This post comes to us courtesy of writer and Williams-Sonoma creative consultant Laura Martin Bacon.
“Food has more love when it’s homemade – it just tastes better. For me, my mom’s cooking is comfort food that’s almost like medicine. All those weeks in the hospital, it helped me heal and feel better.”
My buddy Jack Witherspoon is barely twelve years old – but he knows a lot about secret ingredients for recipes and life. And he says love is the most important of all.
Jack was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of two, went through years of hospital stays and chemotherapy – then relapsed when he was six. His mom, Lisa, recalls: “When Jack relapsed, I was devastated. It meant the chances were down to 50% that he’d survive. They weren’t guaranteeing us anything.”
But in a world with no guarantees, Jack and his mom found something they could always count on.
During one of Jack’s hospital sojourns, he discovered the magic of cooking. “I was channel surfing and found the Food Network. I was totally intrigued!” Jack says. “I asked my mom to write down ingredients so we could make the recipes together when I went home. Cooking was something super-fun that even having leukemia couldn’t stop me from doing.”
Lisa remembers when her six-year-old son announced that he had a new life goal. “Jack looked so little sitting there in the back seat of the car. He didn’t have any hair, but he had a big smile on his face when he told me ‘Mom, I want to be a chef when I grow up’.
“I told Jack that now when we cooked together, he would be in training for his new profession,” Lisa tells me. “It’s funny: I’d never paid much attention to cooking before – I was always so busy. But when your child tells you something like that, everything changes.
“Cooking together gave us a focus that kept everyone’s energy going. Instead of concentrating on all the negative things, we found a positive energy that’s helped get us through some of the hardest times.”
Jack and Lisa turned their home kitchen into a family culinary school, working together to develop recipes and master new techniques. Jack’s younger brother Josh took on the role of official recipe taster – and his dad, John, kept everyone entertained with his hilarious food riffs and word play.
Going out to eat became like a treasure hunt for new recipes – Jack learned to always ask the waiter or chef about the restaurant’s special dishes and how to make them. “Then I’d go home and change things around to put my own twist on them,” he says. “That’s how I came up with my catchphrase, ‘twist it up’.”
Food shopping took on a whole new meaning. “The grocery store is like a toy store to me,” Jack says. “It’s really fun to see so many ingredients in one place and imagine what I could do with them.”
Over the years, Jack and his mom found new ways to nourish people through the gift of cooking. Jack helped other sick kids by cooking at charity events, raising enough money to create the Jack Witherspoon Endowment at Miller Children’s Hospital.
“On the nights of those events, people said the food that came out of the kitchens was the best they’d ever had,” Lisa recalls. “Jack and the chefs made every dish with love – and you could taste it in every bite.”
Jack’s philanthropic culinary adventures had him cooking with everyone from local restaurant chefs to Bobby Flay and Jay Leno. By the time he turned eleven, Jack was deep into working on his own cookbook, Twist It Up.
Then, last summer, the unthinkable happened: Jack’s leukemia came back. And this time, he needed a bone marrow transplant – a procedure that frightened even his ever-optimistic mom.
“It’s amazing how much a child can teach a parent,” Lisa tells me. “During this second relapse, Jack was the one giving me pep talks. He’d tell me: C’mon Mom, we beat this twice before – and we’ll beat it again!”
And they did. Just like with a great recipe, everything came together – from finding the perfect donor (a young soldier) to a months-long medical odyssey that inspired a doctor to refer to Jack as “the poster boy for how a patient should respond to a transplant.”
Lisa spent every day and night with her son, bringing in home-cooked favorites that he loved sharing with the nurses. “I cooked the dishes we’d always made together – shepherd’s pie and lots of pastas.”
“It helped me so much to have my mom’s food in the hospital,” Jack says. “That’s when you really need to have love and soul in your food. Everyone needs comfort food in the hospital: patients, their families – even the doctors and nurses.”
