Israel’s ‘medical chef’ teaches patients to eat properly

Rani Polak at work: I thought that this is a place for my two loves to meet.Rani Polak couldn’t decide between a career in cooking or medicine. So he decided to combine them. A student in his fourth and final …

Rani Polak at work: I thought that this is a place for my two loves to meet.Rani Polak couldn’t decide between a career in cooking or medicine. So he decided to combine them.

A student in his fourth and final year at Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School, the 33-year-old Israeli is also a Cordon Bleu chef. And this year he blended his two interests like one of his gourmet sauces by developing a cooking workshop for patients suffering from inflammatory bowel disease, who must adhere to a strict low-fiber diet.

For his unique project, Polak was presented with the Kaye Innovation Award during the 68th meeting of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Board of Governors, held earlier this month.

Over 1.4 million Americans suffer from inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis – the two most common forms of IBD, and over 150,000 Americans are diagnosed every year. With both diseases, the lining of the digestive tract is inflamed and causes bouts of diarrhea and abdominal pain. Crohn’s disease can occur anywhere in the digestive tract, often spreading through the layers of affected tissue. Ulcerative colitis, however, usually affects only the innermost lining (mucosa) of the large intestine (colon) and rectum.

Polak told ISRAEL21c that his interest in the subject derives from a lecture he attended last year on the subject given by Prof Eran Goldin, the head of Gastroenterology Department of Hadassah on inflammatory bowel disease. Goldin also talked about the recent opening of the Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center at Hadassah which he was also heading.

“It intrigued me, and Goldin told us that the center wasn’t open only to doctors but to all kinds of people like psychologists, art therapists, and other forms of therapies,” said Polak.

According to Goldin, the most effective way to treat patients suffering from IBD is through a multidisciplinary approach that addresses not only the physical aspects of the disease, but also the patient’s psychological and social needs. The Center’s team is designed, therefore, to take care of the specific medical, emotional and social problems of each individual patient, and comprises specialists in all the relevant fields.

Goldin’s speech prompted Polak to begin considering devising a workshop to help those with digestive problems to eat and live better.

“I thought that this is a place for my two loves to meet – to become a chef again,” said Polak. “I’d had this plan for a long time, and was just waiting for the opportunity.
Prof. Goldin liked the idea very much and supported me in developing the workshops.

Polak’s workshop teaches patients not only the theory of how to tailor a diet to their special needs, but also the practice: They prepare tasty and healthy food for their own consumption.

The workshop was composed of a series of seven meetings, each lasting three hours. The meetings started with a short lecture, given by a registered dietician, about an element of the disease’s recommended diet. The rest of the meeting was a ‘hands-on’ session in which Polak taught cooking methods and special recipes dealing with various elements of the patient’s diet. Each meeting ended with a gourmet dinner, prepared by the patients. All the participants received a recipe book containing both recipes and methods that follow the workshop’s guidelines.

“Each workshop has 20 patients. We’re completing the second one now, and the third one is already filled up,” said Polak, who added that the participants represent a wide cross-section of ages.

In a follow-up study, Polak said that a significant decrease was shown in the disease activity index of the patients that participated in the workshop. It’s gratifying news for the Jerusalem resident who first turned to cooking to help put himself through college.


“I was originally interested in art, but over the years was drawn to cooking. To put myself through medical school, I worked as a sous chef at a Jerusalem restaurant,” said Polak.

Two years ago, Polak decided to take some time off from his medical studies and enrolled at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu – the world’s leading culinary arts school encompassing 26 international schools in 15 countries, attended by more than 18,000 students every year.

“I’m not sure why they accepted me. I sent them my resume and I guess it was good enough,” said Polak with a laugh. “I had to be sure that I liked studying to be a chef – because it was quite an expensive school. I was studying at the Sydney, Australia branch – learning only cuisine, not pastry. It was a nice vacation from medical school.”

His studies at the institute taught vital information about healthy eating that he’s incorporated in his workshop. And in terms of both preparation and consumption, he discovered that he loved East Asian food.

“I learned to love Asian food when I was in Australia. There were many students from China and Taiwan. In fact I think I was the only non-Asian student. They taught me a lot about cooking. It goes well with the dietary limitations of the patients I’m working with. They use rice as a main grain instead of wheat -which is healthier,” he said.

Today, Polak’s workshops are an integral service of the IBD center of Hadassah University hospitals, and he’s confident that this is only the beginning.

“I hope that in the future this project will become the basis for a larger center whose purpose it will be to improve the quality of life for patients with nutritional limitations in particular and chronic illnesses in general through combining the knowledge of doctors, chiefs and clinical dieticians,” said Polak.

“The workshop is adaptable in any country for any people. And after I finish my degree next year, I hope to help launch the concept in other countries.”

Now that’s some food for thought.