by Len Lear
When Steven Herrine was a professional chef in Philadelphia, working in the kitchen of the legendary Le Bec Fin, among other palaces of gastronomy, his dishes no doubt left many customers with a feeling of euphoria. However, if any of those former customers ever had a bad gastronomic experience today at a restaurant, Herrine would be the perfect person to relieve the ailment.
That’s because Herrine, 53, who might have once served up liver on a plate with al dente vegetables and a reduced red wine sauce, now treats diseased human livers — hepatitis, cirrhosis, liver transplants, etc. — and gastric-related ailments. Herrine, who cooked for four years in upscale restaurants in Philadelphia and New York, changed courses dramatically in 1990, when he graduated from Jefferson Medical College in center city and later became a specialist in both gastroenterology and hepatology (liver).
Did his food background have anything to do with his selection of a specialty? “Sure it did,” he said last week, “primarily through the nutritional side of things. As I advanced in my training, it became clear that I was interested in hepatology, which turned out to be the perfect specialty choice for me. I see patients with liver diseases of all types. Nutrition plays an important role in many areas of medicine, and certainly in hepatology.”
Dr. Herrine currently serves as Vice Dean for Academic Affairs at Jefferson Medical College and is “deeply engaged” in the education of students, residents and fellows.
The culinary physician grew up on Upper West Side of New York City. He enjoyed cooking with his mother, primarily with recipes from “The Joy of Cooking” and “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Then he intensified his interest in food and food preparation while in a co-op at Oberlin College, Ohio, where his undergraduate majors were mathematics and history.
During college summers he worked as an apprentice at The Garden in Philadelphia and The River Café and The Quilted Giraffe, both in New York. After graduation from Oberlin, he worked full-time in restaurants, Cafe Seiyoken (New York) and Morgan’s (Philly). But after four years working full-time as a professional chef, he became disillusioned with professional cuisine and cooking rich food for rich people. He even considered starting a restaurant that would be non-profit (on purpose), giving the proceeds to food for the poor.
“I wanted to cook more simply and sustainably,” he said. “I was also afraid I would lose my love of cooking. My wife was in medical school at the time; I always liked school, so I took the MCATS and applied to medical school. Simultaneously, I sent Georges Perrier a resume and asked for a meeting. He agreed, then set up a time for me to work a dinner shift (an audition of sorts), then hired me.
“Georges was a demanding perfectionist. I learned a tremendous amount under his supervision and support. Everything in the kitchen was absolutely top-notch — food, staff, equipment. Really amazing place. I was very fortunate.”
Herrine was a sous chef at Le Bec Fin. He would cook for the lunch crowd and then go to night school to take the science courses required for admission to medical school. Perrier, who certainly respects drive and dedication, even referred to Herrine as “Monsieur le docteur.”
Of course, Herrine had to give up cooking professionally when he entered Jefferson Medical College in 1986. Does he ever have regrets about leaving his career as a professional chef? “None whatsoever. Medicine is intellectually stimulating, emotionally fulfilling and, I believe, socially important. I have been very happy with my career choices.”
Cooking is still an integral part of Dr. Herrine’s life, although as a highly skilled home cook. “I still love to cook,” he said. “My wife, who is an excellent cook, is quite the avid gardener. She did most of the cooking when the kids were growing up, but I have been more active in the kitchen at home over recent years. I like to cook anything that she grows. I especially like to bake bread, and I do cook at home for dinner parties.”
Dr. Herrine and his wife live in Bala Cynwyd. Two of their three sons are married and out of the house, while the youngest is a college sophomore. (Ed. Note: While I am always insisting on a Chestnut Hill area angle for human interest feature stories, I simply could not bring myself to pass up this story, even though it lacks a Chestnut Hill area angle. After all, I doubt if there is another medical specialist in the country who was previously a professional chef.) Dr. Herrine’s wife, Gail, is also a physician. She is an obstretrician/gynecologist at Temple University Hospital as well as a leading local activist for increasing breastfeeding rates.