Twist It Up: Chef Jack Witherspoon cooks his way through a battle with leukemia
Aspiring chef Jack Witherspoon has overcome leukemia three times in his 11 years. And now he’s written a cookbook.
Jack Witherspoon was feeling an uncharacteristic lack of appetite as Thanksgiving approached this year. In fact, he had to force himself to eat, something that was particularly concerning to his family.
Jack is 11 years old. For nearly half of his life, he has battled leukemia – first when he was only two and underwent three years of intensive treatments, and then again when he was six and again fought off the cancer in another arduous 28 month battle.
Things could not have been going much better for Jack late last spring. After all the years of isolating himself to protect his immune system, Jack was finally just one of the kids as he finished fifth grade at Rivera Elementary School. He was excelling at school and was extremely active, playing baseball, surfing, and skateboarding. He’d even earned his black belt in Tae Kwon Do.
And he cooked. Ever since he’d gotten hooked on the Food Network while at the Miller Children’s Hospital in Long Beach as a six-year-old, Jack had taken an avid interest in the preparation of food and – most emphatically – eating a well-cooked meal.
“I really started getting a way bigger palate when I hit six and started watching the Food Network,” Jack said in an interview last week. “That’s when it really kicked in. I already had liked food before – from day one, I had always liked good food – just the Food Network was there and it had really, really good food. I was like, ‘Wow, that looks really good.’ And then I looked down at my hospital food going, ‘Can I have that, huh Ma?’ and I’d just be like drooling over that food and looking at my food and going, ‘Eh, this isn’t right.’”
Jack’s mom, Lisa, started bringing him food from restaurants while he was still at the hospital. After he was released to home care, he and his mother would cook together. “I had found something I could do that was totally fun, and even having leukemia couldn’t stop me from doing it,” Jack would later note.
Jack liked to tweak the recipes, most which were inspired by his favorite Food Network chefs, such as Bonnie Hunt and Bobby Flay.
“I always wanted to change it a little, twist it up, add a little more of this or change noodles or add a different spice,” Jack said. “You know, a recipe isn’t something you have to go by completely – it’s just guidelines. You always have the choice to add a little bit of something…the possibilities are endless. Then it’s yours, and not somebody else’s.”
Due to his immune system’s fragility as he recovered from chemotherapy sessions, Jack couldn’t be around many people. So he and his mother often went to restaurants near their Redondo Beach home in the mid-afternoon, when few patrons would be present. This also frequently offered Jack the opportunity to talk to the chef and pick his or her brain a little bit.
That year, as Jack underwent a dozen chemo sessions, he did his school work at home with a tutor and continued on his food adventures with his mother. And so in the fall of his seventh year, Jack and Lisa started to dream something up. They’d written down the various “twisted up” dishes they’d developed together, and the recipes were starting to add up.
John Witherspoon noticed his wife seemed to be mulling something somewhat mischievously.
“I could tell she had a little sparkle in her eye,” he said. “Like something is going on here.”
Lisa and Jack were thinking of writing a book – a cookbook, one that was kid and mom-friendly, with simpler meals for busy weeknights and more elaborate ones for weekends. The book would also tell his story, and they even had a title in mind: “Twist It Up.”
At the end of the year – this was December, 2007 – Jack held his first “Cooking Up Dreams” gala benefitting the Children’s Hospital’s cancer research. A friend of the family’s, Paul Hennessey, gave them the run of his H.T. Grill restaurant, and Jack served as guest chef with chef Steve Matthews. The night was a big hit, with lines out the door and television coverage all over the LA area and even nationally on CNN.
The word was out about this irrepressible little kid who was fighting leukemia and could cook up a storm. Over the next year, he was able to go back to school, his mop of blonde hair grew back, and he and his mom kept cooking. He held his second “Cooking Up Dreams” at the end of the year, and in January 2009 – the same month his relapse treatment officially ended – he appeared on the “Tonight Show with Jay Leno” (who complained about the peas in Jack’s Sheppard’s Pie, prompting Jack to sternly but comically instruct him, “Eat your peas!”). That same month, he made his Food Network debut on the Bonnie Hunt show.
