MARLA BEN DOR
NATURAL FOODS CHEF MARLA BEN-DOR
“Local, healthy eating and an outdoor lifestyle are trendy now, but when I was growing up it’s just what we did.”
NATURAL FOODS CHEF and Yoga Teacher Marla Ben-Dor says this with the same sincerity that she applies to every aspect of her business, Wellness With Marla, located in North County San Diego. The 29-year old entrepreneur traces every element of how she helps people find health and wellness back to her roots growing up on the north shore of Kauai.
“My parents were children of the 60s and have roots in the Middle East. So we grew up really healthy, lots of sprouts, vegetarian food; very clean with an abundance of fresh fruits and veggies and little to no packaged foods,” Marla shares with a smile that tells me her approach to life is chipper and light, and that her relationship with her family is strong.
Her father worked in sales and her mother was a teacher before becoming a stay-at-home mom. Marla says she remembers her dad doing most of the cooking, and that her mom was the “sous chef.” She treasures childhood memories of making pizzas from scratch and rolling sushi with her father and two sisters.
Her family memories go hand-in-hand with memories of Kauai from almost 30 years ago -- the mellow, relaxed hippie town of Hanalei where she lived with her parents and sisters. Her childhood centered around an appreciation for the natural world and the spiritual and undeniable connection between human beings and nature. She relishes the years she spent on the beach with her family and the countless days she spent surfing Hanalei Bay’s “the bowl.”
“Still to this day I go surf the bowl. It’s the one spot on this Earth where I’m completely grounded and almost in a meditative, quiet space of complete contentment.”
“I’m in the ocean on my longboard and I turn around, to a view where I am surrounded by lush mountain range and blue water. It’s a very powerful connection I’ve had my whole life.”
In addition to surfing, Marla has been connected to yoga since she was a teenager navigating back pain from a curved spine caused by scoliosis. Today, Marla lives an active life doing the things she loves (from surfing and traveling to hiking and cooking), and she attributes this to the healing powers of her daily yoga practice.
This deep connection to mindfulness and the natural world has been an integral part of Marla’s reverence for “taking care of the ‘aina” (land in Hawaiian).
“It means treading lightly in our environment, on Kauai a lot of people realize and embrace how important the land is,” Marla explains.
Respecting the ‘aina and being connected to nature in a place where land is treasured inspired a young Marla to study nutrition in a more formal capacity.
In college, Marla’s approach to food on Kauai - using high-quality, from-the-earth ingredients - differed from the clinical approach to nutrition as a science of numbers and boxes, calories and meal plans. This distinction became the catalyst for her move to the mainland where she took a more functional and integrative approach to nutrition by studying at the Natural Healing Institute in Encinitas, California, where she learned more about using food to heal chronic illness.
“I resonate more with the idea that we are all completely different humans and need different things. What works for one person definitely might not work for another.”
Many of Marla’s clients she cooks for have chronic inflammation caused by digestive issues or other illnesses. She recalls a client who went through chemotherapy for breast cancer. Marla spent six weeks going to the woman’s home and cooking nutrient-dense foods, planning her meals and ultimately providing a sense of comfort through food.
“Every meal would always be based on how she was feeling that day and her appetite because everything changes when you’re undergoing such intense treatments,” Marla remembers. She has compassion in her voice.
Perhaps most uniquely of all, Marla built a special relationship with her client because she was often at the house when Marla would work. Typically, Marla’s clients are out of the house, about their busy lives. It’s not unusual for Marla to spend most of her work day without much interaction.
In this case, the pair formed a very special bond and a much deeper relationship. In six weeks, her client had more energy and was feeling better. Marla also felt moved.
“I told her after several weeks that there’s just something about making food for you that is so special. Something just clicked and it felt really right. Everything came out amazing. I knew I was really helping her.”
Marla puts emphasis on the last sentence before she explains that she currently helps people with chronic illness, extreme dietary restrictions, intolerances and more. She rarely turns people away but admits that she would get bored if a client asked her for a typical “American” diet. Her menu ranges from Thai and Indian cuisine to Mediterranean using the freshest ingredients including an abundance of organic veggies, wild or grass-fed meat, seafood and high-quality oils.
She attributes her cooking style to her family’s roots in the Israel. “I love cooking with lots of herbs like parsley, cilantro and citrus with a prominent focus on fresh produce, ” she says before exclaiming, “Israel has some of the best food I have tried in all my travels, I would definitely love to visit again.”
Marla explains that this directly contradicts the traditional American diet where the food pyramid consists of white bread, pasta, refined sugar, too much meat and too much dairy. In a society of processed foods, sugar and an obsessive focus on weight loss, Marla’s focus is on healing from the inside out. “You get to the point where your body just can’t tolerate such heavily processed foods”.
Marla is adamant that once these inflammatory foods are replaced by fresh, organic produce, whole grains and protein, the body will feel noticeably more rejuvenated and alive. She sees her role as a healer in spreading awareness that proper nutrition and wellness involves getting to the underlying causes of why conditions exist so you can heal yourself from the ground up.
Marla’s clients aren’t primarily driven by weight loss. “I tell people that I have no interest in counting calories” Marla exclaims with exuberance and honesty. “My recipes and menu are all very healthy and light, a side effect of eating this way is you could lose weight, but it’s just that -- a side effect. It’s not the focus.”
The focus is on wellness, and wellness is more than the food you eat. Marla incorporates emotional and spiritual wellness into her life and the lives of others with yoga retreats that bring it all back to where it started for her -- Kauai. Marla hosts her wellness retreats on her home island where she brings a small number of people through five days of breath-work, meditation, yoga, cooking, organic farming, eating and intentionally slowing down.
The first year Marla reveled in the amazing and cohesive group of likeminded guests who appreciated the immersion in nature and the connection between human life and the land that she holds so dear to her heart.
On the last day of the retreat, she told them she had such a fun and wonderful time she couldn’t wait to do it again the next year. Most of the retreaters had life altering revelations, such as, I need to be in nature more, or slow down, or commit to a daily contemplative practice like meditation.
And leading these retreats have mandated personal growth for Marla as well. When she was young, she used to be extremely shy. She credits her family and her boyfriend, Ikaika, for pushing her boundaries and forcing her out of her shell.
“I wasn’t that confident that I could pull the whole event off, but Ikaika was really excited about my first retreat and inspired me to do it. He did all the photography and videography for it and inspired me to tackle it step by step.”
Even though going back to Kauai is the most natural thing in the world for Marla, she wouldn’t have done such an undertaking it if it weren’t for his encouragement and faith in what she does to help people. Her love for her home, the place that fueled all of who she is today, gives her the perspective she needs to keep helping other people in her natural, organic way.
But there are no small dreams on the horizon for Marla. She hopes to inspire and heal others as she grows her health and wellness practice in Southern California and someday soon envisions moving back to the islands to work with her family at their farm -- all while taking care of and giving back to the land and its people.
“It’s so easy to get caught up with daily life and stresses and what’s going on around you. Then you get back to nature and remember just how small we really are,” Marla says.
“For now, I’m really grateful I get to live my passion, do work that resonates with me and help other people heal from the inside out.”
BY MIA BOLTON