Chef Eric LeVine thought he was done with cancer, that he had long buried that part of his life under years of chemotherapy treatments and dinner services. But there cancer was again – taunting him in front of television cameras, over a basket of mussels, pears and frozen waffles.
A few weeks before, LeVine, 41, had ended seven years of remission with a shattering diagnosis: He had cancer, for the fifth time. And not just any cancer – an advanced form called Richter's syndrome. Doctors said his chances were slim, and sent him for aggressive chemotherapy and radiation that made his muscles spasm and his body ache.
One night last August, he drove into the city for chemotherapy. The next morning, he headed to a television studio to be a contestant on the Food Network show "Chopped."
LeVine was drained and nauseated and thought about canceling, but desperately wanted to prove that "you can have a life-threatening illness … and still push, and still have fun." So he struggled to pull himself together for the show's notoriously bizarre ingredient challenges.
LeVine, the new executive chef of the Montammy Golf Club in Alpine, will be honored Thursday by the American Cancer Society at a fund-raiser in Manhattan.
The chef is no stranger to awards, but this one brings a new kind of validation to someone who established his career while battling both cancer and his own attitude.
"I became selfish and self-absorbed and it didn't need to be that way. I did a lot of damage to people," the charismatic chef says. "In my mind, I used to think, It's about me. And then I came to the realization a couple of years ago that I have an ability that can help others."
Raised by a single mother in Brooklyn, LeVine began peeling onions and potatoes for a local caterer when he was 11 and quickly learned that he felt most at home in the kitchen. Later, he would start his own catering company and cook in France, Italy and Japan, even before graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in 1990. Then followed high-profile jobs at Aramark and the Marriott Marquis.
He was 31, with a catering company and two young children, when he began tiring easily and noticed a nagging numbness in his leg. He had chondrosarcoma, a bone cancer.
That launched a four-year cycle of diagnosis, treatment and remission – only to be followed by another diagnosis. After he beat chondrosarcoma, he was quickly diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. Then, acute myelogenous leukemia.
LeVine took his usual determination right into the hospital. "I've always thought I would beat whatever came my way," LeVine says. "That's the upbringing that I had — to fight. Even the chefs I worked for [taught that] you never give up, you never give less than the best you can give."
Read the rest of Chef Eric's inspiring story here .