The television appearances did two things: they made Jack perfect his recipes, and allowed him make some unlikely connections for an 8-year-old. Jack met some of his idols – including Bobby Flay, Fabio Viviani, and Paula Deen. Viviani, a Top Chef All-Star and author, was so impressed with Jack he introduced Lisa to his book agent. Last year, Jack and his mom signed a book deal with a major publisher, Chronicle Books.
They finished the book last May. Twist It Up was scheduled for release in November. As summer approached, Jack was playing a lot of baseball and getting ready to sharpen his kitchen skills for his upcoming book tour and likely television appearances. He had a lot to look forward to.
But on June 1, the results from a routine check-up indicated Jack had leukemia again. Nobody believed it. Even the doctors thought it must have been a lab mistake. Jack reassured his mother.
“I feel great, Mom,” he said. “It’s a fluke. They made a mistake in the lab.”
He was so certain he made plans to go to lunch with her the next day at in Manhattan Beach. But another lab test showed it was no fluke. Instead of going to lunch, Jack was back in the hospital the next day. A third diagnosis of leukemia for child his age presented doctors with few options; clearly, the treatment wasn’t working. Jack had to undergo two months of chemotherapy and then undergo the most drastic measure available – a bone marrow transplant.
It was an all-or-nothing proposition. If the transplant were successful, Jack would likely be forever free from the disease that had haunted his childhood. But if the transplant did not take – if the donor’s immune system failed to mesh or if Jack didn’t bounce back from the procedure itself – he could die within 100 days.
“It’s the toughest thing to endure,” said John Witherspoon. “It’s the scariest. I mean, you don’t want to get this three times – you are running out of odds here pretty soon. We went for the bone marrow transplant, really, because there is nothing else you can do.”
The most astonishing thing about little “Chef Jack” isn’t his precocious knowledge of food, but rather the resolutely buoyant manner with which he has approached his battles with cancer and how he impacts the people he meets.
When Jack was diagnosed with leukemia the second time as a 6-year-old, his parents were devastated. Lisa Witherspoon remembers feeling the weight of the world pressing down as they left the hospital. Her husband recalled the feeling as almost physical, like something violent had just been done to the family. “It was like getting hit by a truck,” he said.
Jack saw the worry on his parents’ faces. Just outside the hospital, he stopped in his tracks and looked up at them. “Look, guys,” he told his parents. “We’ve already done this once. We can do it again.”
And so they did. After he beat back the leukemia, Jack met and deeply impressed a food stylist named Bonnie Belknap when he was on the Bonnie Hunt Show.
“He instinctively knew how to cook well, how to blend flavors successfully and develop recipes,” she said. “Between his unique talents, incredible personality, and drive for life, he truly impressed me. And, despite his tragic medical history, he had such an optimistic outlook on life – something I wanted to bottle up and share with everyone I knew.”
This is essentially what Belknap did. She made it her mission to help get Jack’s story out, and through her connections Jack and Lisa made many of their food and publishing industry contacts, including Fabio Viviani. The celebrity chef became one of Jack’s biggest boosters.
“This kid is better than 50 percent of the professional chefs out there, easily,” Viviani said. “And he’s got more courage than most men I know, if you think about it. Lots of people I know would be devastated having that kind of a challenge with their own health – it would be crying from one end of the night to the other – but this kid takes his chemotherapy and doesn’t let it get him down. He gets back up again and gets back to the kitchen.”
Chef Robert Bell – from one of Jack’s favorite local restaurants, Chez Melange – has been likewise floored by Jack’s strength of will and spirit.
“He’s an inspiration,” Bell said. “It’s interesting for me to say he is an inspiration to me – I am 66, and he’s 11 – but he is.”
Last June, Jack’s parents were again brought low by the bad news of another diagnosis, and again lifted by their son’s indomitable spirit.
“Hey guys,” Jack told them. “The third time is the charm.”
Jack has already raised more than $100,000 towards childhood leukemia research, and some of the proceeds from Twist It Up – which was released Nov. 16 – will go to the Jonathan Jacques Children’s Cancer Center at the Miller Children’s Hospital (where an endowment in his name has been established). As he sat in his hospital bed one day this summer, he remarked to his mother that this newest chapter of his life would have some positive aspects.
“Mom, this will only make my story bigger,” he told her.
Jack had always been unusually philosophic about his predicament, but this time, he was a little older and more reflective about it.
