How teenage chef Jack Witherspoon fights cancer with food

Jack Witherspoon remembers the first time he watched the Food Network.  

"It was during one of my stays at the hospital. It was like 11, 11:30 [p.m.] — you know, probably not the time a 6-year-old should be up — but my mom was actually stumbling through the shows and she stopped on the Food Network. I immediately woke up and started watching."

For this episode of In The Know: Next Gen, we interviewed Witherspoon, who is a 19-year-old chef. But his path to becoming a famous face in the cooking world was never easy.

Witherspoon was first diagnosed with leukemia when he was two years old. After a stint in the hospital, his family thought he was in the clear, until he relapsed again in first grade.

The relapse was a turning point in his life, because it was also when he fell in love with cooking.

"I couldn't go to school, I couldn't, you know, hang out with my friends or play sports — but I could cook," Witherspoon said.

"I just felt like we needed to put a purpose to him getting this cancer," Lisa, Jack's mom, said. "I didn't want it to be for nothing, for everything that he went through."

It was during Witherspoon's recovery from the second relapse that he started combining his love for cooking and his interest in philanthropy. With the help of a local restaurant, Witherspoon set up a charity dinner for kids with leukemia and was amazed to see a line wrapped around the block.

Just when things where on the upswing for him — his first cookbook, Twist It Up was about to be published — Witherspoon relapsed for the second time. Witherspoon, usually a very optimistic and positive person, felt crushed.

"It's not only physically demanding," Witherspoon said. "It's also very mentally challenging for me. There was a time I felt so bad that I didn't even really want to cook for very long. It was almost, like, a goal to get back to that and to be able to enjoy food again."

Now, eight years cancer-free and multiple Food Network appearances later, Witherspoon is riding the high of finding success within his passion and feeling healthy. But he's working towards doing more, starting with building his own company.

Chef Jack's Skonies (scones that are baked like cookies) donates a portion of its proceeds to pediatric leukemia research. It's important to Witherspoon that charity continues to be a thread throughout all of what he does.

The ultimate goal for Chef Jack's Skonies is to get the treats placed in hospitals and hospital cafeterias. 

"That's the place where my story really resonates with people," Witherspoon said. "And I'd love to just show that you can get through this and you can, you know, not only just survive but you can thrive and live your dream and do so much more too."

If you enjoyed reading this article, you should check out this piece on Maia Ervin, who is creating safe spaces for young artists to brainstorm.

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