Eric LeVine: Five Star Chef of a Different Sort
Five bouts of cancer have taught this star chef some new lessons about healthy cooking, and some old lessons about life and resilience
If there were a medal for surviving cancer – a kind of civilian purple heart – (and really, shouldn’t there be?), Eric LeVine would be wearing five of them on his chest.
Currently the chef at the Morris Tap & Grill in Randolph, NJ, LeVine has been a creature of the kitchen since the age of eleven as a chef’s helper for a caterer in his native Brooklyn, NY. At age 31, as he was moving up fast as a celebrity chef, he was diagnosed with chondrosarcoma, a bone cancer. This was the first of five cancers that rose up one after the other to be fought in a kind of ultimate gladiatorial combat: After the bone cancer went into remission, there came a diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma , then two bouts with acute myelogenous leukemia. Through it all, LeVine kept working, though he admits now there were days when he shouldn’t have been in the kitchen.
In 2004, his doctors told him he was cancer free. Then, in 2010, three weeks before he was scheduled to compete on the high-stress Food Network show “Chopped,” he got a devastating diagnosis of Richter’s Syndrome, a rare and aggressive type of acute adult leukemia – LeVine’s most serious cancer yet. He went ahead with the competition and won, collecting the $10,000 prize, and earning an invitation to the Chopped Champions cook-off. A year later, he authored the book “Stick It, Spoon It, Put It in a Glass.”
In an interview with CFYL’s Owen Edwards, Chef LeVine talked about how he’s dealt with serious health threats and kept on cooking through it all.
CFYL: To get a fifth cancer diagnosis after seven years in remission after having fought four earlier battles with the disease has to have been truly terrible. And the timing, just weeks before “Chopped,” can’t have been worse. How did you deal with the news, and the effects of the treatment?
LeVine: For 10 years, I think the biggest thing that kept me going was my love of cooking, of creating new eating experiences and new flavors for people. I certainly don’t have a fear of the unknown anymore. And that’s what happened with the diagnosis before the show “Chopped.” I just kept on cooking. I started on chemotherapy, and was badly nauseated when I began competing. But I ended up winning, in part because I was able to roll with the punches and adapt quickly when things went wrong.
CFYL: Do you credit your dealing with cancer for that?
LeVine: Partly that, and my long experience in the kitchen. When I was a kid, peeling potatoes and onions in Brooklyn, you did what you had to do for the jerks you worked for. About the only thing I never did was washing dishes. But dealing with cancer definitely taught me to look at things from a different perspective, both as a person and as a cook.
CFYL: How did it affect your work as a chef?
LeVine: Well, things definitely changed. It would have been silly not to adjust how I cook to match how I eat. I’ve come to think that people are often unhealthy because of what they eat. After cancer I feel that I have to help people eat better, but without forcing it on them. Chefs today are more aware of healthy eating, and we have opportunities to educate while still serving delicious dishes.
CFYL: How did you change you own diet during cancer treatments and afterwards?
LeVine: I immediately cut way down on meat, especially red meat, and increased the amount and variety of grains, greens, legumes. At the Morris Tap & Grill, I even offer vegan and gluten-free options. And I like to keep my menus seasonal.
CFYL: Are you getting a good response from your customers? After all, they probably don’t come to a good restaurant for an “anti-cancer” meal.
LeVine: I am getting a good response. But I’m not being pushy or preachy. My approach is to shift the way people are eating by giving them a menu that helps them make better decisions. And I believe that there’s karma involved. If you put great stuff out there and people eat healthier and like what they’re eating, good things will come back.
CFYL: As I remember from my years growing up there, New Jersey was called “the Garden State.” My family only had to drive a couple of miles to find farm stands. But those farms are long gone, and in this era of suburban sprawl, is it still possible to get seasonal produce there?
LeVine: We do still have farms here, and there are a lot of great farmers I buy from. At first, they weren’t quite prepared to keep up with us, but that’s getting better. We pay more for local organic greens and vegetables, but the quality and freshness is worth it.
CFYL: Is there one particular change that symbolizes to you the transition to post-cancer cooking?
LeVine: Well, the use of fresh seasonal produce, as I’ve said. And frying pretty much went away. And I now use a lot of fresh juices in my recipes. The changes were very broad, so it’s hard to single out a particular thing.
CFYL: Was your appearance on “Chopped,” right after your diagnosis of Richter’s and the start of treatment for your fifth cancer the toughest pressure you’ve ever felt as a chef?
LeVine: It was certainly tough, but maybe not the most pressure I’ve felt. In 1998, I was catering a huge event during the International Energy Conference being held in Texas, working out of a pop-up kitchen at the Houston Astrodome. A few hours before the dinner, a bomb scare caused a sweep of the stadium, and suddenly tightened security for my staff. It turned out there was no bomb, but I ended up with only 190 of the 580 people who were scheduled to work the event.
CFYL: How did you manage to avoid a disaster?
LeVine: We saved the day with good planning, and an amazing core team of people who all did triple the work.
CFYL: Last year you were an honoree at a Taste of Hope fund-raiser held annually by the American Cancer Society. Clearly, your five battles with cancer and your cooking combine to make you very inspirational. So how’s your health these days?
LeVine: I certainly don’t take anything for granted anymore. But on March 12, I marked one year being cancer free.