On Tuesday, January 30th members of the University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Foundation’s Markey Women Strong came together to listen to the story of renowned chef Ouita Michel and her commitment to a topic unfamiliar to many and understood by far fewer – neurogastronomy.
In its most basic definition, neurogastronomy is the science of how we taste and perceive food. It is a topic she embarked on by chance as Michel cared for her own mother during her battle with cancer.
“I had spent my life learning to cook with her and along side her. It was something we shared and she created that passion in me. Then suddenly she could not eat a thing,” said Michel of her mother, whose appetite was severely affected by her cancer and chemotherapy treatments. “As a chef, to want to feed the one person you love more than anything and have them not be able to stomach eating any of it was a very difficult thing.”
Michel’s commitment to her mother’s nutrition – not only finding foods that appealed to her, but also textures, presentations and other sensory experiences that enhanced the enjoyment of eating – in her final weeks and months evolved into a passion project. Now a member of the International Society of Neurogastronomy, Michel collaborates with researchers, chefs and patients to enhance the experience of eating for cancer patients, which in turn, gives them the nutrients and energy to continue to move forward in their treatment.
“The ways we can combine the science involved in cancer treatment with the understanding of taste and how things like sound, light, texture, temperature, environment and more can impact how much one eats, and their enjoyment of food can have a huge affect on their strength and their ability to maintain their weight during treatment,” said Michel, who shared that even after her mom lost much of her sense of taste, she enjoyed eating coconut milk mixed with chia seeds – both nutrient-rich superfoods – and smoothies.
“The thing I love about the Markey Cancer Center is that I feel we got the best possible care there,” said Michel, “and I was honored to play a role in her care through food.”