This Philly Chef Thought Her Lupus Diagnosis Meant She’d Never Work in the Culinary Industry Again

Now, with the help of a Bali adventure and wellness tools like yoga and meditation, Karen Nicolas is back in the kitchen.

chef health

Chef Karen Nicolas was worried that her lupus diagnosis meant she’d have to choose her health over her career. Now, thanks to a trip to Bali (pictured) and wellness tools, she’s learning to balance the two. / Photograph courtesy of Karen Nicolas

Who I am: Karen Nicolas

What I do: I work as the culinary director at Main & Vine Bistro in Villanova.


“Two and a half years ago, I was a chef at Harp & Crown in Center City. Right before we opened, I got diagnosed with [an autoimmune disease called] lupus. It was very aggressive — it came suddenly. For the first six months of the opening, I kept trying to work and deal with all-body pain. I found myself in the ER a lot. I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll just change my diet.’ It was actually getting worse.

Eventually, I quit. I left the business because I needed to get out of the restaurant environment and change my diet and my lifestyle. Everyone would say do yoga or do a detox or go to a juicing getaway and just drink a lot of juice, and you’ll detox all the toxins out. So I was Googling detox and saw this word ayurveda [considered yoga’s sister “science”]. The more I researched it, I thought it was really interesting.

I found this place in Bali that had really good reviews, called them to see what this process is like, and decided to go for 21 days. I went there not really understanding it. They did all this stuff to me. I couldn’t eat solid food — it was only soup or ghee (clarified butter with natural herbs and flowers) for the first six days. It was disgusting. They would make me drink things that would make me throw up and go — both ways. It weakens you and really messes you up.

But there was emotional therapy as well. I remember the first day I got there and had a consultation with the owner-doctor. In 15 minutes, I was crying. I thought I was going there for physical healing, and it made me realize my emotional being was so messed up. That moment alone made me realize there was so much more to my life than cooking. I like to call my Bali experience my own little Eat, Pray, Love story.

I came home seeing life very differently after that. I changed my diet. I was doing yoga every day. I started meditating because of the emotional things straining me. All I did was concentrate on me. I didn’t work for six months and then took part-time jobs for a while. Eventually, I didn’t feel achiness. My liver became functionally normal. My energy level was normal again.

I told myself I would never go back to the industry ‘cuz my health was more important. I didn’t want to feel that pain again. But my friend Jay [Stevens], who owns Main & Vine, lost his chefs a while ago. He asked me to consult for a while. I consulted for three weeks, and it felt really good to be back in the kitchen. He asked me if I wanted to be the chef, and I said, ‘No, I don’t. I’m eating healthy. I’m eating at the same time every day. I’m doing yoga. And I don’t know how to maintain that going back in the industry.’ But he created a culinary director position where I don’t have to be as involved.

chef health

Karen Nicolas is back in the culinary industry after devoting two and a half years to improving her health. / Photograph courtesy of Karen Nicolas

I’ve been back for a month now. I’d sacrificed a lot financially, and it’s nice just to get back on a salary. But I have been having a hard time eating healthy and having time for myself. When I wake up, I’m thinking just like I used to as a chef — ‘I have to do this; I have to do that.’ This morning, I said no. I took 45 minutes and did some yoga. I went for a walk for 20 minutes. I realized it’s all going to get done eventually. It’s all about self-discipline. The mindset, though, is that chefs have to go in there and get it done. They’re there all day long and go home and have a drink or smoke a cigarette. That’s just the norm. That was my norm. Until something happened. It’s easier to discipline yourself when there’s fear of something.

I still try to do yoga three or four times a week and meditate a few minutes a day. That alone is enough to keep the stress level down and clear my head. In the clinic in Bali, yoga was very hard ‘cuz I was not flexible at all. Even when I was there, I still hated it. When I was really in physical inflammation pain, whenever I did yoga, I wouldn’t feel pain or achiness for at least a good few hours. But I didn’t start really liking it until I saw results. Now I see a huge difference. I’m more flexible. For a lot of people, today’s yoga is a social thing, too, but for me, it’s more of a meditative thing. I like to do it alone. I don’t want to go to a class or anything like that.

I’ve got these two sous chefs working under me right now. Any time, there’s a changing of the guard, there’s always staff turnover. So they’re running around like crazy idiots trying to make sure the kitchen is still running while we’re looking for new cooks. There was an article called something like, ‘You don’t have to kill yourself to be a chef,’ by Food and Wine magazine. I sent it to them and said, ‘You guys are working really hard, but you need to take care of yourself. Don’t kill yourself for this restaurant. It’s not worth it.’ Now I’m more conscious, not just for me, but for my staff as well.

It’s OK to realize that there’s more to life than the kitchen. If we chefs are always obsessive about cooking and trying to be the best, we’re missing out on a whole lot more in life. Whether it’s meeting people outside of the business, which has been huge for me, or feeling good physically. We never feel good physically, but we ignore it for the goals of having accolades or being cool and creating new dishes or whatever. Even though I’m cooking again, it’s nice to know that now I don’t think of it as the thing that drives me anymore.”

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