To practise as a dietitian ... is being a chef the recipe for success?
Three University of Canberra students are using their culinary backgrounds as valuable tools to complete the Master of Nutrition and Dietetics program.
But their shared passion for food, and desire to help people achieve better health outcomes through their diets, goes deeper than that.
Keith grew up in Crookwell, a small town in the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales, northwest of Goulburn.
“I was either going to be a farmer or a chef,” he says.
“When I realised how hard farming is, I thought working in a restaurant was going to be it for me!”
Keith finished high school and scored an apprenticeship at The Lobby, an historic venue in Canberra’s Parliamentary Triangle.
It wasn’t long until he went from fine dining to a food truck, establishing a pop-up business at what was known as 'The Hamlet’ on Lonsdale Street, Braddon.
“I was 22, 23 and thinking ‘I’m killing this, I’m chasing down my career goals, I’m doing really well’,” Keith says.
“Then I was in it and realised that it wasn’t what I thought it was going to be, and it didn’t fulfil me in the ways that I wanted it to.”
What he really wanted was to help people through food, and he ended up moving to Melbourne to enrol in a Bachelor of Nutrition Science at Deakin University.
“It was incredible – and while I was studying, I supported myself as a chef, which was great, so I felt like I had a finger on the pulse,” Keith says.
He went on to work with the Victorian division of Nutrition Australia before moving back to Canberra to do the Master of Nutrition and Dietetics at UC. He continues to work part-time as a chef between clinical placements.
Keith says his 10 years of experience as a chef will bolster a career in nutrition and dietetics.
“Providing expert nutritional advice is obviously paramount, but it’s only half of the equation – instead of just pushing it back onto the client saying, ‘now you have to action this’ – bridge that gap, be that conduit, and follow it up with realistic education, advice and meal plans.”
Keith says he could see himself working as a dietitian for the older population in particular.
“Whether it’s developing meals or ensuring that assistance is there so they can actually consume the foods presented to them and making sure that flavour and taste are not afterthoughts.”
Danielle turned to a culinary course following a health scare during her time working in the fast-paced world of media and public relations.
“I wouldn’t eat lunch because I was too busy, I’d have a coffee for breakfast, and I knew nothing about nutrition,” she says.
For two years, she struggled to find answers and felt like the health system had failed her.
“By the end of the first year, I’d lost so much weight and lost a lot of energy too – I found it difficult to even walk up a flight of stairs,” she says. “By the second year, I was so unwell that I almost died during a colonoscopy.” Danielle developed a fear of food – and thought the best way to confront that fear was to become a chef.
“At the time, I didn’t even know how to boil eggs,” she says.
Danielle found herself jetting off to New York City to be with her artist partner. There, she was accepted into culinary school.
“I did that for eight months and became a natural foods chef,” she says.
“I was taught how to make foods in a healthier way – I could turn a dish into a vegan recipe or a gluten-free recipe for example, but the culinary school really didn’t teach me a lot about nutrition.”
Danielle turned to a Bachelor of Nutrition at Torrens University Australia.
When the COVID-19 pandemic brought her back to Canberra to spend time with family, she then decided to pursue further study – a Master of Nutrition and Dietetics at UC.
Danielle says practical placements helped solidify her knowledge, as she now prepares to embark on a new career, with an interest in gut health and helping people with eating disorders.
“Supporting people to navigate their health and wellness from a nutritional standpoint is what really lights me up — I’ve never felt more empowered and more like I’m really making a difference,” she says.
“If there’s something I don’t know, I really want to know it, to learn about it — I’ll never stop learning.”
Benita dropped out of her final years of school in Canberra and started an apprenticeship to become a pastry chef, working at Parliament House for five years.
“I got to cook for all the politicians, any politicians who were visiting Australia, visiting royalty and celebrities – Hugh Jackman was my favourite, I got to meet him as well,” Benita says.
She went on to work in a small bakery, which meant she was mostly working overnight.
“You become very isolated from friends and family,” Benita says.
It was her rollercoaster relationship with food growing up that sparked an interest in nutrition.
“I struggled with being overweight for a long time and then in high school I struggled with anorexia – I would go days without eating, it was all about control,” she says.
“As an adult I wanted to learn more – the message I got in school was just ‘vegetables are good for you’ and ‘sugar is bad for you’, and that was it.”
Benita completed her undergraduate studies online so she could continue working full-time as a pastry chef and cook for family and friends.
“I enjoyed making things that made other people happy,” she says.
She decided to further her education and was accepted into the Master of Nutrition and Dietetics at UC.
Now she’s juggling study with early motherhood, having given birth to her son in late 2021.
“I don’t want him to have the struggles with food that I’ve had my whole life – I don’t want any kid to have to have that,” Benita says.
She has a keen interest in paediatric nutrition, with a desire to help tackle the childhood obesity epidemic, and further the research into the link between the microbiome and obesity.
“Access is a big problem, because it’s so easy to get processed food, and often with both parents working, sometimes it’s just too hard to come home and put in that extra energy and effort [to prepare a healthy meal from scratch] but I think that with education, it doesn’t have to be hard,” Benita says.
Words by Emma Larouche, photos by Emma Larouche and supplied.