The Constant Gardener
Mar 15, 2018 Diane Krieger
Sitting in her home near Larchmont Village, Cheryl Dunnett, MD, contemplates her backyard. Though charming, it isn’t very large and it’s mostly paved. Yet, every summer, she transforms this hardscape into a tomato-vine jungle. All it takes is 30 pots, 90 cubic feet of soil and a trip to Tomatomania.
The festival happens in March, and it’s Dunnett’s favorite event—the week she chooses her seedlings for the coming season.
“I don’t make plans during Tomatomania. I don’t return phone calls. I’m off the grid,” says the green-thumbed internist, half-joking about the nature of her obsession.
A physician with Cedars-Sinai for 28 years, her passion for Solanum lycopersicum is legendary at her practice. Each year, she harvests more than 25 varieties: purples, yellows, reds and greens of all shapes and sizes.
In her kitchen, she turns this bounty into omelets, rustic tarts, gazpacho and a cheesy fresh tomato sauce that she spoons over steaming noodles for a signature dish she calls “Summer Pasta” (see recipe below).
Dunnett took up vegetable gardening in the mid-1990s when she was working hard as medical director of the growing Cedars-Sinai Medical Group. Communing with her tomato vines brought instant tranquility.
“I just loved going out there at the end of a busy day and tinkering, seeing what was growing, what had turned yellow,” Dunnett says. She’s especially vigilant in detecting bugs and caterpillars, the organic grower’s nemeses. She picks them off by hand and “relocates” them.
“The secret,” she says, “is you have to really watch. If you start to see something that seems wrong, you have to diagnose the problem.” She’s still talking about tomatoes, but she might as well be talking about her practice. Dunnett is the kind of doctor who watches over her patients like the constant gardener she is.
I love the continuity of seeing somebody year after year. Over time, I build relationships.”
“I love the continuity of seeing somebody year after year,” she says. “Over time, I build relationships. I take care of my patients physically, but I also know what’s going on with them emotionally and socially. I let them know they can trust me and talk to me.”
Dunnett grew up in the Lakewood neighborhood of Long Beach. Her lawyer mother was the family gardener; her aerospace engineer father was in charge of irrigation. After graduating from the University of California, San Diego, Dunnett studied medicine at Harvard.
A Southern Californian to the bone, she couldn’t wait to leave Boston. She returned to Cedars-Sinai for her residency and never left.
Why would she? She loves what she does.
“It’s more than a job,” Dunnett says. “I try to advise my patients and to be a cheerleader.” To that end, she prepares motivational handouts on topics like changing unhealthy habits through goal-setting and the healing power of meditation—something she knows about firsthand thanks to her own spiritual explorations.
After so many years, her medical practice includes multigenerational families, from kids to their grandparents. Asked to name her oldest patient, Dunnett beams—it’s a woman who lives near Lafayette Square, not quite two miles from Cedars-Sinai’s main campus.
“She’s 97. I saw her just today. She came in with her daughter and grandson. She’s an amazing woman, the matriarch of her family, a pillar of her church and an amazing cook.”
Dunnett’s relationships with patients can be a two-way street. Sometimes those she gives tomatoes to reciprocate with gifts of their own homegrown produce or fresh eggs from backyard hens. It’s a joyous exchange.
Tomatoes. And taking care of her patients. “These are the things that make me happy,” she says.
Dr. Dunnett’s Summer Pasta
- 6–8 large ripe tomatoes, chopped into 1/2-inch cubes
- 16 oz. fresh mozzarella, cut into small cubes
- 1 cup basil leaves, cut into fine strips
- 1 cup olive oil (mild extra virgin or regular)
- 1 tsp. freshly ground pepper (more to taste)
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 lb. linguini pasta
- 10 oz. plain goat cheese, crumbled
- 1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted
- About eight hours before serving (minimum of two hours), combine the first six ingredients in a large bowl and set aside at room temperature for the flavors to get “married.”
- Cook pasta al dente. (Use diluted chicken broth for the cooking liquid for more flavor, but not for vegetarian diners!)
- While cooking pasta, crumble up the goat cheese and toast the pine nuts.
- Drain the pasta and, while it’s still very hot, immediately toss with the tomato mixture, which will mostly melt the mozzarella.
- Put in warmed pasta bowls to serve, topping with a generous amount of crumbled goat cheese, pine nuts and freshly ground pepper.
- Let the cheeses melt over the hot pasta. It’s just so fresh and wonderful!