Chef Shifts Focus from Bakery to Medicine
Paul Akre has wanted to be a doctor his whole life. He admired his pediatrician, majored in biology in college, and shadowed doctors in emergency rooms, birthing centers and neonatal intensive care units. Then the fear of failure set in. He didn’t think he’d be able to compete in the medical field, traditionally an extremely competitive environment.
Harnessing his passion for cooking and his proclivity toward French, he ditched his plans for medical school and instead moved to Paris to study for a year at Le Cordon Blue Academy of Culinary Arts, where he focused on cuisine and pastry.
“I thought if I am going to do this, I am going to do it the right way,” said Akre, which rhymes with “bakery.”
Akre, now 26, is an example of a student in the Post-Baccalaureate Health Science Intensive program at Johns Hopkins University whose initial intention to attend medical school took a detour for one reason or another. Now, Akre – like his peers in the HSI program – are committed to putting their careers in medicine back on track. Akre graduates in May.
The Health Science Intensive Program started at Johns Hopkins in June 2013. It is part of the Krieger School of Arts & Sciences Advanced Academic Programs; all courses are held on the Montgomery County Campus. The idea behind the program is to give students the opportunity to enroll in rigorous courses in the life sciences to prove their aptitude to study medicine. Some of the students enrolled in the program weren’t considered strong enough medical school candidates based on their previous academic performance. The hope is that after completing HSI, students will be more attractive medical school candidates.
Akre grew up in Wisconsin and attended Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. He majored in biology and French. While a student there, he shadowed doctors at the Creighton University Medical Center. His favorite assignments were in the Department of Pediatrics and the Family Birthing Center, where he learned about pre-eclampsia, respiratory distress syndrome, jaundice and other pediatric medical issues.
“A lot of mom and baby work,” Akre said. “I loved that.”
Then, upon graduation, doubt set in. Though his grades were still good, he thought, “Maybe I’m not smart enough to do this medical school thing.”
The son of an Italian mother who enjoyed the kitchen and a father who grew up on a farm, Akre always had enjoyed cooking and found the kitchen to be a peaceful outlet. Study sessions usually involved cooking dinner.
He applied to Le Cordon Bleu Academy in Paris and was accepted to a yearlong intensive program, where he learned knife skills, how to make pastries and the intricacies of regional cuisines.
When the year was up, he moved back to the United States, when he realized, “I was caught up in the whole fame of the idea without understanding the reality that is the life of a chef. Just because you have a degree doesn’t mean you’re going to become the executive chef at the Four Seasons.”
He took a job as a bank teller and then for a small medical device manufacturing company in Wisconsin that specialized in synthetic bone grafting products. At that job, he collaborated on marketing strategy and branding, managed sales and supported senior executives in explaining products to orthopedic surgeons, plastic surgeons and others.
At a conference where he was talking to doctors about the medical devices, “I said to myself, I’m not on the right side of the table. I want to be on the other side. That’s what prompted me to explore getting back into medicine.”
He reached out to a friend of his who is medical director of the Department of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin and asked for an opportunity to shadow him. Akre watched the craniofacial plastic surgeon at work and admired how this doctor was improving the lives of his young patients.
Akre knew he needed to go to medical school.
Akre called his alma mater for advice, and was counseled to brush up on his science classes and prepare for the Medical College Admission Test. He applied to several post-baccalaureate programs, mostly ones that had a nutrition component. He thought if he pursued a program with a nutrition focus, he could combine his interests in cuisine and medicine.
In spring 2014, he visited Johns Hopkins University Montgomery County Campus and stopped by the desk of Kirsty Gharavi, a program coordinator for the Center for Biotechnology Education.
“Kirsty dropped everything” and gave him a tour of the labs and classrooms. He was impressed. The next day, his acceptance letter came through via email and his decision was made. “If the goal is medicine, this was the right program and it would be silly to pass up this opportunity.”
Akre is quick to draw parallels between cooking and medicine.
“Cooking is a mix of science and art and not too dissimilar from being a good doctor,” Akre said. “The kitchen is a laboratory where detective work and problem solving happen while simultaneously nurturing creativity and refinement of technique. Being a physician requires a drive for success, an innate need to serve and the ability to find thrill and satisfaction in troubleshooting. Pastry has been the vehicle I needed in order to make this connection. No two patients and two pastries are exactly the same, and despite having similar make-ups, the outcomes of healing a patient or creating a pastry depend on attention, interpretation and intention.”
Perfection in the pastry kitchen, Akre said, is more than reading a recipe. It’s art, patience, attention to detail, perseverance, poise, teamwork, leadership and time management – skills he knows will suit him well as a medical doctor.