Nov. 29, 2018 — In the late 1990s, surgeon Michael J. Zinner, M.D. ’71, traded his scalpel for a ladle when he trained as a line chef at Le Bernardin, a four-star French restaurant in New York City. What Zinner discovered was the inner workings of a French kitchen bear a strange similarity to the operating room.
“There’s a French saying ‘mise en place,’ which means, in the kitchen, everything must be in its proper place for the preparation of the meal. That’s very true for surgery. The hierarchy in a French kitchen is also very similar to the hierarchy within a surgical residency,” the former chief of surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the current chief executive officer of the Miami Cancer Institute recalls. “We both use sharp instruments. There’s more screaming in a French kitchen than in an operating room, though.”
While Zinner didn’t quit his day job at Brigham and Women’s or at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute where he served as clinical director, he did go on to open three restaurants in Boston. Toro, a Spanish tapas-style restaurant, has been in business for 13 years. Before Zinner was a line chef, before he founded Harvard’s Center for Surgery and Public Health, and even before he served as the Moseley professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School, he was a medical student at the UF College of Medicine. It was an era that Zinner remembers fondly.
“Medical school was a fabulous experience. There were about 60 students in the class. Because we were such a small group, we got to know everybody in the class and on the faculty,” he says. “The faculty taught me to pay it forward and be a mentor to future generations.”
Among Zinner’s mentors from the UF College of Medicine are former longtime dean for student and alumni affairs Hugh M. “Smiley” Hill, M.D., plastic surgeon Maurice Jurkiewicz, M.D., whose prowess inspired Zinner to pursue a career in surgery, and Robert Cade, M.D., whose lesser-known invention, Hop’n Gator beer, Zinner taste-tested as a medical student.
After decades of work in Boston at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, where he co-founded the Gastrointestinal Cancer Center, Zinner returned to his hometown of Miami, where he currently serves as the founding chief executive officer and the executive medical director for the Miami Cancer Institute, part of the Baptist Health South Florida network.
“As a native Miamian, I came back to open a cancer institute and to give back to the community in which I had grown up,” Zinner says. “My goal is to develop a destination cancer center in South Florida that has all the elements necessary for the care of all types of cancer under one roof.”
Zinner’s decision to relocate to his native south was influenced by the passing of his wife from pancreatic cancer. He says this paradigm-shifting event ushered in a new era of his personal and professional life.
“The terrible irony of my wife’s passing is that she passed away from pancreatic cancer. I had been a major contributor to the literature on that disease,” Zinner says. “Upon her passing and my recovery, it became clear to me that, for this next phase of my career, I would dedicate myself to cancer patients and to the town I grew up in.”
Before this year, Zinner hadn’t been a Miami resident since 1963. He’s proud to return to what he calls a “truly international city.” To all current medical students considering relocating for residencies or fellowships, he has one piece of advice: travel as far as opportunity carries you.
“I grew up in Florida and had never ventured out of the state before I went to college. It was eye-opening to live on the west coast, in the northeast, to visit the rest of the country. I don’t think anybody told me that growing up. I found a lot of my classmates stayed local or stayed in Florida,” he says. “This really is a big, beautiful country with tremendous opportunities, even if you think you’re just a redneck with sand in your shoes.”