How the kitchen can heal and help you love food again

By Douglass Williams, as told to Champ Clark

I was diagnosed with Crohn’s when I was 16. We knew something was wrong. At first they thought it was appendicitis, but doctors at the Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia correctly identified it as Crohn’s disease.

Crohn’s is an inflammation of the intestines, and mine was right in the middle between the lower and upper intestines, where the ileum is. The ileum is the main place where nutrients are absorbed by the body, and the doctors removed 6 inches of bowel and reconnected everything.

I will never forget that when I came out of surgery, a big plate of steaming food was delivered to the room. A hot dog, fries, apple sauce, milk. Damn it? It made no sense. But that just shows you where the mindset was with Crohn’s back then. It was not taken seriously as a disease that could be treated with a focus on nutrition. It was a disease that was treated with drugs. Period.

Difficult Teen Years

After I got out of the hospital, I lost about 80 pounds. I was a shadow of my former self and I couldn’t just be a normal teenager. Imagine you are 16 and you are in the back of your best friend’s car and there is a girl with you. And you go to a drive-thru. Everyone orders burgers, fries, and soda. And then you have to stick your head out the window and say, “Can I have a hamburger, no bun, no ketchup, no fries, no soda, maybe lettuce on the side?”

It was horrible! And it was terribly embarrassing to have to poop and piss all the time and not know exactly when it was going to happen and what to do about it. You can’t play in the gym because your stomach hurts, and nobody really understands it, especially other kids. You just want to go into a dark room and get into a ball, and that’s about what I did.

My dad was a chef and my mom was a cocktail waitress, so I was sort of born in the hospitality industry. I also wanted to be a chef, but how could I do that? I couldn’t even eat the things I wanted to eat. But then I thought, I can make a mean omelette. All I could eat then were eggs, and I ate them every day. So I cooked omelettes, I made soufflés. Eggs became my specialty and kept the cooking bug alive until I landed my first kitchen job when I was 18 at a restaurant where I – you guessed it – ran the omelet station! And then I saw my future and realized that becoming a chef could also heal me.

Shortly after, I went to culinary school. When I got there it was, oh oh, I gotta taste things now! How am I going to figure this out? At first, I took a bathroom break so I could spit out foods that would otherwise trigger my Crohn’s. But I couldn’t keep doing that because I had to stay in class. But every cooking station has what’s known as “Slim Jims” — rectangular trash cans that sit against the table you’re working on. I know it sounds strange, but that turned out to be a life saver.

I developed a great desire for the texture of food, for the taste, the sensation, the emotion of every bite. Like the crunch and crunch of a sourdough bun on the outside and the warm chewiness on the inside. It’s all so comforting, and if you can’t eat the food you want – the food you love – you lose that feeling. It does something to you. You are so limited. You feel an emptiness.

Dealing with stress

But here’s what I discovered about myself: Crohn’s is all about managing stress. Medications help with inflammation, but what hit the switch on my remission was managing stress. I don’t mean kitchen stress. On the contrary, the kitchen was my refuge. It was where I went to get away from all the things that can bring you down – why doesn’t this girl like me, societal pressures and a million other little things I shouldn’t have worried about.

So I’ve learned to calm myself down and let life unfold as it will. I do transcendental meditation, which for me is a great liberation. I also like to read and travel. Reading gives me a kind of solidarity with my own condition, and traveling gives me a deeper appreciation for the human condition. That combination, along with cooking, has kept me in remission for the past 10 years.

People in kitchens all tend to do something to get through the night: they drink, they smoke, they smoke some kind of drug. It’s really hard work. When I got into the kitchen, I started to heal. Crohn’s saved my life because it forced me into a corner. I felt like a shark in the water with only one fin. I had to swim twice as hard to survive. I put everything I have into my cooking, and at the same time I was forced to have a long-distance relationship with the food I wanted to eat. I had to fight my way back, bit by bit.

Food as healing energy

The food that helps me the most – mentally and spiritually – is food cooked with love by others. I can cook for myself, of course, but because I taste good a hundred times before finishing a dish, my palate gets tired. Having someone cook for you is one of the most beautiful acts of kindness there is. It’s a nurturing, nourishing gesture that I’ve never taken lightly. It immediately puts me at ease and exudes a healing energy that opens me up completely. And when I cook for others, I put exactly the same energy into that dining experience. It’s all about healing through food – physically, psychologically and emotionally.

My advice for foodies with Crohn’s is to make a list of things you like and crave. Sweet, savory, spicy, crunchy, whatever it is that does for you. And then try to find the healthy equivalent of those things. Find out what’s there. The things you discover you can and want to eat will lead you to more things you can eat. You might even find that you end up liking those things more than the original. Simply put: focus on what you like and can eat. And don’t let stress rule your life.

Having Crohn’s sucks, but I wouldn’t change it for a second. It made me who I am.

Douglass Williams is the owner and top chef at MIDA, an Italian restaurant with two locations in Boston, Massachusetts. In 2020, the 37-year-old father of two was recognized as one of Food & Wine Magazine’s “Best New Chefs in America”. Williams was also a James Beard Award Semi-Finalist the same year and has been nominated for James Beard for Outstanding Chef in 2022.

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