Executive Chefs Steve McHugh and Matthew Niessner discuss how they managed to juggle high-powered jobs while battling cancer
There is truth in food.
That’s what participants learned during a fireside chat at Hollings Cancer Center’s signature fundraising Gourmet & Grapes event held at the Sanctuary Hotel on Kiawah Island. Executive Chefs Steve McHugh of Cured in San Antonio, Texas, and Matthew Niessner of Hall’s Chophouse in Charleston shared what life is like as executive chefs and how they managed to juggle their high-powered jobs while fighting their own personal battles with cancer.
The 10th annual event, held the first weekend in February, raised $640,000 and showcased 20 wineries and 42 chefs. Most chefs participate because it’s such a good cause, but for many it goes even deeper, because it’s personal.
Niessner of Halls Chophouse made a shocking revelation during his fireside talk. From time to time, he has a Big Mac as an occasional splurge. What's more often the case, of course, is that he chooses fresh, organic food.
“The key is the truth in food, where it comes from, how it was raised, how it is handled. Someone planted that, they nurtured it, watered it. It’s very important as chefs to understand the fragile environment we are in. We have to take care of our environment and the farmers, fishermen – anyone involved in human consumption.”
The qualtiy of food fueling the body also affects the body's ability to fight cancer. Niessner learned that in 2015, when he had a simple skin irritation caused by heat rashes from the kitchen. When he went in for a checkup, he asked his primary care physician also to see if he might have a urinary tract infection since he had some blood in his urine. Testing revealed it wasn’t an infection, so a cystoscopy was done to look inside his bladder. When they found a cyst, Niessner didn’t worry much. Ninety percent of them turn out to be benign. Unfortunately, he found out four days later that he was in the 10 percent. He had bladder cancer and would have to have surgery.
“There are no words for it,” he says of what it was like to get such a diagnosis. He scheduled appointments with physicians at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center. “At the time, I had no idea what cancer was. I was scared of it even before I had it.”
Niessner began weighing options. “We talked about the path, the journey, with me asking a million questions,” he says, recalling a particular physician who inspired confidence. “He answered every one I had. I trusted him. I looked him in the eyes and told him, ‘I’m fortunate enough to go anywhere in the world.’ He urged me to get a second opinion, and I said, ‘No.’ I trusted him completely. ‘Your opinion is the only one I care about; let’s move forward.’ For some reason I felt his soul, his heart.”
Doctors recommended removal of his bladder. He was asked what he wanted to do when treatment was finished. Niessner told them he wanted an active life of boating and fishing and being with his family.
“I want to be around a long time. Can you do that for me?”
“He said, ‘Absolutely.’”
“I said, ‘Great. Give me everything you’ve got.’”
So, they did. He received the hardest chemotherapy regimen available and was given the choice of living a life with a catheter and a bag on his leg or rebuilding his bladder. He opted to have his bladder rebuilt, having a tiny part of his smaIl intestine taken out to construct a new one.
“My chemotherapy was scheduled in March, and I was actually doing a fundraiser for MUSC kids. After I finished lunch for 300 people, I took off my apron, headed to Hollings and had my first treatment. From the moment I arrived, I felt at home. I felt like I was safe and that I was going to be taken care of. That is key. We are all very technical in our skills and professions, but it’s the personal touches that will get us through those most difficult times.”
One of Niessner’s favorite memories is the last day of his chemotherapy. “I got to ring the bell on my last day of chemo, and it was a beautiful thing. It was, ‘ding, ding, ding’ all over the floor. I have to praise Hollings Cancer Center. It is a state-of-the-art facility, but it is the people that make it happen. It’s truly amazing to see the passion driving toward something,” he says, gesturing to Gustavo Leone, Ph.D., director of Hollings Cancer Center, and Robert Stuart, M.D., a hematologist-oncologist at HCC, who also spoke during the fireside chat about exciting advances in cancer research.
Niessner says cancer survivors come out with renewed appreciation for what they have. “We’ve been given a wonderful opportunity, a second chance. We are alive. When you feel completely out of control, and you beat it, and you are back in control, you really value the choices you make. I love food; it’s my passion. The purity, the combination of profiles and flavors.”
While guests at his restaurants have come to expect excellence, a great deal more than they realize goes into the process. “It’s not just a commodity. “There is a lot of research and sourcing,” he says, explaining that they use cattle fed on artisanal grass. “We want to support our growers and farming communities. That’s critical for us. In my opinion, our guests in our dining rooms know it. They can’t put their finger on it, but they know it.”
