Top Italian Chef and Others Are Making a Difference Through Food in Upstate New York

The Center for Discovery uses food as medicine to help treat severely disabled children and adults

In our Cookbook of the Week section, The Daily Meal covers some amazing works of authors, nutritionists, chefs, and cooks. We ask questions about cooking philosophies and approaches to food; we ask about inspiration and about their favorite recipes. However, this week we delve a little deeper.

Feeding the Heart: Recipes Flavors and the Seed to Belly Philosophy of the Department of Nourishment Arts is a cookbook that  was recently released as a testament to the unique culinary and nourishment program at The Center for Discovery.

feeding the heart


Just 90 minutes outside New York City, at the base of the Catskill Mountains, The Center for Discovery spans more than 1,000 acres, including 250 acres of biodynamic and organic farm land, providing dedicated services to children and adults with severe disabilities, particularly autism.

The Center has developed an incredibly comprehensive program creating individual treatment plans for each of its residents. This is true for not only the educational, housing, medical, and extra-curricular programs, but quite notably for the culinary program.

The Center contends that the cornerstone of caregiving is to nourish; and at its most basic, “nourishment is the food that sustains life.” When founder Patrick Dollard began working with mentally disabled persons in 1982, he recalled, “When I would visit large institutions, food was a negative. Food was slop. In these settings the food, you couldn’t get it out of your nostrils.” Moreover, modern-day behavioral treatments often use food as a reward — usually unhealthy junk food — making so that a huge segment of the community becomes obese.

To address this, Dollard, with the help of renowned Italian chef Cesare Casella, a member of The Daily Meal Council, created the Department of Nourishment Arts (DNA).

DNA’s commitment to better eating literally starts with the seeds planted on its 250 acres of biodynamic and organic farm land. Seed to belly, the department uses food as medicine. Dollard tells us that “individuals with autism often have compromised immune systems [and] 70 percent of the immune system is based in the gut. So food is medicine.” Meals are catered to each resident and his or her medical needs. The department’s culinary staff prepares meals family-style within resident homes (residents live in small groups in real houses — avoiding the “institution” feel altogether) and are coaches of better eating habits.

Click here for featured recipes from Feeding The Heart

Casella, who is always seen with his breast pocket full of rosemary and other herbs, also implemented the DaVinci Master Chef program, inviting the culinary elite to come to the Center to hold seminars for the deptarment’s culinary staff. From Chef Mark Ladner (Del Posto) and April Bloomfield (The Spotted Pig) to Jacques Torres (Jacques Torres Chocolates) and Gaetano Arnore (Babbo), the Master Chef program inspires resident cooks, elevating their culinary knowledge and abilities. “Traditionally, in a restaurant the goal is to make beautiful food that tastes good. At The Center we do the opposite. We start with great nutrition and make food taste better,” Casella says. “Then it’s really beautiful.”

But don’t think that the dedicated staff is doing all the work! An important component of the farm is to not only connect residents to nature — again distancing the Center from the “institution” feel — but to also cultivate fine motor skills. Residents can be seen planting seeds or even in the hen house collecting, sorting, and sanitizing eggs. This egg program in particular is a joy for many residents. Dollard tells us, “We have a resident who came to us after some violent episodes. People thought it was crazy to get him involved with eggs, but it changed his life. It was connection for him, caring for the animals.”

Each of the tasks the residents engage in can be modified for their abilities. Tables operate on a lever, raising and lowering to accommodate a wheelchair, and handles and knobs are adjusted for all ranges of motion so that all can participate and feel included.

Working with produce also helps residents become more familiar and comfortable with food and meals. Jennifer Franck, assistant chief of DNA, described that out in the field, residents touch the produce. They smell it and in that act bring it up to their lips; it is an important step in introducing new and healthy foods into diets, especially for picky eaters.

In this cookbook, the recipes come from the Center as well as its Master Chefs. The recipes use whole foods meant to positively impact the immune system. Click here to see a list of recipes exclusively shared with The Daily Meal.


Rachael Pack is Cook Editor of The Daily Meal. Follow her on Instagram @rachael_pack

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