Cooking for Happiness: When Recipes Just Aren’t Enough

    Farmer’s markets are a great way to connect to the source of all cooking. It offers an opportunity to see many different ingredients in its raw and natural state. There is a lot to be said about buying directly from farmers and obtaining the freshest of ingredients.

    This post will lay the foundation and define my take on inspirational cooking.  It really has a lot to do with the simplicity of cooking and using fresh ingredients. This concept is not new. Many people cook to obtain some sort of therapy from it. However, most of us get caught up in our daily toils in life and cooking then might just become one more burdensome task that must be dealt with at the end of the day. I explain this more in the video at the end of this article.

    Inspirational cooking, by my definition, would be the act of motivating others to get up and moving again and become re-energized about life, through the invigorating acts of cooking. After going through moments of hardship, one’s mind, body, and spirit can be balanced again by the mere act of physically cooking to receive all its healing benefits.

    In my case as a chef, I came back to cooking in a much different way one year after 9/11. Why? The reason is simple. I was evacuated from the second Twin Tower on that earth-shattering day. What began as a beautiful September morning in New York City ended up to be an all-out attack on Americans. Once the dust and smoke dissipated the world got to see how this unfathomable act of evil did much more damage than was even imaginable. Up to this point I cooked and chef-ed around for years, but I had absolutely no desire to cook after the horrific events of 9/11.

    Chef Franco Lania

    Slowly, and I mean very slowly I started to come back to food and cooking but in a very different way. It wasn’t about the “coolest” plating or working with very high-end ingredients anymore.  It became more of a comforting exercise and to obtain much-needed nourishment. We all know that when adversity or hardships hit our lives one of the first things to “go out the window” is eating right. Without proper nourishment, we won’t function properly as human beings. Therefore, making a difficult set of circumstances even more difficult.

    Nearly a year after the World Trade Center disaster I began to use cooking as a method of therapy for myself.  In all my years as a chef, I never connected cooking and therapy together. It was all about the passion for the culinary arts and acquiring as much gastronomic knowledge as possible. When I finally changed my perceptions of cooking I also began to change myself in a positive way. The cooking of the simplest things such as chicken and onions, salmon and lentils, and even a garden salad, started to interest me again and gave a solid meaning to the old saying of  “keep it simple.”

    The most therapeutic aspect of cooking is that it really connects people to all of their five senses. Furthermore, focusing on the fundamental steps of a simple recipe helps to take your mind off of your troubles and refocuses your thoughts on the tasks at hand. This focus is necessary to occupy your mind from any debilitating thoughts. Using your mental concentration to create something simple, delicious to eat, and ultimately giving you that much-needed reassurance that things will get better.  As we all know a loss of concentration while cooking can create a meal that is pretty horrible.  So, it’s even more of a reason to stay focused all the way until it’s time to enjoy the fruits of your labor.

    Franco on graduation day from culinary school in Jersey City, New Jersey.

    Over time I eventually met other 9/11 survivors that were still in their own ways struggling from that day’s ungodly events. For those that were interested, I would share with them that quite possibly cooking the simplest of things could maybe help them too.  I would emphasize that the steps of a recipe are vitally important and need to be appreciated, methodically created, and focused on.  Steps such as washing, cutting, seasoning, and measuring of ingredients are where the therapy is derived from. These basic steps are what draws you into the recipe. Therapeutic cooking is twofold.  One side of therapeutic cooking is the quiet and concise preparation of the ingredients.  The other side of the equation is the actual act of cooking. When you add them both together you will have awoken your five senses and begin to enliven yourself.  Add in some exercise, positive people, (doctor’s care if needed), and therapeutic cooking to your life, and you’ll be on your way to higher grounds, brighter days, and feeling good again.

    In my own life, adversity was most always overcome by my desire to want to cook, more than anything else. I simply did not want to sit under a dark cloud when I could be cooking and honing my craft. Most chefs set out to learn as much as they can and collect as many secret recipes as possible. This desire is what got my life back on track, several times. People would ask me, how did I do it?  The answer was quite simple, COOKING and a desire to seek out help if need be.

    Therapeutic cooking by no means is a substitute for traditional therapy if you need it. But, it is an additional mental health exercise that can coexist with a schedule of traditional therapy. This is a two-step process. The cooking aspect is what will help you take your thoughts off of your daily woes. And, consequentially help you nourish your body and mind.  This will allow you to be more receptive to professional counseling which is the other half to getting well again. Therefore, these two strategies create a great one-two punch that will eventually knock out you’re hardship and get you steady on your feet.

    As time moved on I talked about this concept as a speaker at colleges, culinary schools, luxury cruise lines, and even at an international anaesthesiologist convention in Vienna, Austria as part of their humanities program. My message was simple. It was to get people up and “cooking” again after their lives took a turn for the worst for whatever unfortunate reason. Receiving a warm nourishing embrace from your stove in times of trouble can move mountains.

    After spending two decades cooking and learning a tremendous amount from some extraordinary chefs something was still missing and 9/11 is what brought it to my attention as clear as a bell.  Sometimes recipes just aren’t enough! There needs to be a bigger calling if you want to reach a great majority of people and offer an avenue of hope.  Sure cooking is the basis for a therapeutic approach to food, but you don’t need secrete recipes or years of working in famous restaurants. All you need is the desire to want to move out from under the storm clouds of adversity that loom over your life.

    Let’s one more time go over the grassroots approach to therapeutic cooking and how it can be a way to anchor your life when things become unmanageable. The key to remember is that while engaged in the act of sautéing, roasting, poaching, reducing, frying, chopping, etcetera you must focus with all of your undivided attention.

    Even if it is just for five minutes, it is the beginning of taking control over your situation and taking care of yourself by cooking something nourishing for yourself.  This is very important!  Even if your concentration only lasts for five minutes it’s okay. As you go minute by minute your concentration will grow. Eventually thinking about the cooking tasks rather than “poor me” can be very instrumental to your recovery.  It’s a slow process but it will eventually plant positive seeds in your mind that will inevitably lead you to your new life and ultimately connecting you back to all LIFE once again.

    I hope you find this article somewhat inspiring. Without inspiration and a deep desire to change and get up and moving again, nothing will be helpful. Inspiration comes from within you and it is the seed of change. We need some form of inspiration to “wake us up” from the “dark clouds” we find ourselves under. Cooking with a therapeutic mindset as spelled out in this blog post is a big first step. It’s all about trusting the slow process of getting up and over those storm clouds and move upward and onward to sunnier, happier, and healthy days. Remember that therapeutic cooking knows no class distinction or prejudices and the food we use to cook with is the same gift from Mother Nature to all of us.

    I am not trying to sell anybody a box of “Lucky Charms” that will magically make things instantly better. I am however trying to offer a way to create “Silver Linings” around those dark clouds that enter our lives at times. And, therapeutic cooking can be one of the tools to help set you free. You can begin the journey by taking that very first step toward your stove to receive a warm nurturing embrace. Then implement “inspirational cooking”  in your life to create a new sunny horizon for yourself. Trust the recovery process and ultimately you will begin to feel good again and fly high toward a more positive direction with your life.


    Reflections of 9/11

    This video was made on the 15th remembrance of the World Trade Center disaster. However, the message is still as meaningful today as it was then.  

    You can read another article titled  Good Nutrition in The Operating Room that I wrote for The Huffington Post


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