Chef and Doctor Make a Cooking Lesson Dream Team

“I started going to culinary school because I had too many patients.”

Dr. Meenakshi Budrahja is passionate about food.

As a gastroenterologist, she has seen firsthand the effects of poor nutrition on people’s health. Frustrated by the serious illnesses created by high-fat, high-salt, high-sugar diets full of processed food, she realized that people needed help long before their poor health landed them in her office.

That’s how she met Cynthia Malik, a chef from Little Rock who trained at the Culinary Institute of America and is now Executive Chef for Tacos 4 Life Grill.  Chef Malik was teaching at the local culinary school here in Little Rock when Dr. Budrahja walked in looking for expert partners.

“We need to train doctors how to cook,” Budhraja told the chefs.

Eventually, Malik and Budrahja ended up co-teaching their fascinating and delicious classes in cooking and culinary medicine.

The class they offered on a Saturday in the fall through the CALS Thompson Library was free to the public. It was a pleasure for the senses and an eye-opener for the joys of fruits, legumes, and vegetables. Roasting grapes and squash sent a heady, rich aroma through the library. Freshly made hummus and a touch of cheese proved that healthy eating is not a punishment, but a pure delight when you learn easy recipes from the experts.

While Chef Malik prepped demonstration bowls that showed up crystal-clear on the library’s professional countertop viewscreen, Dr. Budrahja gave an informative and often funny talk about the unseen forces that cause people to choose unhealthy foods without even knowing why.

“Big Food has tremendous influence on what we eat – we think we choose our food, but we don’t realize how much influence Big Food has,” Dr. Budhraja said. She displayed a map graphic of all the giant food companies that dominate politics and our food culture across the United States. “In addition, even our culinary schools often train chefs in the French tradition, which tends to start with a stick of butter and cream.”

Budrahja explained that for the sake of our health, culinary culture needs to reorient itself to embrace more healthy ingredients and cooking traditions like Mediterranean, which is heart-healthy with more vegetables and fewer fats.

As Chef Malik stepped in to begin teaching the recipes, she pointed out to the gathered listeners that many chefs tend to center their work on meat, a focus that comes from the Western European cooking tradition but is not always the healthiest approach. “Most chefs are all about the meat, but I’m interested in the vegetables first,” Malik said.

Chef Malik’s talent was plain, as her colorful, non-meat ingredients took shape into a mouthwatering plate of samples for every visitor. The library patrons lined up for the treats, sighing at the smells and the tastes as they dug in, asking questions about the ingredients. Malik clearly loves interacting with the curious learners and has many helpful tips. When asked about her generous teaching style, she had a simple answer.

“I just believe there’s nothing about cooking that should be secret,” Malik said. “Where else can you learn? Many people aren’t learning at home. Most of us want to enjoy food, but not everyone has the confidence to go out on a limb with something unusual.” She enjoys the opportunity to help people be bold and explore new flavors and techniques.

Class attendees were full of praise as they relaxed and sampled the hummus, squash, and grapes.

Kaleybra Morehead had already attended several cooking classes at the Thompson Library. “I love them!” she said. “I’m trying to eat better, so this class will be incentive.”

For others, the class was their first exposure to the joys of library cooking class.

Jason West said, “This is my first time at one of these cooking events. I like the opportunity to accompany my mom to something near and dear like culinary class. It’s a lovely atmosphere and setting.”

Jo Jones was impressed with the whole library kitchen. “It’s like the ones on the cooking shows!” Jones said. She also appreciates helpful aspects of the cooking lesson for those with dietary restrictions. “I can’t eat gluten, so the gluten-free bread is really good.”

Yong Park just happened across the class on his weekend trip to the library. “I like cooking,” Park said. “I was sitting across the building and saw this class through the windows and thought “what is that?” He complimented the wonderful flavors of the sample dishes.

Like many library cooking classes, this free Saturday offering infused the afternoon with the special warmth that comes from the age-old blessings of hospitality and breaking bread.

Dr. Budrahja enjoys nurturing that community bond while helping people take charge of their health.

“Cooking builds community,” Budrahja said. “Look how much fun we had today. It builds relationships.”


Cooking demo classes at the CALS Thompson Library feature many different community presenters on different topics: check the library’s monthly schedule to see what kind of cooking or recipes are highlighted in each month.