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From cooking to counseling

Department Chair Michael M. Kocet, Ph.D., is pioneering a new way to facilitate healing—culinary therapy—and his students love it.

No matter what’s going on in a person’s life or who they are, eating is mandatory. Some people use food as a crutch—a comfort to deal with painful emotions or a struggle. For others, it’s a source of family gatherings and a peaceful hobby. And still others use it for simple survival, nothing more, nothing less. But to Michael Kocet, Ph.D., culinary therapy is a way to improve mindfulness.

Department Chair Michael M. Kocet, Ph.D.

Culinary therapy—or cooking therapy—is defined by Dr. Kocet as “the therapeutic technique that uses arts, cooking, gastronomy, and an individual’s personal, cultural, and familial relationship with food to address emotional and psychological problems faced by individuals, families, and groups. Culinary therapy involves an exploration of an individual’s relationship with food and how food impacts relationships, as well as psychological well-being and functioning.”

Dr. Kocet started developing his thoughts and practices around culinary therapy while teaching a graduate counseling class one term before joining the faculty at TCSPP.

“In our field of mental health counseling, we have art therapy, music therapy, dance therapy, drama therapy, but no one’s created cooking therapy,” Dr. Kocet says. “So I set out to create a course about it.”

In his “chocolate meditation” sessions, students would slowly unwrap a small Hershey candy bar. Then smell it without eating it. Being mindful of their memories affiliated with the piece of chocolate, Dr. Kocet would then instruct them to place the chocolate into their mouths without chewing it and just letting it melt until it bubbled on their tongues.

“The whole point is by eating that little piece of candy mindfully, it changes how we approach food,” Dr. Kocet says. He has used similar techniques as a therapist in psychiatric settings, working with adolescent patients. “Patients would tell me that by eating the chocolate in this manner, one was enough. That’s the whole idea of mindful eating.”

In addition to students learning about mindfulness and food portion control, Dr. Kocet uses cooking therapy to help both individuals and couples, and to deal with familial issues, including grief.

And participants in cooking therapy don’t necessarily have to be experts in the kitchen. Even burning food was a useful tip to discuss feelings within the class.

“If a client burns something and grows frustrated because he or she burned a dish, you can process with them,” he says. “I may ask if there’s anything in his life that is making him feel burned out or how they can use the experience to learn from other past mistakes.”

By the end of his courses, students complete a food and cooking autobiography to discuss their relationships with food—such as cultural and religious connections, or sharing long-cherished family recipes. They also create their own food culinary project such as one student who made a board game for children about mindful eating or another who worked on a food-based mobile app.

Dr. Kocet, who was a professor for 13 years prior to joining TCSPP’s faculty, knows some of his counseling techniques are out of the box. It’s one of many reasons he wanted to teach at TCSPP. “I respect TCSPP’s commitment to diversity and inclusion,” he says. “That was very attractive to me.”

He also has professional accolades as a licensed mental health counselor, a National Certified Counselor, an Approved Clinical Supervisor, and earned a Ph.D. in Counselor Education.

In addition to his work with culinary therapy, in 2016, Dr. Kocet helped launch TCSPP’s M.A. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling program and teaches in the Department of Counselor Education. He hopes to further his work on culinary therapy by developing a pilot study on the creative counseling technique.

“Whether you’re a licensed mental health counselor like me, someone who just lost a family member, a psychologist, or someone who lives in a food desert, every person on this planet has some kind of relationship with food,” Dr. Kocet says. “I think that we have to look at that more carefully, especially in the U.S. We’re so reliant on fast food. We have to look at how we can eat healthier. Culinary therapy can impact our mood, psychological health, and physical health. I’ve seen time and again that culinary therapy connects really well with the fields of counseling and psychology, and I’ve gained so much from doing this work.”

Shamontiel L. Vaughn

Shamontiel L. Vaughn joined TCS Education System’s Marketing Department as the Editorial Writer in February 2017. She has previously worked in digital media with the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Defender, CBS Chicago, and Sun Times Network.


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