By Marisa Patwa
The Warrick County Standard
Cancer patients and caregivers alike were treated to a special cooking class recently that taught them how to use different ingredients to spice up their meals and combat the effects of starvation from chemotherapy.
Renowned chef Ryan Callahan taught his popular, regional class, Cooking For Chemo, at the Deaconess Orthopedic Neuroscience Hospital on Thursday, Feb. 28 in Newburgh.
"The starvation rate of cancer patients accounts for 40 to 70 percent of all related deaths," Callahan said. "Which is why they have me at the hospital, because this is serious -- this is an epidemic."
The main idea of the class it to help people understand the impact of chemo on their taste buds.
"And to learn how you taste, what tasting really is, and all the different senses involved and how to apply that," he said. "There are only five things you taste: salty, savory, spicy, sour and sweet flavors and that's actually how we season."
Callahan, 33, first became enamored with cooking as a young boy.
"When I was 6 years old, for Christmas, I asked for an Easy Bake Oven," he said. "And that's when I started loving food."
He also grew up in St. Louis with a big family who also loved cooking.
"My grandparents both cooked in the kitchen for all of the big holidays," Callahan said. "They'd be cooking turkey or mashed potatoes and I would always want to help but they'd shoo me because I as too little."
Callahan didn't actually take the idea of becoming a professional chef too seriously until he witnessed the boom of celebrity chefs in the late 90s.
"And you have the Aldon Browns and Gordon Ramseys and all these guys started inspiring me," he said.
Around that same time, Callahan got his first job in the food services industry by working at a Quiznos in high school.
"I made my first sandwich to this customer and he was just furious, angry, just mad, had the worst day and I remember exactly, I made him a black angus steak sandwich on rosemary parmesan," he said. "I cut it up and handed it to the guy and he sits down and takes a bite and goes from this horrible scowl to a huge grin, starts laughing with full joy -- that was it."
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The burgeoning young chef then took culinary classes in high school and culinary school to cultivate his skills.
But a stream of family members and a close friend from college getting cancer and dying from it, helped Callahan transition his culinary career into one of helping cancer patients to learn how to enjoy their food once again, after the chemo takes away the taste.
"They did fight the good fight," Callahan said. "And what they all had in common was what we all know now as cachexia, which is systematic starvation. They couldn't eat, everything tastes bad. (The food) tasted metallic. You know, you've got these mouth sores in your palette -- nothing is right."
But, the biggest motivator for Callahan was when his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013, and he stepped into the role of her primary caregiver.
"When my mother got diagnosed with cancer, my first thought was, 'Starvation. How do we combat this? How do we fight this?"' he said.
Callahan said he started working with different recipes, different ingredients and different flavors to make meals his mom would eat.
"I am a momma's boy and there is a special relationship there so when she got her hysterectomy, I wanted to cook for her," he said. "I fed her every single meal. We tasted it together."
After being disheartened watching his mom only eat a few bites of food here and there, Callahan tried the old Chinese technique of "sugar follows vinegar."
"Sugar and vinegar are brothers, so you season with vinegar first to lighten and then add sugar to balance because sugar is too abrasive," he said. "Vinegar is a mean guy who beats you up and the sweet brother is sugar."
He brought them same idea to a pot of chicken and dumplings he made for his mom.
"So, I added a little bit of vinegar to this big batch and a little bit of sugar and she had three bowls in one day," he said. "And that's when I realized, 'I'm on to something here.'"
Callahan then wrote an 18 page pamphlet for chefs, which has now turned into a 300 plus cookbook, which can be purchased at http://www.cookingforchemo.org/
Although Callahan lost some loved ones to cancer, his mother's story does have a happy ending.
"She fought breast cancer and kicked it in the butt," Callahan said. "She's been cancer free for three years now."
Callahan said being able to be the one to help his mom combat starvation due to chemo treatment was like a weight lifted off of his chest.
"Have you ever stayed up all night and it's dark and it's dark and it's dark and then all of a sudden that sun comes up over that hill and that ray of light hits you? That's exactly what it was like," he said. "At the time, I felt personality responsible for her welfare and I knew that if I didn't feed her, she was going to die and watch her going back for three was like a weight lifted off my shoulder and lightning cracked across the sky -- I could see it all."