17-year-old Ali Allouche was in the hospital fighting cancer for the second time when his mom realized he needed to focus on something other than his 10 months of chemo treatments. The two were watching Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown when they started brainstorming.
“I said what if I try to do something like he’s doing and I went to a restaurant in every state in the U.S. to travel and get the experience and meet people like he does,” Allouche tells PEOPLE.
His mom, Jennifer Danko, a Lt. Col. in the army was excited – and skeptical. “I was like, ‘Oh God, how are we gonna do this?’ I didn’t want to discourage him because the idea that he was obsessing about it was good for him and took his mind off of the cancer.”
So she bought a map and together the two started researching to find the best restaurants in every state. Danko, 44, also started a GoFundMe account in hopes of raising enough money to cover some of their travel expenses.
“I thought if just my friends alone would donate a little, that would get us to one restaurant and maybe he’d forget about it. But the GoFundMe kind of blew up,” Danko remembers.
The fundraiser and the teen’s story was getting so much attention that it caught the eye of Bourdain himself.
At the time they had a $50,000 fundraising goal and they noticed a big donation come in. It was the $4,000 they needed to reach their goal. Anthony Bourdain was listed as the donor.
Allouche says, “It was crazy. It was incredible! This guy who I really enjoyed watching… for him to reach out and donate to me kind of made everything more legitimate in my mind. It made me realize this was actually happening.”
Last October mother and son went to their first restaurant in Virginia, not far from where they live. On Christmas they got an unbelievable surprise: Acclaimed chef José Andrés invited them to join his family for a home-cooked meal on Christmas Eve. While they were eating, the chef called a friend. “He said Siri, FaceTime Anthony Bourdain,” Allouche recalls.
“He said I have a friend here who wants to talk to you and he hands me the phone. I was I total shock. I said, thanks for donating and told him my map is based on what you do. I was in utter shock. It was amazing.” Bourdain invited the teen to New York City and promised to take him to some of his favorite restaurants.
Allouche and his mom were devastated when they heard Bourdain died of an apparent suicide on Friday.
“It was crazy; it was unbelievable; it is so sad,” says Allouche. “He was this idol of mine and we’d been in contact and when I found out – it just felt like I lost a family member.”
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Allouche has finished chemo treatments and underwent two surgeries. He is now in remission and traveling as much as he can.
Thanks in part to Bourdain’s donation, he and his mom have crossed five states off their list and this summer plan to hit four more. After a year in the hospital and away from school and all of his friends, he’s excited to go back as a senior in the fall. And while he says he isn’t exactly sure what he wants to be when he grows up, he is sure about his dream job. “It would be to do what Anthony Bourdain did, to travel across the world and experience cultures and see food in different ways. To meet people along the way. I think that’s the perfect life.”
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text “help” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.