Culinary Art Therapist Julie Ohana fosters mindfulness and communication through cooking
BY MARKHAM HEID
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ALLISON FARRAND
Gardeners have an expression: You can bury a lot of troubles digging in the dirt. Julie Ohana offers her own version: “It’s easier to tune out the stress and pressures of life when you’re chopping a tomato.”
It’s fitting, then, that the West Bloomfield-based Ohana is a self-described culinary art therapist. She works with both individuals and groups, and her practice blends conventional psychotherapy techniques with what are best described as cooking classes. “I’ve been a traditional therapist, where the client and I sit in chairs and do talk therapy, which I’m a firm believer in,” she says. “But I also believe that being able to cook with someone and help guide someone through a recipe allows for a very unique clinical experience.”
She likes to say that every culinary art therapy session is different. But the gist is that she and her client talk while the client prepares a meal under Ohana’s direction. “Some of the sessions look more like regular therapy, where it’s one-on-one and I’m asking prompting questions or reflecting back what I’m seeing or hearing,” she says. Group sessions, on the other hand, tend to involve more elaborate recipes — say, stuffed peppers or pasta— with Ohana delegating duties, observing, and gently coaching the participants through helpful techniques, both culinary and psychotherapeutic. “When you’re stirring or mixing,it’s easier to be present in the here-and-now and to focus on one task at a time, which are features of mindfulness,” she says. “This is the kind of practice that is teachable in the kitchen.”
“When you’re stirring or mixing, it’s easier to be present and focus on a task, which are features of mindfulness. This is the kind of practice that’s teachable in the kitchen.”
At first blush, Ohana’s methods may seem a little out-there. But her approach is similar to other clinically validated forms of hands-on treatment, such as art therapy or music therapy. For example, researchers have found that making music helps activate brain structures that are involved in cognitive, sensorimotor, and emotional processing. This activation appears to facilitate certain therapeutic processes. Ohana says that, like music, there’s something about cooking that seems to help people gain personal insights or work through psychological roadblocks. Plus, it’s fun. “Culinary art therapy is therapeutic in the clinical sense, but also in the sense of learning life skills or bettering yourself,” she says. “When you’re done with a session, you have something that is nourishing and delicious that you can share with your family or neighbors.”
Ohana has developed an arsenal of more than 100 recipes to suit her clients’ tastes and abilities. Some people will turn out healthy salads or multi-course meals, while others will bake bread. “The sourdough or banana bread craze we saw during the pandemic — I don’t think people rediscovering the pleasure of these things was an accident,” she says. “When everyone was at home and forced to stop running around, I think there was a reason going to the kitchen and making some-thing helped people feel better.”
Ohana’s interest in cooking-as-therapy began when she was young. “I grew up cooking alongside my mom and grandma, and that is always where I felt a sense of joy and contentment,” she says. “I always knew that cooking could help foster these feelings.” While earning her master’s degree in social work from Yeshiva University in New York, she wrote her graduate thesis on the therapeutic benefits of cooking, but she worked professionally as a counselor for more than a decade before revisiting the idea of blending cooking with talk therapy.
After developing her method over a few years, she says that things were really beginning to hum when the pandemic hit. “Like everyone else, my calendar was wiped clean, and I thought, this is it — I’m done,” she recalls. But what first seemed like a death knell turned out to be a boon. “Once we all figured out how to use Zoom and therapy moved online, people started rebooking virtually,” she says. “Suddenly people could work with me from their own kitchen, and so they’d come into the session with a natural ease and comfort, which allowed us to start almost from a more advanced place.”
The emergence of virtual therapy made it easy for Ohana to connect with clients far beyond Metro Detroit. “I’m working with clients all over,” she says, including in Atlanta, Chicago, and California. She’s even planning a webinar for a group of graduate students in India.
Last December, Ohana worked virtually with Caryn Ragin Johnson, a 34-year-old attorney who lives in Tacoma, Wash. Johnson was joined by her parents, siblings, and some of her in-laws. “I wanted a way to open communication without it being overwhelming — something that felt more like an activity than therapy,” Johnson says. She says that cooking together with Ohana helped all of them gain a better under-standing of one another’s communication styles. “She was very good at highlighting our differences … and reaffirming that the different styles of communication are good and appreciated,” she says. “The experience allowed me to see my own blind spots, because as we led our section it became clearer where breakdowns in communications can happen.”
Individual or family sessions with Ohana start at $100 and $150, respectively. Larger group sessions start at $350. Ohana doesn’t accept insurance, but she says that some people may be able to get reimbursed for the therapy from their insurer.
She doesn’t expect her brand of counseling to replace more formal practices. “I see this as more something to do in conjunction with talk therapy,” she says. But she also says what she offers isn’t only for people who have, or may warrant, a disorder diagnosis. “People often see therapy as a thing they need when they have a ‘problem,’ but I believe that cooking and this process really helps anybody work through the sorts of struggles that we all have,” she says. “This is about learning life skills — cooking, but also patience and communication and mindfulness. This is teaching things that you can bring forward into your daily life.”