Celebrity chef beats brain cancer
My name is John Lawson and I’m a Chef. I’ve been a Chef all my life. When other children were reading comic books, I was reading books about Food. I loved Food! I grew up in a working -class family in Essex, enjoying my Mum’s home cooking. The little boy me could never have imagined how much Food would shape my entire life, and eventually, save it.
As soon as I left school, I enrolled at Chef’s training at Westminster, the best college in England, and started on the fast road to high end dining. The industry demanded perfection, – and it demanded all of you; 18-hour days, 6 days a week. We worked hard and played harder. I left behind my quiet suburban life to give my all to this. My only friends were in the industry and I only dated in the industry, as we kept the same ridiculous hours. I had little time for my family back in Essex.
After training, I ended up in NYC. I was top of my game, continually pushing for success. There were awards, Michelin Stars, big names and celebrities. I cooked for famous families, Royal families and important events. The food I served was beautiful to look at and tasted divine. It was perfection on a plate, but ironically, I never thought about what was in it.
The States was food heaven; I got plump and ate a lot of burgers. I was young, and Food was still my life. When I wasn’t working, I was eating and drinking- a lot. Whatever I wanted, because I could.
In 2010, Gordon Ramsay asked me to join him in Australia. I was now in Melbourne, city of food, and my name grew. I was on TV- Master Chef, The Circle- the cheeky Pommy chef. I catered for all the big events- often travelled by helicopter, and earned a massive salary from Food. I was still pushing for more. So much so that I ended a romantic relationship with a great person, when I accepted a new job- my own restaurant- No.8 in Melbourne. I’d rather have Food in my life than love, and I couldn’t do both.
Life could not be better. I was 32 and living the life I’d dreamed of. In control of the choices I made and in control of my life.
I’d been having headaches, and lethargy but, given the last 10 years, it was easily explained.
But, suddenly, I got home from a big night out with friends and;
My GF found me, collapsed, and called a neighbour. I was fitting, and the neighbour came, and saved my life by moving me.
My next memory; waking up with paramedics placing electrodes onto my chest. I had no idea what had happened, but soon I was told.
A shadow. On my brain. A biopsy. Cancer. Right in my frontal lobe. The part which controls almost everything we need to function. The biopsy itself, quickly done, caused a stroke. A stroke which in turn caused brain damage. In the space of one night, I had become brain damaged. And now who was I?
I was a world-renowned Chef who could not even, when asked, remember the steps to make a cup of tea. The damage was such that I could not speak, remember anything for more than a few seconds and I could not be trusted to leave a hospital room. My TV personality had gone. Instead, when my speech slowly returned after months of rehab, I would swear endlessly, forgot where I was, and I had to watch other people cook for me! Anyone will tell you; this was the hardest thing of all. Food was off limits; I couldn’t even peel a carrot.
The cancer had to come out. I got a bit stronger, so I could handle the procedure, and I was awake when they removed it. I had to be; the surgeons had to monitor their progress whilst they went into my brain.
During the operation, the anaesthetist discussed Food with me, whilst they took the cancer from my brain. They said it could return, at any time. I would be monitored with scans and checks.
I asked the surgeon ‘is there anything I can do to stop this coming back’? But information was not forthcoming. No one seemed to know.
It was down to me, and me only, to give myself the best chance of staying cancer free.
I recovered. I had time to think. I had time to listen to my body. I had time, for the first time, to reflect on my journey. I started to look at Food. I mean, really look. Beyond the presentation and fancy names. Was what I’d eaten somehow caused this? What could I do to help my body recover and stay healthy? I’d learned none of this in Chef School. Only a tiny proportion of our course was about nutrition. I devoured books about Food, healthy eating, and healing the body with Food.
I started to make changes to my own diet. I had time to really get to know the substance of what I was eating. And at the same time, I had time to think about life.
I’d been continually striving for more and more, and yet, here I was. Did I really want to go back to living my life like before?
I tried to return to my old job, but I’d become disinterested in the way Food was viewed in the business. I had no time for KPI’s, profits and fashionable dining. And I struggled in the environment- I looked normal, healthier even- I’d lost weight and my new-found diet made me shine, but the damage couldn’t be seen. I struggled to remember things, take in information and no one really understood. People told me I looked better than ever, but they couldn’t see the damage which had been done.
I couldn’t fit it there anymore. So, I took the plunge, and I left. I’d never know anything but Food. What was I going to do?
I tentatively told friends and family I’d quite fancy my own business, focussing on healthy food. They thought I was crazy, but I knew I was onto something. And they knew I wouldn’t let it go.
I made the bold decision to leave my old life in Melbourne behind. What I needed was support and I leapt back to the UK. Within 8 short months, I’d developed a concept and opened a brand-new restaurant in Essex- Food by John Lawson.
Its name as simple and honest as the produce I serve. Everything about Food was the opposite of what I did before. I take the time to source, from local growers and farmers, and the focus is on nutrition. It still looks and tastes amazing, but my clients know that what they are eating is feeding their body. It is organic, whole and seasonal.
My menu changes with the produce I can get hold of. Fish is caught daily, vegetables picked when in season. I must challenge my brain to keep it healthy and working properly- that’s part of the legacy of my illness- and my unique menu demands that I come up with constantly changing dishes and recipes.
I work just 4 nights a week and I expect my staff to have a great work life balance. It’s not about status, it’s about substance. My family live nearby and help, and are often found in my restaurant, as are friends old and new.
Life is, 100% different from 3 years ago. I am still Chef John Lawson, but I am a different one. I still love Food, but, I really love food. It is now a proper relationship. It’s not about money, procedures, and competition. It is not about greed, and status. And nor is my life. I aim to educate others about Food; my staff, my clients, and people like you today, about the fuels our bodies need every day to stay healthy.
I am 3 years cancer free, and my latest scan results are clear. I truly believe that Food, my passion from boyhood till now, nhas helped keep me healthy and my body stable.
The disruption which happened in my life was less than three years ago; it was scary, it was traumatic and yet, when I am just walking down the street to open the doors to my new restaurant, I am grateful. I am still here, free, and I’m bringing food to people in a way that I love. In many ways, the night that I woke from a seizure, I was reborn.
And we can all choose that; we can let a bad event define us, or we can evolve with our life, and turn it into something even more amazing than it was before!