“You know getting leukemia for a third time has been really enlightening for me,” he wrote in his blog from the hospital. “It’s kind of like seeing how people would react if I died or something… I see how much people care and love me….I didn’t really know it before…. I wish I didn’t have to get leukemia to find it out.”
He missed good food and missed his little brother, Josh, who is two years younger and has been his inseparable friend through these many hard times. But Jack’s response contained not even an iota of self-pity. His mother, who stayed in the hospital with him, said she never heard him utter a sad or negative word. Instead, his appreciation for life only grew.
“Mom made me oatmeal this morning, it wasn’t as good as when we make it at home but it reminded me of being in my kitchen again,” he wrote in another entry. “I miss playing with my brother and seeing my friends. I didn’t know how good I had it. I will never take a healthy day for granted again. When I had leukemia the two times before I was younger, this time I know exactly what’s going on and I will remember everything. I hope I will be able to help other kids more now with my book and my fundraising. I think God made this happen to me to remind me why I am doing all this.”
In the preface to book, written before his relapse, Jack starts out by explaining “how a boy like me got to write a cookbook like this.” He notes that he’s just like any kid – he surfs and skates, plays Little League, and hangs out with his friends. “My life wasn’t always this normal, though,” he wrote. “In fact, there was a time I wasn’t able to do much of anything.”
After he got sick again, one day he told Lisa, “You know, Mom, normal is underrated.”
He was in a different hospital this time around – at the Marrow Transplant Program at UCLA – meaning Lisa had to scout out a whole different array of restaurants, this time in Los Angeles, in order to supply Jack with some special meals. Before long, though, Jack had made an impact on the hospital cooks.
“I had the hospital chefs Will and Baltazar come and visit me today,” Jack wrote one day on his blog, which can be found at www.chefjackwitherspoon.com. “They made me filet mignon with béarnaise sauce, mashed potatoes and a delicious medley of asparagus and mushrooms.”
There was another very significant difference this time around – whereas before, Jack had barely been in school long enough to have a tight circle of friends, this time his classmates at Riviera Elementary were in his corner. His best friend, Sean LeCon, even shaved his own hair off so Jack wouldn’t be the only kid without hair as he did battle with cancer.
On the day in August when he left for the hospital for the actual transplant procedure, the family was stunned to find that up and down the street where they live — Calle de Castellana in the Hollywood Riviera neighborhood – there were signs wishing Jack well.
“I mean, it was tear-jerking,” John Witherspoon said. “It was amazing.”
The transplant took place on August 26. And then the 100 day wait began.
Jack is back
Most of us tend to take it for granted, but food is our sustenance, and a good meal can be a celebration of living itself.
Jack seems to have never taken food for granted. His mother remembers that even as a child, he refused to eat plain old baby food. “I had to puree all the food we ate for him,” she recalled. “He would not eat jarred baby food.”
When he returned from the hospital this fall, neighbors had festooned the Witherspoons’ house with “Welcome Home Jack!” signs.
But for the first time in his life, something was very different for Jack when he came home. He didn’t care about food. The different medications and the incredible shock to his system he had endured had robbed him of his appetite.
It was a strange thing for his mother to observe and as Jack lost weight, it became more concerning. But as the weeks passed, he slowly regained some strength, and he was even able to get off some of the medications early. Finally, as Thanksgiving approached, Lisa was relieved when Jack made a strong suggestion that they do something different with the turkey this year – it should be brined, he insisted, rather than just baked.
The day before the holiday, Jack and his mother concocted a special rub for the turkey – it included garlic salt, onion, fresh thyme, ground savory, crushed rosemary, and chopped flat-leafed parsley. On Thanksgiving, they “twisted up” a Julia Child recipe (Jack wrote a research paper on the late great chef last year after meeting a French girl and taking a special interest in French cooking. While in the hospital he received a signed copy of her French memoir from her nephew, the food writer Alex Prud’homme). They made a sausage-sage-cornbread stuffing, adding green apples and parsley and mixing the cornbread with white bread to lesson the sweetness. On top of it all, they filled the cavity of the bird with an aromatic mixture of oranges, lemons, and apples.
And on Thanksgiving, Jack finally enjoyed a full meal.
“It was really delicious,” he said.