It looks like comfort food worked its magic. These days, Jack’s back in the kitchen – and he’s living his dream. His cookbook is on bookstore shelves, and a couple of weeks ago, Rachael Ray surprised Jack with a request to appear on her show.
Best of all, things are getting back to normal, like being able to have dinner as a family again. “It’s so great to have everyone at the table, sharing stories about our day,” Jack says. “It’s a big deal for me and my mom and dad and brother to be all together – we don’t take it for granted.”
Lisa agrees: “This whole ordeal has brought our family so much closer. And Jack loves being able to do all the things a normal kid gets to do – because he had it all taken away from him. No kid should have to go through what he has, but Jack’s a stronger and wiser person because of it. He understands things it’s taken me my whole life to learn.”
The next ‘normal’ thing on Jack’s agenda is cooking Lisa her favorite brunch dish for Mother’s Day: his signature spaghetti carbonara. And he’s really excited about it.
“I want to be a normal kid and surprise my mom with something she loves,” he tells me. “You know, normal is really underrated. For me, normal is amazing – it’s the best.”
Jack’s Spaghetti alla Carbonara
My mom loves this pasta for brunch or a leisurely lunch. It is yummy and satisfying but so different from the pastas I normally make. I feel really Italian when I eat this dish.
2 large eggs at room temperature
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2/3 cup half-and-half, warmed
1 pound spaghetti pasta
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
8 ounces pancetta, cut into small cubes
½ cup finely chopped yellow onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
½ cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley (optional)
1. Break the eggs into a medium bowl and add ½ cup of the cheese and all of the half-and-half. Whisk to blend well.
2. In a large pot of salted boiling water, cook the spaghetti for 7 to 9 minutes, or until al dente.
3. While the pasta is cooking, heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the pancetta and sauté until it just starts to become crisp, about 4 minutes. Add the onion and sauté for 3 minutes, or until translucent. Add the garlic and sauté for 1 minute.
4. Drain the hot pasta and add to the sauté pan with the pancetta, onion, garlic, and all the pan juices. Stir in the egg mixture to coat the pasta evenly. Season with salt to taste and generously season with pepper. If desired, add the parsley and toss again.
Serve immediately with the remaining Parmesan alongside for sprinkling. Serves 4 to 6.
Twist It Up: Pancetta gives this dish its delicious flavor. In a pinch, I’ve made it with bacon, and I have to say, although it’s not as authentic, it tastes pretty good that way, too.
Image Credits: Jack shaping and cooking turkey meatballs, spaghetti carbonara photos and Twist it Up cover by Sheri Giblin from Twist it Up by Jack Witherspoon, courtesy of Chronicle Books. All other photos courtesy of Lisa Witherspoon.
About the author: Laura is a longtime writer and creative consultant for Williams-Sonoma and other well-known entities. She’s also the Culinary Creative Director of DooF (“food” backwards), an organization that uses multi-media entertainment, education and live events to help kids and families discover the magic of food. DooF explores every aspect of food – from flavors, history, science and cultural traditions to the exciting journey from source-to-table. Laura’s mission: to make good food fun – at home, in the classroom and beyond.
chef jack is the coolest. i am an 11 almost 12 year old cook too. i am amazed at your racheal v.s.guy cook off. i might audition if they make season 3 .My first grade teachers friend that i knew has cancer.i am writing a blog about julia childs cook book!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
if you could respond back it would be soooooooooooo cool
i would also like you to come on to my blog and give some advice (:
No one ever has a guarantee! Jack sets a good example for us all! Thanks to Marusja H. for pointing out this blog.
Chef Jack is an amazing young man demonstrating a lot of strength and inspiration to all of us. I am touched by his heartwarming story and would definitely buy his book….
How could anyone not be heartened by this story. It has the lot…courage over adversity, inspiring others by being an excellent example of making the most of things…all the ingredients for a best seller
Jack sounds like a very sweet boy. His story is not only impressive–but heroic in the journey he has followed. What gifts he may one day offer others who may follow in his footsteps! I’m going to buy his book right away.
