Jack Witherspoon Fought Cancer and Became a Teenage Chef Phenom
Teen chef Jack Witherspoon started watching Food Channel while recovering from leukemia.
Photo by Ryan Orange
The pancetta, sliced onions and chopped garlic were sauteing up nicely. The roasted asparagus was ready to come out of the oven. As chef Jack Witherspoon whisked two eggs together with Parmesan cheese, he asked his sous chef — OK, his mom — to clear the workspace so he could combine everything for his spaghetti alla carbonara.
"I'm going to twist it up," he said while zesting a lemon to garnish the pasta. "This gives it a nice acidic kick."
While his father, John, and brother, Josh, were off at baseball practice, Witherspoon plated the melt-in-your-mouth dish for himself and his mom, Lisa. The family's terrier mix, a rescue pup named Flynn, positioned himself under the kitchen table so Lisa could slip him a few bites of pancetta.
Every celebrity chef needs a catchphrase, like "Bam!" or "Off the hook." For Witherspoon it's "Twist it up," meaning new variations on old recipes.
When he and his parents got the shocking news that the leukemia he had beaten with extended chemotherapy treatments at age 2 was back for a second time, 6-year-old Witherspoon was ready to twist up the old recipe they'd followed: Stoic parents comfort a sick, despairing child.
"Come on, guys, we got through this before," he told his stunned parents. "We can do it again." That old-soul spirit manifested itself again when Witherspoon became interested in cooking while he was in the hospital during his relapse. With little for a boy to do except watch TV between chemotherapy sessions, he stumbled upon the Food Channel — and instantly became fascinated with cooking. He and his mother started tweaking traditional recipes, and at age 7 Witherspoon began cooking at charity benefits. Soon he had his own foundation to contribute to leukemia research. He personally raised more than $150,000.
While Witherspoon loves to cook at home, at 15 he's also an emerging star in the kids-chef category. On TV, he has cooked his shepherd's pie for Jay Leno, his turkey stroganoff for Bonnie Hunt, his Norwegian pancakes for Rachael Ray and his chicken Parmesan for Queen Latifah. He's traded culinary tips with Bobby Flay and has written his own cookbook, Twist It Up, which made it to No. 1 in Amazon's kids cookbook rankings.
Then the leukemia returned for a third time in 2011, and doctors said his only hope was a bone marrow transplant. "It knocked the wind out of us," Lisa admits. "I couldn't breathe." But after a successful transplant and 150 days in the hospital, Witherspoon came home to his Hollywood Riviera neighborhood filled with "Welcome home" signs.
Since then the towheaded teen has earned a black belt in tae kwon do, made the honor roll and the surf team at school, and even met a sweet girl who "gets" him and his obsession. When Witherspoon isn't cooking with the stars on TV or speaking at charity food events, he is busy reveling in being healthy.
"All that time in the hospital, I just wanted to live a normal kid's life," Witherspoon says. "Normal is way underrated."
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