“It was a thankful Thanksgiving, I can tell you that,” John said. “It was just us, our family without any other guests, because we didn’t want to subject him to any other kids or other families [as he recovers]. But it was a really neat Thanksgiving because we were pretty thankful to have Jack sitting at the table.”
December 5 was his 100 day mark, and while he’s not entirely out of the woods yet, his energy and his appetite are growing daily. “It’s like Jack is back,” John said.
And as always, Jack is cooking up dreams. He is excited about his book and getting ready for a big signing event at H.T. Grill on Jan. 22. But he’s also looking into the future. He says he has several more book ideas percolating, among other things.
“I would like to get my own TV show some day, then maybe open a restaurant, and just be a chef and do quite a few cookbooks,” Jack said. “I’d just like to expand my career as a chef.”
Twist It Up is unlike any cookbook you have ever read. The recipes themselves are beautifully presented and a marvel of both simplicity and inventiveness. Each has a little “twist it up” recommendation to add variety, as well as a short preface by Jack that tells how the recipe came into being. The book is divided into breakfast, lunch, school-night dinners, weekend meals, appetizers and side dishes, and sweets. And while the recipes are often plenty sophisticated – he likes goat cheese, shows a repeated preference for Hungarian paprika, and has concocted a “perfect brunch” Spaghetti Alla Carbonara that uses pancetta – the book has the fingerprints of a kid all over it. He warns to always cook with a parent, and explains his philosophy of side dishes this way:
“For me, side dishes are like skateboarding: I love it, but school and organized sports come first, so I just squeeze in skateboarding when I can,” he writes. “Someday, I’d like to skateboard all day and then just make a bunch of side dishes for dinner!”
His are recipes made with both mothers and kids in mind, such as the ultimate kid dish, macaroni and cheese – Jack bakes his macaroni, and uses a variety of cheeses, including Gruyere, cheddar, parmesan, and cheddar, as well as Japanese bread crumbs and a twist it up suggestion of jalapeños or shitake mushrooms.
Jack said he was inspired by seeing Alton Brown cook macaroni and cheese on the on the Food Network when he was in the hospital back when he was 6.
“That was my inspiration to want to make macaroni and cheese, because up until then I thought Kraft was the only real thing,” Jack said. “I thought, ‘Oh, that is what it is supposed to be like. It isn’t just from a box.’…All kind of comfort food like this, and meatloaf, are my comfort zone – anything you’d eat to feel comforted at home, or on a rainy day, just being with your family and making something to eat with them.”
Chef Viviani insists that Jack be taken seriously as a chef. And he speaks from experience. He started working in restaurants in Italy at the age of 11, riding a motorcycle 47 miles to go bake pies at seven every morning, and opened his first restaurant at 18. He met Jack about two-and-a-half years ago. Viviani invited the family to his restaurant, Café Firenze, in Moorpark. When they arrived, he invited Jack into the kitchen to cook with him. He suggested they do so by alternating in picking ingredients, thereby making a dish.
“I picked fettuccine, he picked chicken,” Viviani recalled. “I picked parmesan, he picked alfredo sauce….And we made the best fettuccine, with chicken and parmesan, that I have had.”
“He knows food, I am telling you,” the chef said. “I am not trying to diminish anyone in the U.S., but this kid has a better understanding of food than 60 to 70 percent of the chefs out there. This kid in the next five years is going to forget more about food than I could ever learn – years from know, I’ll be lucky to say I knew him when he was a kid.”
Their fettuccine recipe – which also includes another of Jack’s favorite ingredients, peas –is included in Twist It Up. Lisa Witherspoon noted that the book’s title has become more than just a cooking suggestion.
“I think the message is to be optimistic, always look at the positive, and if something bad had happens, make the best of it,” she said. “That has been our whole motivation in dealing with this whole situation, trying to turn a negative into a positive. That has been the whole inspiration behind this – taking the power of something so negative and turning that into an equally powerful thing but in a positive way…Twist it up, exactly. That is what we try to do. And it helps.”
See Jack’s stuffed mushrooms recipe from Twist It Up.
Twist It Up is available at most booksellers as well as online at Amazon.com. Pages bookstore will co-host a book signing at H.T. Grill on Jan. 22 from 4 to 7 p.m. Reservations are suggested. For more info, see www.chefjackwitherspoon.com