Awesome, heart-warming, and it’d be impressive even if he was fully healthy. Thank you for sharing this awesome story. Wish I could try his food! It’s truly a wonderful way for a family or especially mother and son to make it through and past those things that weigh heavily on the mind and heart.
Such an inspiring story- He can truly speak to the healing powers of food and good nutrition.
Thank you for such a wonderful story!
What an amazing young man…such courage and bravery!! He is such an inspiration to so many including myself that anything is possible, and amazing things can happen while just being normal!!! I wish him continued health, great success and I hope one day to be eating in a restaurant of Chef Jack!! ♥
What amazing strength, courage and a passion for life! God bless this young man. His love of food will not only help him in his battle with cancer – but also give hope and inspiration to others.
Jack~ your story is inspirational! Sharing your love of food and cooking is a wonderful idea! Good food can heal and also brings people together! Keep working hard and believe in yourself! You get my thumbs up!
outstanding Jack, look forward to your restaurant in a few years time! your book will be a great present for my nephew in Australia who is a bit younger than you but loves cooking. And fwiw girls love a bloke who can cook, happy skies!
What a super guy! Maybe, you could employ him to bring his terrific message of hope, and great food to educate the next generation of cooks!!! Surely, he has a passion and magic for delicious food, and that is what is sorely needed today, when we see so much pre-packaged and unpalatable convenience foods in our stores….family meals need to survive!
Hey Jack, nice work !! Best to you and your very special family !!
Be strong young man.
I just LOVE to read all of these wonderful comments people have written in about me!! I’ve always tried to make the best of things in life… it feels so good to know how much I can inspire others. I’ve got lot’s more things to cook!!!
Jack is such an inspiration! Has Williams Sonoma considered a department for children who’d like to learn to cook? Utensils sized for smaller hands and in bright, fun colors? Perhaps some kits containing most of the ingredients for healthy concoctions geared to kids’ tastes? You could even make these the Chef Jack line for Young Chefs, and have Jack as your spokes-kid. And of course his cookbook would be sold in your kids dept., too! Keep going strong, Jack <3
Jack you are awesome!
Just wanted to let you know I bought the Kindle edition of Jack’s book and downloaded it to my iPhone. The kids found it and I swear a miracle happened: they forgot about Angry Birds long enough to make me Jack’s frittata for brunch (even Terrible 2 got into the cooking fun). Thanks for making my day, Jack!
what a sweet and inspiring story.
Thank you for sharing this inspirational story!!!
This is a fantastic story! I can’t imagine how I’d feel if one of my kids were dealing with everything that Jack has. I admire him and his family so much. I think I’ll get the book as a mothers day present for myself and hope my kids will take the hint and learn to cook. 🙂
This young man has a wonderful life ahead. He has already created his game and at such a young age. You are an inspiration for millions of people.
Jack is an inspiration! At my age I’ve become so bored with cooking–all those years of wondering what to cook for family meals. Jack has reminded me of the fun of exploration when cooking was a new adventure. Where is that box of recipe clippings…oh wait, we have the internet now!
Jack is leading the way!
Very inspirational! Great article 🙂
I bought “Twist it Up” and have enjoyed reading it and also trying out the inspired ideas that this young man has shared with us through his cookbook. Just thinking about everything that Jack has overcome in his short life, makes me want to know more of what’s to come next and follow his story.
Thank you for this! What a wonderful story… What an inspiring little boy, with so much to teach us all.
this makes me so happy that it makes me cry. my little boy was in a car accident last year and was in a coma for over a month. we thought we were going to lose him. but he pulled through and he is here with me right now asking what i want for mothers day. hats off to lisa for being a mom to admire, to jack for being a kid to admire and to williams and sonoma for sharing this article. thank you.
Love, love, love this! What a beautifully written story about a very inspiring kid.
Can’t wait to read Jack’s book!