Julie and her daughter in the kitchen
Julie Ohana and her daughter in the kitchen. (Julie Ohana)

Through food, Julie Ohana aims to help people make connections with one another, themselves or the world around them.

It’s traditional therapy with a twist. By combining cooking with talk therapy, Culinary Art Therapy gives people a chance to boost their wellness through a fun and creative outlet. 

Founded by West Bloomfield-based therapist Julie Ohana, 42, Culinary Art Therapy was an idea she developed about 17 years ago while attending the Wurzweiler School of Social Work at Yeshiva University in New York City. She wrote about the unique approach in her master’s thesis, explaining how cooking can be healing and cathartic in the therapeutic process.

“I remember knowing that this is what I wanted to write about, and this was something I very much believed in,” Ohana explains. Shortly after graduating, her friend helped her put together a website using the information from her thesis. But then Ohana got married, had two children and the idea was put on hold while she focused on her family. Three years ago, she decided to return to it.

“Now’s the time,” she recalls thinking. Her kids were older, and she had more space in her life to move forward with the idea of Culinary Art Therapy. As a lifelong cook, it’s something she didn’t forget about. “The time was right for me personally,” Ohana continues, “but the world was ready for this idea.”

She explains that we’ve become a culture centered around food, where looking at food on Instagram and Pinterest didn’t exist at the time of her thesis. “I think with the creation of these sites came an awareness and a desire for people to be able to consume this practice,” Ohana adds. “There’s inspiration everywhere, and inspiration is motivation but it’s also connection.”

Courtesy of Julie Ohana
Courtesy of Julie Ohana

Through food, she aims to help people make connections with one another, themselves or the world around them. “I work with a wide range of people on a clinical basis and also people who are looking to participate in an activity that feels good, that brings people together,” Ohana explains of her approach to therapy. “They’re working on life skills and different habits that are just good for you.”

Each session is tailor-made to a client’s needs and can be done individually or in a group. Ohana starts with a questionnaire similar to an intake form that asks people about their goals, intentions and of course, the type of food they enjoy most. She factors in allergies and other dietary needs when developing a course of action that combines cooking with therapy.

“I ask people about their memories, the foods they recall that they have a positive connection to,” Ohana says. “That really helps to elicit a certain emotion from the client and gives me a certain point of how to put together the session.” 

From there, Ohana develops a suggested menu, provides the recipes and creates a shopping list. Then, she cooks with her clients.

Before the pandemic, cooking sessions were in-person. Now, she’s pivoted to virtual sessions held over Zoom that typically run an hour long. “In every session, we always start with an opening dialogue about expectations and an introduction to what this is all about,” she explains of her program.

Julie Ohana
Julie Ohana Courtesy of Julie Ohana

Food and Goals

Then comes the cooking, which is often followed by an eating element. “People put together something beautiful and delicious and that gives them a chance to taste it for themselves and really celebrate what they’ve done,” Ohana says. She closes the session with a summary discussion that wraps everything together, from goals to the food that’s been created.

With food having such a strong connection to memories, Ohana says the power of cooking can have a tremendous impact on mental health and wellness. “I think specifically for Jewish people, we tend to be more aware of the power that food has in our world,” she explains. “Even with something like this, people can be amazed by food and they underestimate the power that it holds.”

She always tells her clients that the smell is the strongest of the senses, giving people an opportunity to reminisce and recall things from the past. From sourdoughs to challah, to dishes that require chopping, mixing and stirring (Ohana’s favorite), she says there is no limit to what people can make.

“I think as long as somebody has an openness to something a little bit different and out of the box, and has an interest in being creative, this could potentially be for them” she says of Culinary Art Therapy. “When you give somebody a task that makes them feel more at ease, it’s much easier for them to open up and put themselves in a place to make connections.” 

Learn more at culinaryarttherapy.com.

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