I have a giant bowl of them in my house and I throw them into everything."

  There have been so many great stories of women and men who have diabetes or are on dialysis and have seen their numbers improve significantly by taking the classes and learning how to make changes in their diets.

What's next for the center?

S: We're moving into a new space that's part of the ReFresh Project on North Broad (Street), and it's scheduled for a grand opening Sept. 11. It will be exciting to be more visible, and people are already popping their heads into the space to see what's going on.

  We also are having a four-part celebrity chef dinner series as a fundraiser, featuring New Orleans chefs from John Besh to Adam Biderman of Company Burger, in order to keep classes free. It's a way for folks to see that the Mediterranean diet we promote can be incorporated into a lot of different menus and doesn't having to be boring.

  We're also starting to spread our programming to other cities; five universities are currently using the curriculum we've created. It's definitely exciting.

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