Science meets food: Salk’s gustatory experiment


A holistic medical pioneer in ancient Greece nearly 2,500 years ago, Hippocrates prescribed that food be used as medicine since it was the most powerful healing agent against diseases. That philosophy is embraced by the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, which recently launched a wellness series.

The Art & Science of Cuisine event (like Bill Nye the Science Guy experimenting in a new laboratory called the kitchen) took place Jan. 22 at the Institute with panelists reflecting a who’s who in the culinary and research world. The goal was to whet palates, inspire mindful eating habits and enlighten guests on the human body’s response to both nutrition-rich foods and toxic or empty calories. The event sold out.

Salivating in their seats, attendees anxiously awaited tastings from various stations, scrumptious and healthful goodies prepared by some of San Diego’s most avant-garde chefs. These included Nathan Coulon, executive chef at True Food Kitchen (health guru Dr. Andrew Weil’s-inspired Fashion Valley eatery), and Isabel Cruz, owner of Isabel’s Cantina and two other San Diego restaurants.

Among the luminaries and their valuable presentations was Deborah Szekely, cofounder of the Golden Door spa and legendary Rancho La Puerta wellness center in Tecate (her appearance alone is testimony to a lifetime of healthful eating and exercise). A glabrous complexed nonagenarian powerhouse who does Pilates six times a week, Szekely talked about the importance of eating all things that are alive, fresh, seasonal and organic. Raised in Tahiti, her mother cultivated gardens of fruits and vegetables on abandoned fishing boats, and strictly adhered to the philosophies of Hippocrates.

Salk professor Dr. Ronald Evans, director of the Gene Expression Laboratory, distilled the theme of the event down to “eating whole, unprocessed foods that are healthfully prepared at home.” This allows us to control saturated fats, salts and simple sugars, which contribute to “globesity” (worldwide obesity), for starters.

Evans explained that when we eat good foods it has the power to reprogram our geno, which in turn can ward off problems like chronic inflammation, particularly arthritis. While eating poorly can trigger genes to behave badly, which can cause diabetes, cancer, hypertension and heart disease.

Salk professor Geoffrey Wahl, also a member of the Gene Expression Laboratory, illuminated the difference between hunger and cravings. The former comes from the pit of your stomach, while the latter from the seed of your desires, based on past culinary experiences that gave you a sense of satisfaction and comfort.

Wahl mentioned a study, wherein 100 percent of women had cravings (sweets), while only 70 percent of men had cravings (savories). According to Wahl, this is the ideal opportunity for behavioral modification because the things we crave are bad for us, like sugars and fats. Since cravings come at times of stress or boredom, his solution was a simple one — exercise daily to tweak endorphin flow for reducing both stress and boredom.

Joy Houston, a certified raw food nutrition educator, suggested satiating sweet and savory cravings with healthy decoys. So if you crave potato chips, try kale chips instead.

Su-Mei Yu, owner of Saffron restaurant and host of the TV show, “Savor San Diego” on KPBS, said she believes food is important to feed not only our bodies, but our minds and spirits. When she cooks her daily meals, she first thinks of what’s in season, and then considers how she feels, and finally, the weather.

As for the food part of the event, Coulon’s food station offered a chopped Mediterranean salad of arugula, red quinoa and marcona almonds tossed in a grape seed, lemon and oregano dressing, which was based on Dr. Weil’s anti-inflammatory diet.

Rancho La Puerta’s executive chef Denise Roa plated up Nopal cactus tostadas with marinated tomatoes, white bean puree, kumquats and local goat feta, garnished with calendula flowers — all produce grown on the retreat’s six-acre organic farm.

Cruz delighted palates with poke tuna tossed with brown rice, organic kale and orange chili oil. Saffron served a variety of shrimp, chicken and tofu rolls in rice paper with peanut and chili sauces.

For dessert, Michelle Lerach, owner of Cups in La Jolla, indulged guests with organic goodies ranging from lemon ricotta cupcakes and pineapple macaroons to spiced honey cookies and stuffed dates.

To wash it all down, Bird Rock Coffee Roasters provided farm-to-cup organic coffee selections.

For information on the next Art & Science of Cuisine event, contact or (858) 453-4100 ext. 1846.