February 23, 2016

A doctor's place is in the kitchen

Father and son, both Kaiser Permanente doctors, create recipes for health.

Ben Maring grew up just a few blocks from Berkeley foodie mecca Chez Panisse, and remembers his parents spending hours in the kitchen. But for many years, he refused everything but simple fare.

“My first flavors revolved around plain, sautéed chicken breast,” he says, recalling his youthful pickiness. “That’s pretty much all I would eat.”

Fast forward 30 years, and Ben Maring, MD, is now a trained chef and avid home cook who also makes time in his schedule to lead cooking classes for colleagues and their families. When not caring for patients as a primary care physician at Kaiser Permanente’s Oakland Medical Center, he is often concocting new dishes, ranging from Veracruz-style fish to roasted sweet potato fries for his growing family.

Ben Maring, MD, hugging his daughter in the his kitchen while they cook
Ben Maring, MD, hugging his daughter Luna while they cook.

“For good health, the kitchen should be as important as the clinic,” he says.

Ben Maring’s interest in both food and medicine is not surprising given his family background. His father, retired Kaiser Permanente physician Preston Maring, MD, started one of the country’s first hospital-based farmers markets at Oakland Medical Center in 2003 (there are now more than 50 such markets at Kaiser Permanente facilities around the country). His mother, Phyllis Peacock, is an accomplished home cook whose behind-the-scenes work has inspired countless Maring recipes.

“Food has always been important for our family,” Ben adds. “I feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to make the connection between good food and health care in my work.”

Chef goes to medical school

On a recent day off, Ben and his father, Preston, reminisced about the origins of a shared interest in food and health. During the picky years, Preston and Phyllis prepared countless chicken breasts for their son, gradually introducing sliced red peppers and other ingredients.

Ben’s interest in cooking started to take root at a time when Preston was dreaming up the idea for a hospital-based farmers market. Ben lived at home during his sophomore year at UC Berkeley and remembers he “watched a lot of Food Network.” The following year, he started to cook for roommates, fine tuning recipes for chicken piccata and jambalaya.

After graduating from Cal, Dr. Maring had fulfilled his pre-med requirements, but wasn’t yet sure about medical school. Although he was interested in health-related fields, he followed his girlfriend Alison (now his wife) to New York City, where he enrolled in an intensive, 8-month program at the Institute of Culinary Education, culminating in a stint at Thomas Keller's Per Se restaurant.

In this high-end kitchen, the young chef spent time plucking herbs, learning to prepare romaine hearts by “sous vide,” and making fancy bar snacks such as truffle potato chips. He remembers Keller once stopping by while he was saucing a plate with foie gras vinaigrette. “My hands were literally shaking,” he recalls.

Dr. Maring was offered a job at an Italian restaurant and he saw his life taking two possible paths: a full-time job in a New York City kitchen, or a medical career. “I realized that what I loved about cooking was linked to my interest in people and in nurturing and taking care of them,” he says.

On a trip home, he shadowed two pediatric neurosurgeons at Oakland Medical Center. “It was there that I saw the doctors talk to patients and their families and I saw the importance of that responsibility,” he says. “And I realized then that I wouldn’t have that face-to-face connection to people — and to their stories — if I stayed in the kitchen.”

Teaching future doctors to cook

Even after starting medical school at New York University, the cooking bug was hard to shake. And he was surprised by the lack of nutrition or diet information in the medical school curriculum. Laying in bed one early morning an idea popped into his head: Why not teach medical school students the basics of cooking? Understanding cooking and creating wholesome meals seemed an obvious, but often missing, part of learning to tend to people’s health.

He pitched the cooking class idea to the dean of Humanities and, soon after, began teaching groups of medical students the fundamentals of chopping and making basic dishes. Today, although Dr. Maring graduated and no longer lives in New York, that course is still a part of the medical school’s curriculum.

Future of food and medicine

Only one Maring is currently practicing medicine, but both are still focused on the importance of food and health in daily life. Preston is associated with the University of California, San Francisco’s program on Reproductive Health and the Environment, and community groups working on food and health-related issues.

The Marings still enjoy cooking together and both contribute to Kaiser Permanente’s Food for Health blog. Still, both acknowledge that, despite a growing emphasis on food and medicine, the country has a long way to go to combat obesity, diabetes and other diet-related health issues.

Ben agrees that the challenges ahead are “daunting,” but adds, “I still have hope that we can spread the message that cooking good food together can lead to better health — my family and my patients are counting on it.”

Ben Maring, MD, cooking in his kitchen.
Ben Maring, MD, cooking in his kitchen.

Advice for busy parents

Tips for healthier diet

  • Make your own meals. Anything you make without labels will be healthier.
  • Use all parts of the vegetable when you can. For example, make a salad out of thinly sliced raw broccoli stems, and dress with lemon juice and olive oil.
  • Add extra veggies to family favorites such as turkey meatloaf

“More and more physicians get it that diet matters and that what you eat is as important as the medication you are taking,” he says.

Food for Health video series

See Ben Maring, MD, prepare some of his favorite dishes from Kaiser Permanente's Food for Health blog. These recipes come from Kaiser Permanente caregivers across the country who believe that good taste and good health go hand in hand.

The videos include:

  • Kid Tested, Doctor Approved features Dr. Maring making simple kid-friendly dishes. His 2-year old daughter, Luna, serves as his taste tester with adorable results.
  • Kaiser Permanente Community Kitchen features three physicians and one dietician sharing their favorite recipes.
  • Grub Subs features healthy twists to four traditionally unhealthy dishes: pasta with Alfredo saucetacospudding cups and ranch dressing.

Enjoy and happy cooking!