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7-year-old chef is hot stuff

Leukemia patient cooks up a four-course fundraiser

December 06, 2007|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

Those who crowded into a Redondo Beach restaurant could scarcely believe what 7-year-old Jack Witherspoon cooked up Wednesday night.

There were hors d'oeuvres such as mushrooms stuffed with spinach and three cheeses. A spinach ravioli appetizer with wild mushrooms, sherry and pecorino. A salad made with his own sun-dried tomato ranch dressing.

Entrees included eggplant Parmesan with linguine and roasted-tomato sauce, roast chicken with herbs de Provence, grilled rib-eye steak with garlic mashed potatoes, and sauteed spinach.

Not only did the young boy choose the menu, but he helped prepare the four-course dinner in the kitchen of the HT Grill and then helped serve it as a fundraiser for the hospital where he undergoes treatment for leukemia.

It was at Miller Children's Hospital in Long Beach where Jack caught the cooking bug.

During 11 five-day stints for chemotherapy treatment over the last year, he spent hours watching cooking shows on a TV in the hospital's Jonathan Jaques Children's Cancer Center.

He soon developed his taste, too: He enjoyed watching chefs who were entertaining and seeing foods that were colorfully presented.

"If there wasn't anything good on the Food Network, I'd switch over to the Cartoon Network," the boy acknowledged.

Between trips to the hospital, his mother, Lisa Witherspoon, began taking him to upscale South Bay restaurants for lunch to show him that food that looks beautiful can taste the same way.

She also invited him into her kitchen, where he stood on a step stool to learn to stir sauces and add seasonings to dishes. Soon, he was helping his father, John Witherspoon, cook chicken and steaks on the backyard grill.

So these days there are no hamburgers or hot dogs for Jack.

"I only go to McDonald's with my little brother so he doesn't whine," he says. His brother, Josh, is 5.

For Wednesday night's dinner, however, Jack drew up a kids menu for the 50 children from his Riviera Elementary School in Torrance who were invited guests. Jack has been tutored at home over the last year but hopes to return to his second-grade classroom after the first of the year when he begins a milder treatment regimen.

His friends could order burgers and fries, cheese pizza, macaroni and cheese, and spaghetti and meat sauce. Many of them were surprised to learn that Jack was interested in food.

"He likes Pokemon. I know because we play it when we go to his house. I didn't know he was interested in cooking," said classmate J.B. Hanhart, 8.

Most of the crowd of some 300 were adults, however. Proceeds from the $75-per-seat dinner were earmarked for the Jonathan Jaques Children's Cancer Center.

Wearing a pint-sized white chef's coat and a personalized cap, Jack darted from the kitchen to personally serve his cancer specialist, Dr. Jerry Z. Finklestein, and his main nurse, Cindy Macfarlane. Finklestein was all smiles.

"It reaffirms our faith in that young people fighting life-threatening diseases can overcome adversity and continue being an example of maximizing one's interest in life," he said. "All of us can learn from this event."

Jack was 2 when he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. He immediately underwent a 39-month course of treatment. It appeared he had been cured, but a year later his leukemia returned. A more rigorous follow-up series of treatments began in October 2006.

The first phase of that round of chemotherapy involved hospital stays of four to five days at a time and injection of drugs directly into the boy's spine. The treatment required him to stay away from large groups and be isolated from most of his friends. He lost his hair.

At a time when most 7-year-olds are more likely to revere animated TV figures such as Johnny Bravo and the Flintstones, Jack quickly came to idolize celebrity chefs such as Bobby Flay, who is the host of four Food Network shows and owns restaurants in New York and Las Vegas.

The idea for the dinner came from HT Grill owner Paul Hennessey after he encountered Lisa Witherspoon at his restaurant. While in college, she had worked at a tavern that Hennessey also owns, and he was stunned to learn of Jack's treatment ordeal -- and of his love for cooking.

Several days before the dinner, his mother took Jack to Hennessey's restaurant so he could help begin preparing dishes. Standing on a milk crate, he stuffed mushrooms and formed tiny pizzas.

"This kid's got a lot of talent. He's pretty much making everything on the menu. He definitely has a knack for it," Hennessey said. With a laugh, he added, "I like the fact I'm getting some nice cheap labor."

Steve Matthews, executive chef at HT Grill, said Jack was fascinated with the details, like how dough rises and how sauce pans are deglazed with wine.

"He wanted a little more spice in the tomatillo sauce. Most kids just want to eat food. He's interested in food. It's refreshing -- it makes me appreciate my job more," said Matthews, a chef for 23 years.

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