Tri-state native Renee Cherkezian loved cooking from a young age, finding food at the center of her world with fresh ingredients serving as a key part of her Armenian background. She’s also always been active, enjoying exercising in many forms. Both elements were—and remain—essential in her life.
Eventually, she studied nursing at Georgetown, and later served as an operating nurse and administrator. While working, she saw how much food affected the outcomes of her patients and, in general, how it influenced their overall wellbeing. But since her love of cooking stood firm, she also worked at David Burke…all while serving as an OR nurse.
In 2008, while taking care of a friend with cancer on a restrictive diet, her worlds collided. When her friend was confounded and frustrated, Cherkezian insisted there must be a way to use food as a healer. Maintaining her friend’s neutropenic diet for a low immune system, she still found ways to make the food more palatable and creative, especially using spices and herbs.
That experience sparked her desire to help bring the food-as-medicine idea to a larger audience, not just for those suffering from cancer, but also for others dealing with multiple chronic issues. She left her job and moved to Paris to hone her culinary skills. After she returned, she founded Epicured, a food-delivery business that meshed her passions, with healthcare entrepreneur Richard Bennett. Read on to hear more about how they help clients use food for nutrition, healing, comfort and more.
SBS: What is Epicured’s approach to food?
Renee Cherkezian: Epicured sits at the intersection of the culinary world and clinical world: We believe food is medicine. We ask, ‘How can you leverage clean and delicious food for better health and healing?’ Our ingredients are free of preservatives, hormones and antibiotics, and they are non-GMO. We use evidence-based research to curate recipes that are reviewed by registered dietitians and then prepared by Michelin-starred chefs. It’s our mission to help educate our consumers on how to make informed decisions about food and ingredients in the absence of an Epicured meal.
SBS: What does FODMAP mean and why is it so central in Epicured’s approach?
RC: The low FODMAP diet is designed to restore digestive health, and it’s proven therapy for common GI disorders. FODMAP stands for fermentable oligo-, di-, mono-saccharides and polyols. These are a bunch of short-chain carbohydrates that some people without certain enzymes have difficulty digesting. When you’re eating, the enzymes in your mouth and stomach break down food. But someone with IBS may not have the enzymes necessary. So instead of breaking down food in your stomach, it breaks down in your intestine, creating bloating, discomfort and worse. So we go by scientific guidelines, and we choose foods that are low in FODMAPS to avoid bloating and pain. That way you can eat with comfort, since we know the culprit behind much of the issue.
It’s so important to understand the food science to get to ultimate point you want to get to. Sometimes, it’s about the amount. For example, up to 75g of broccoli are low FODMAPs. Beyond that is moderate-high in FODMAPs, at which point, someone with IBS may experience symptoms. So we measure everything to the 10th of a gram when creating recipes.
One good example is onion and garlic: Most people with IBS can’t have them, but they’re in all meals in restaurants. We don’t want to compromise flavor, so we create an onion oil or garlic oil. This remains low FODMAP because while these carbohydrates are soluble in water, they’re insoluble in oil.
SBS: What are your nutritional tips regarding different types of diets?
RC: Everyone is different and has different nutritional requirements, so the first thing is to understand your own needs. Then, as you look at different options, try to be informed on what a diet is used for, and determine if it would benefit you in particular. I also always encourage seeing a doctor or nutritionist to determine what’s best. A lot of people think gluten free is healthiest, but it’s not always healthiest for you.
Do research and ask questions like, why is it popular? Take keto for example: If you aren’t using it for the reason it was made—for people with seizures—is it really right for you? There are other applications, yes, but if you are using it to lose weight, it might not be as helpful.
SBS: What were the biggest challenges of starting Epicured?
RC: A lot of people didn’t know what low FODMAP foods even were. So one of the big hurdles was educating the public, even though it applies to things like Chron’s, colitis, celiac disease and non-functional GI disorder. Roughly 20 percent of the US population suffers from IBS, and another 10 percent suffers from other GI conditions.
We haven’t done much marketing per say, and we’ve grown organically. Instead, we’ve been part of conferences and teaching demos, as well as using social media like Instagram Live. We’ve also partnered with Mt. Sinai Health System and are closely collaborating with their Department of Gastroenterology and Employee Wellness Program. Our food applies to a need as opposed to a want or a fad. Now, awareness is growing.
SBS: What are some of your favorite low FODMAP snacks and meals?
RC: Off our menu, for snacks, I love energy bites and a cacao-almond smoothie. For meals, I love the turkey chili, hawker lettuce wraps, lasagna bolognese and sesame ponzu soba noodles.
SBS: How has your own wellness/nutrition regiment changed since you started your company?
RC: I pay much greater attention to food ingredients. I read all labels and ingredients and focus on the purity of products. My general rule of thumb on a packaged item, is ‘the less ingredients, the better,’ so I avoid processed food as much as possible. However, I have a few exceptions and cheat on occasion with Talenti Gelato, Nutella and sea salt kettle baked chips!
Renee’s NYC Faves:
Healthy Restaurants: Sushi Seki, ABC Kitchen, Upland, Bouley, Lure Fish Bar, Via Carota.
Splurge Restaurants: Pig Bleecker (Thank you, Matt Abdoo!), Uncle Boons, Wo Hop and Mission Chinese Food
Nightlife Spot: Gospel
Fun Activities: Cooking, sailing, skiing and traveling
Calming Activities: Anything by a body of water and mediation
Fitness Studio: Equinox
Athletic Shoes: New Balance
Book: The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer
Renee’s Sticky Be Mantra: This is a hard one because don’t we all want to be everything at the same time? But I would say, Be Calm, Be Mindful and Be Bright: Being calm and mindful allows one to listen to the world and open oneself to its energy. And being bright allows one to give positive energy, which then results in kindness, bravery, boldness and happiness.
The best, zaniest part of being Renee: Nothing is ever routine, and every day is a crazy adventure.