Uma Naidoo

Uma Naidoo, MD – Chef

If You Want To Do It, You Will Find a Way

I was born and raised in South Africa. My ancestors emigrated there from South India for greater opportunities. As a young child, my maternal grandmother watched me during the day while my mom attended medical school. Education in our family was a huge focus. Yet, I would spend most of the day watching my grandmother cook the family meals. I’d peer in from the kitchen doorway, entertaining her with my cooking questions while taking in the aroma of the delicious Indian food she’d prepare.

My uncles, two of whom were medical residents, stopped by during the day between hospital shifts for a meal. Out would come my toy stethoscope to play doctor with them.

When I graduated medical school, my husband and I moved to Boston. He had been awarded a fellowship to Harvard.

All alone during the day while he worked, I’d watch public television. I learned to love Julia Childs as the “French Chef.” Since I could not cook, I gained both companionship and confidence just watching her almost comedic yet commanding culinary presence.

What made you decide to finally realize your lifelong dream?

It was a compilation of a few different factors. I reconnected with those childhood memories when the movie, Julia & Julie came out. Meryl Streep’s character was so well done that it took me back to where I was connecting to something very important to me. I don’t think that given the choice, I would not have gone to medical school. It is part of my identity. I am fourth generation Indians in Africa who place education as a priority in order to get away from the other things that were going on.

What were the specific obstacles that you faced?

It was difficult incorporating cooking with the rest of my career. Timing was an issue. How do I fit this into my life? How do I make my day-to-day schedule work? How many hours do I fit into a 24-hour day? If I can work that out, I can do this.

Also, my age bothered me. Am I too old for this? Can I do this? I was reminded that Julia Childs became successful later in life.

What helped you get through them?

It was the passion for what I wanted to do. I decided that I wanted to honor all of my passions—medicine and serving people in other ways. When I think back on it, I was working and going to school full time. I don’t know where I got my energy. I had a full time job and culinary school…I can’t logically explain it. It was drive and passion. If you want to do it, you will find a way. It was so compelling that I had to follow it. I figured out how to work out the details later.

Were there people who tried to discourage you?

Yes. There were people who thought I was crazy. My husband was invited to give a presentation in India. At a lunch meeting with fellow Indians, he was asked, ‘What does your wife do?’

‘My wife is a psychiatrist at Harvard but she decided that she wanted to follow her passion for cooking and go to culinary school.’ Their response was, ‘A doctor wants to be a cook? All the girls want to be doctors and your wife wants to be a cook girl.’

How did you feel when you finally accomplished your lifelong dream?

I was completely elated and excited, but also nervous. How would I make the timing work? Could I keep up with my culinary peers and be able to perform? The kitchen is not necessarily a nurturing environment. You don’t often realize what they are trying to teach you because they are pushing you so hard. I was not sure I could pull off the energy and time requirements. All of those feelings were there, in addition to being very excited.

What advice would you give to others contemplating finally living their dream?

If you are passionate about something, follow that passion. You will later work out the details.

It’s never too late.

You can find Dr. Naidoo here.

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