Every summer, Cedars-Sinai internist Dr. Cheryl Dunnett transforms her Larchmont Village backyard into a tomato-vine jungle. All it takes is 30 pots, 90 cubic feet of soil, and a trip to Tomatomania.
The festival happens every year in March, and it's Dr. 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," she says, half-joking about the nature of her obsession.
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).
Dr. 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," Dr. Dunnett says. She's especially vigilant in detecting bugs and caterpillars, the organic grower's nemeses.
Dr. 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," 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."
To Dr. Dunnett, it's more than just a job.
"I try to advise my patients and to be a cheerleader," she says. She prepares motivational handouts on topics like changing unhealthy habits through goal-setting and the healing power of meditation.
After so many years, her medical practice includes multigenerational families, from kids to their grandparents, and some of those relationships have grown very close. She'll share her tomatoes with patients who reciprocate with gifts of their own homegrown produce or fresh eggs from backyard hens.
Tomatoes. And taking care of her patients. "These are the things that make me happy," she says.