By Daniel Casciato
As a general surgeon in the U.S. Army, it became evident to Carole Ortenzo that many of the surgeries she performed as well as many illnesses for which patients were being medicated could have been prevented entirely.
“The number of patient visits throughout the hospital would have plummeted,” she says, “if people had taken better care of themselves.”
Ortenzo ultimately decided that, instead of caring for people after their disease had progressed to the point of requiring surgery, she wanted to try to prevent the disease from occurring at all. So, in June 2003, after 25 years of service, she retired from the Army and from medicine to pursue a career in disease prevention through organic, health-supportive cooking.
Some of her friends and medical colleagues were surprised that she was leaving medicine, especially considering the money she could have made had she practiced in the civilian sector.
“I had job offers from all over the country to fill positions as a general surgeon, a surgical department chief, and a medical director, as I had held all three of those positions while in the Army,” she says. “But, those closest to me knew how completely exhausted I was by the time I retired and how much I needed to go in a different direction.”
Her cousin, Camille Bodnar of Peters Township, was supportive of her decision.
“Once we heard her talk about it, we saw how passionate she was,” Bodnar says. “From working in the medical field, she realized that eating organic foods and taking care of what you put in your body makes such a difference.”
Of course, there were many jokes from family, friends, and colleagues that Ortenzo would certainly do well in chopping because of her surgical background.
“As it turns out, I did do well during the knife skills exam,” she says. “But, that was because I practiced a lot. There is no correlation between the technical skill set required to perform surgery and that required to cut produce, except the need to be able to judge distances well. Even at that, I had to switch from thinking in terms of millimeters, which we use in medicine, to fractions of an inch, which we use in the cooking world. When it comes to cutting up a chicken or filleting a fish, however, I will admit that there’s a bit of overlap between surgical and cooking skills.”
About one week after her final work day in the Army, Ortenzo began cooking school at The Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts in Manhattan, which emphasizes health-supportive vegetarian and vegan cooking but also teaches preparation of chicken and fish. For Ortenzo, the transition from surgeon to chef was especially challenging because she was the only one in her class who didn’t have a formal or an extensive cooking background.
“Learning volumes of new material each day was difficult,” says Ortenzo. “But, the hardest part, believe it or not, was becoming proficient at plating food in a visually-appealing manner. Because people eat with their eyes before they taste anything, this is important. Now, as a general surgeon, I would focus on making a nice, cosmetic wound closure whenever possible, because that’s what people see. But, below the skin surface, the art of surgery is all about function. So, at age 46, I had to develop a completely new sense of artistry, and that took some time.”
In some ways, though, her medical background was an advantage. It came in especially handy during cooking school while studying the foodborne-illness section of ServSafe, the national food handlers’ course. Today, Ortenzo regularly reads several periodicals on health and nutrition that are quite scientific and technical. Her medical background makes it easy for her to understand these articles and retain the knowledge so she could pass it along to her clients.
After graduating from cooking school, Ortenzo didn’t feel quite ready to go out into the cooking world. So, to gain more hands-on experience, she accompanied one of her cooking school instructors, Elliott Prag, to Sofia, Bulgaria in January 2004 to open the first health food (and non-smoking) restaurant in that section of the world.
“It was fantastic,” she says. “I knew I could learn a lot more from Elliott by working side-by-side with him. As it turns out, opening that restaurant was a huge learning experience for both of us.”
In May 2006, Ortenzo attended The Culinary Business Academy, the business school one must complete before becoming a member of the United States Personal Chef Association (USPCA). There, she also gained experience in preparing beef, pork, and lamb dishes.
Soon after, Ortenzo started Organic Personal Chef Service in Pittsburgh, preparing customized, organic meals in homes and cooking for dinner parties. She also began teaching in-home cooking classes and classes at Changing Seasons Learning Center in McMurray.
Those who take her classes learn about health-supportive foods and cooking techniques.
“How you cook your food is as important to your health as the ingredients you select,” says Ortenzo. “Students also learn how to prepare truly balanced meals that make you feel good when you’ve finished eating. And, we discuss proper kitchen sanitation. In fact, that’s lesson number one.”