Niessner, who now is two pant sizes bigger than he ever has been, says he feels great. “Personally, in my diet, I love everything," he says. "You have to be happy, so treat yourself. It’s your life, and you have to live your life, and you have to be happy. If you’re happy, that will fend off just about anything that will invade your body, mind and soul.”
Part of being happy for him is gardening and incorporating local, fresh produce into his cooking. Food never has tasted so good, he says.
“It’s amazing what happens when you go through a crisis, when you go through something like cancer. My life is better than it has ever been – health-wise and mentally. And now it’s time to give back to Hollings. They need our help and everyone’s help to find the cure.”
Chef Steve McHugh
Cured (San Antonio)
McHugh’s restaurant, Cured, has a clever name with two meanings. He’s a cancer survivor and specializes in cured meat – meat he knows the source of. There is truth in food, he says, and McHugh and Niessner believe the taste reveals the careful selection that goes into the foods they use.
“When you walk in,” he says of his restaurant that employs three butchers, “we have a large curing case that stands 9 feet tall and 11 feet wide for ham, salami, and charcuterie – thousands of pounds. The whole philosophy is to work with local farmers. Everything comes into the restaurant whole – goats, chickens, ducks. We want to work with local producers and know where our food is coming from.”
It’s important to know how the animals were raised and how the food is being processed and shipped. It also allows him to verify that food isn’t suspiciously labeled organic, he says.
His strategy is working. The James Beard semifinalist in the Southwest says it’s been a great four years, and the goal is to be an institution in Texas in a couple of decades. He has a chance to make that happen now that he’s back on the road to health.
McHugh went through a rough period in 2009.
It was late in that year when he remembers feeling lethargic and flu-like. He was having to leave work early, which is not good for a chef. His doctor kept saying that he just had the flu. He ended up being referred to an allergist because he was experiencing swelling in his face. Luckily, she ordered a CT scan.
“Sure enough, I had a large mass in my chest that restricted the blood flow to my head, which caused the swelling. She called me and told me I needed to come to the office now, and that I needed to bring my wife. I said, ‘Well this is not good.’ You can imagine to diagnose a patient with cancer is probably the hardest thing she ever had to do. We walked into the office. She had canceled all her appointments, sent everyone home and was waiting for us in the lobby when we arrived.”
The verdict: diffused, large B-cell lymphoma.
The timing couldn’t have been worse. McHugh was in New Orleans and in the process of opening a restaurant in San Antonio. He was referred to an oncologist and asked if he should put his professional life on hold.
His doctor shook his head. “The best advice he had given me was, ‘No one told you to stop living your life. We’ll figure this thing out.’”
McHugh started what’s called R-CHOP chemotherapy, named after the five drugs used in the treatment. It knocked him flat and was a hard road of ups and downs, he remembers. He got set up in San Antonio with a cancer care center, where he did eight more rounds of chemotherapy. “I finished my chemo and opened a restaurant in the same month.”
McHugh recalls having to push through. When he went in for a biopsy, doctors had to remove a rib. He remembers going home the same day. A week later an employee called in to say he had the sniffles. “I couldn’t help but say, ‘I’m here, and I have cancer.’ He said, ‘I’ll be right there, chef. I’m on my way.’”
McHugh can laugh about that now. He also learned that many doctors have secret desires to be chefs. “When I go to my oncologist, he wants to talk about food for a good 20 minutes before I finally have to say, ‘Will you please just read the scans,’ because I’m sitting there all nervous.”
The aggressive treatment plan worked. McHugh went into remission in 2011. He had his final checkup in July, and everything was clear. “I said to my doctor, ‘OK, I guess I’ll see you next year.’ He said to me, ’I only ever want to see you in your restaurant. I don’t ever want to see you here again.’”
That was good news for McHugh, who says he’s very conscious of what he puts into his body now. Good nutrition helped him during his treatment. It’s a philosophy that extends to his restaurant. He’s in better shape now at 42 than he was at 22.
“I eat better. I work out more. I think about everything I put into my body. But it was a hard road.”
McHugh is applying lessons he learned as a cancer survivor to his new life.
“As chefs, we can be very hardheaded, and we think we are indestructible,” he says. “Chefs and doctors can be some of the unhealthiest people in the world, because they are always taking care of other people. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is I can’t take care of the hundreds of thousands of people who come into my restaurant each year if I am not taking care of myself, and my family, and my employees.”