Cooking Can Act As A Form Of Healing

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Julie Ohana and her daughter Shai spend time together in the kitchen

For some, cooking is a creative outlet. For others, it’s an unbearable chore. For Julie Ohana, it’s a therapeutic tool.

Ohana, of West Bloomfield, became interested in “culinary art therapy” while studying for a master’s degree in social work at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work at Yeshiva University. In 2004, she did her master’s thesis on the topic. Since then, she’s incorporated some aspect of it into almost every job she’s held.

Now, in addition to her full-time job as director of student recruitment at Frankel Jewish Academy, Ohana has started a private culinary art therapy practice. She does individual and family therapy as well as group work for companies and organizations. She’ll meet with clients at their home, office or at her office on Walnut Lake near Inkster, where there’s a kitchen.

Ohana, 38, grew up in the Detroit area, graduating from Hillel Day School and Birmingham Groves High School.

She always loved to cook. At one point, she thought she’d like to do it professionally, but several summers as kitchen manager at Camp Young Judaea in Wisconsin cured her of that ambition.

Ohana has long felt a strong connection to Israel. After spending some time there after high school, she discovered the State University of New York’s Empire State College had a branch in Israel. She stayed there and completed her undergraduate degree without ever setting foot on the college’s Saratoga Springs campus.

After graduating, she worked for the Hillel at Hebrew University before returning to the U.S. for graduate school.

She met her Israeli husband, Ofer, in Detroit. He owns Ohana Family Construction. The Ohanas have two children, Avital, 6, and Shai, 5.

While employed as a social worker at Jewish Family Service (JFS) and later at Frankel Jewish Academy, Ohana incorporated culinary arts activities into traditional talk therapy.

“Many of us have a difficult time opening up to strangers or even our closest family members or colleagues,” Ohana said. “When a person can relax and engage in something creative, fun and inspiring, they feel freer, more vulnerable, honest and ready to connect.”

As a therapist, she helps clients gain insight into their behavior, learn or improve social skills, increase self-esteem and manage stress, all while they put together a dish or a meal.

She’ll accompany clients to the grocery store if needed or show up with all the supplies needed for the session.

For a team-building event for social workers, addiction care workers and other professionals, Ohana created a menu, prepared and measured all the ingredients, then had each team create one of the dishes by putting the ingredients together. Some participants were experienced cooks; others had never set foot in a kitchen.

For some, helping to create a dish was a new experience. Others got to try foods they’d never eaten before. “The critical part was being able to enjoy creating and eating together,” Ohana said.
Those who attended gave it an excellent evaluation, said Stephanie Appel of Core Learning Inc., which sponsored the program. She and Ohana previously worked together at JFS.

Participants talked about what they learned by working together and how they could transfer that insight to their professional lives.

Ohana revamped and upgraded her website, www.culinaryarttherapy.com, when she opened her office. Soon she was getting inquiries from all over the world. Her first one-on-one client is a woman in Greece, with whom she works via iPhone Facetime.

“When you like to cook and you’re in need of something therapeutic, it’s a logical connection,” she said.

She’s also hearing from other therapists eager to incorporate some of her ideas into their own practices.

Ohana is eager to work with families. Often people are so busy it’s hard for family members to come together for meals. “I strongly believe in the idea of the family meal,” she said. “It’s an important part of a happy, healthy family dynamic.”

Barbara Lewis Contributing Writer

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