Carol Teodori, the owner of Changing Seasons Learning Center, approached Ortenzo last year about teaching organic cooking classes.
“Carole’s been a great teacher and is thorough in what she does,” says Teodori. “She gives out information about why organic food is important and everyone who attends the classes receives their money’s worth, in addition to very delicious meals.”
Ortenzo, from McMurray, now has a registered baking kitchen with the Dept. of Agriculture in Washington County, which means she can make food items for sale in her home kitchen that would not require refrigeration, including breads, crackers, healthy snacks and desserts, and breakfast items.
In February 2008, her kitchen will undergo renovation to a commercial-grade kitchen. Local kitchen designer Ron Gimigliano, owner of Euro Concepts, is installing the kitchen and says that it is rare for anyone to install a commercial kitchen inside their residence.
“The more time I spend with her, the more amazed I am by her drive and her zest for everything that she does,” says Gimigliano. “Her military background carries over tremendously in her desire to meet or exceed the standards that the local agencies required her to do.”
Gimigliano says that it’s obvious that Ortenzo has become an organic chef for the love of doing it.
“She’s certainly not doing it for monetary gratification,” he says. “She impresses me as being one of the most thorough and intelligent women that I have ever met in life and certainly someone who has to be highly respected.”
Ortenzo hopes to see more people eat organic foods because it’s healthier for them, the environment and the livestock.
“It’s generally accepted that we are what we eat, but the fact actually is that we are what the plant and animal life that we consume eat,” she says. “Organic refers to food produced without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, genetically-engineered ingredients, or irradiation. It’s clear that organic produce is grown in a healthier environment than conventional, or non-organic produce, and animals raised organically live under much healthier conditions than do their conventional counterparts. It’s also important to note that not all organic farms are USDA certified. So, I speak with farmers about their produce and animal products. If the products are grown or raised in accordance with organic standards, I buy them despite the lack of USDA certification.”
According to Ortenzo, the chronic effects of pesticides found in conventional food products include different types of cancer, infertility, hormone balance disruption, and neurotoxicity.
“Children, and particularly infants, are at the greatest risk of being impacted by pesticides because of their under-developed immune systems and the increased food consumption relative to their smaller body size,” she says. “Notably, a recent study showed that when children who were on a conventional diet were switched to an organic diet, the levels of two organophosphate pesticides in their urine immediately dropped to below detection level.”
“So, choosing organic foods,” Ortenzo says, “is one way parents can help protect their children and themselves from the effects of pesticides.”
The best scenario to preserve the environment and to improve the treatment of livestock is for everyone to adopt an organic, vegetarian or vegan (no animal or dairy products) diet. However, Ortenzo knows this is unrealistic.
“The next best scenario is for people to switch from eating conventional products to eating organic, grass-fed beef and dairy products, organic, free-range chicken and pork, and organically-grown produce,” she says. “This would greatly reduce the use of pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones, and the use of potentially very harmful techniques to produce genetically-modified and irradiated foods.”
There is a detailed discussion on the benefits of eating organic on her Web site at www.organicpersonalchefpgh.com .
Bodnar says that Ortenzo educated her on the importance of eating organic.
“It wasn’t until she started talking more about it that I started buying more organic,” says Bodnar. “Almost all of the dairy products and all the baby food in our house are now organic. I also try to buy as many organic fruits and vegetables as possible. I do the best that I can. I’m not a fanatic about it, but if there is an option, I would definitely buy the organic over the regular.”
Whether she’s preparing an organic meal or teaching others about organic cooking, what started out as a part-time venture is now a full-time job. Not that Ortenzo minds.
The most rewarding part about her new career is the feedback she receives on how much people enjoyed her food.
“I’m especially pleased when children like my food,” she says. “When that happens I feel like I’ve won a small battle against the fast food and processed food industries.”
Family bias aside, Bodnar says that her cousin has become a wonderful chef.
“Not only is she passionate about organic cooking, but she’s very knowledgeable and backs everything she says with facts,” says Bodnar. “She really does her research and makes sure she educates you on the importance of organic foods. She’s always working to improve it and everything she makes is delicious.”
Originally published in Pittsburgh Professional Magazine.