Chef Fatima Ali Has Died of Cancer at Age 29

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We are saddened to share that Fatima Ali, a former Top Chef contestant, has died of cancer at age 29. A version of this essay is slated to run in our March print magazine. We are running it early online to share her perspective and honor her memory. Three months ago, Ali wrote for us about how she was spending her remaining months, following her terminal diagnosis. This version expands on her earlier piece.

I grew up in Pakistan, where food is a really integral part of the culture. I started cooking with my grandmother when I was six or seven, and she would teach me how to make little bread bears. They had peppercorn eyes and cloves for buttons, and I remember thinking it was such an amazing thing, that I could actually make something with my own hands.

After I graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 2011, my mom wanted me to come home, but I said “Just give me one year in New York City. There’s no place better for me to learn.” Every time I’d go back to visit my family in Pakistan, I would cook. Watching me evolve gave my mom comfort, and helped her understand that this was absolutely my calling. So she finally let go, and said, “Look, just promise me that you’ll do your absolute best. And I’ll be happy with that.” And I said, “Okay. That’s a promise.”

My first job was at an Indian-Latin restaurant in New York. I was a floor manager and the sous chef at the same time, weirdly enough. So I spent three days in the front, and four days in the back. I was doing seven-day weeks, 14-hour days. I did that for nine months. Later, at another job, my executive chef quit suddenly, as they often do. I was just a 21-year-old junior sous chef, but suddenly in charge of the whole place. I worked breakfast, lunch, dinner, catered all these super-VIP holiday parties. I’d get home at 1 a.m then have to wake up at 4 a.m. for a private breakfast party. One time several cooks called out and then the person who was transporting the catering trays dropped them all onto the pedestrian walk at 45th St. and Lexington Ave. In the middle of lunch rush. We had to remake everything, with all the cooks missing. There were plenty of days like that. But you know what? It was amazing. Managing to get through a day like that—and not only living to tell about it, but doing it again and again—I think it really makes you understand what a human is capable of. We’re so resilient. If I had to do it all again, I wouldn’t change anything.

When I got diagnosed with a rare form of cancer called Ewings Sarcoma, I had just finished filming Top Chef in Colorado. It was 2017 and I was working at the U.S. Open with my friend Joe Flamm, who was the winner and had opened up a pop-up restaurant there. I’d had this weird ache in my shoulder for the past couple of months that I’d been ignoring. You know, popping a couple of Advils, going to sleep. But one day, in the middle of lunch, my shoulder swelled up and the pain was mounting literally by the minute. I had to go to the emergency room.

They gave me an MRI literally within 20 minutes of seeing me, because I was in so much pain. I remember the doctor was exceptionally handsome. I remember standing over there crying my eyes out and this guy could be on a runway. He calls me on my cell phone and I’m thinking, “Ooh, this hot doctor’s asking me out.” But instead he says, “I want to refer you to an oncologist.” That was just the beginning. They didn’t discharge me from my first hospital admission for three weeks.

Honestly, until your first chemo cycle, I don’t think it really hits you. Then your hair starts falling out, and finally you’re like, “This is actually happening. This is the rest of my life.” I did eight rounds of chemo. It was horrible, but at the end, my scans were all clear. I thought I’d beaten it. Then it came back. Worse than before. It was metastatic. It had spread to my lungs. The doctors told me I had a year to live.

The first thing I did when I found out was dye my hair. Platinum blonde. I thought, “I’m dying, so why not?” I felt like I had to reclaim the hair thing. So I called this guy to my hospital room. Then I did one more round of chemo and all my frickin’ hair fell out again.

That sucked, but I was like, “You know what? Stop feeling sorry for yourself.” I‘ve been to hospitals in New York and I‘ve been to hospitals in LA, and when you‘re around that much sickness, and you see people from all sorts of backgrounds, all sorts of ages, in all stages of disease—it really gives you perspective. Because even now, it could be so much worse than it is. I‘m still very lucky to be able to do a lot of the things that I love.

I decided not to spend whatever time I had left (whether it’s a year, a month, another ten years—you don’t know until you’re gone) lamenting all the things that weren’t right. Instead, I’d make the most of it. I’m using cancer as the excuse I needed to actually go and get things done, and the more people I share those thoughts with, the more I hold myself to them. If I write this intention down, if I have it printed somewhere like I do here, I have to hold myself responsible, because I have people counting on me.

What is my intention? To live my life. To fulfill all those genuine dreams I have. It’s easy to spend weeks in my pajamas, curled up in my bed, watching Gossip Girl on Netflix. I could totally do that. And don’t get me wrong, I still watch Gossip Girl. But now I’m doing things. I’m going out to eat. I’m making plans for vacations. I’m finding experimental treatments. I’m cooking. I’m writing.

My brother and I have challenged ourselves to write a recipe a day—spaghetti; braised lamb with Pakistani spices and root vegetables; comfort food. Things I like to eat. Things people will actually make. Every day I come up with a recipe I’ve never made before, write it down in a notebook, make a little drawing of it, go shopping for those ingredients, and cook it. My brother wants to compile them all. He’ll turn them into something one day.

I’ve also been eating at a lot of restaurants. Vespertine, Sushi Masa, Broken Spanish, Kismet. I went to Eleven Madison Park with my family and the manager, a friend of mine, made a replica of my food stall, VanPakistan, in the kitchen. Down to the tablecloth. Down to the kind of napkin dispenser I had. The chef made the most delicious, melt-in-your-mouth Seekh kebabs I’ve ever had, with flatbread and pickled onions and green chutney they had made just for me. My mom was in tears, bawling. My older brother was crying. Everyone was hugging each other. We were blown away.

We’re planning a trip to Europe: Austria, Italy. I want to eat really phenomenal Parmesan and balsamic and fresh buffalo mozzarella and real Italian tomatoes and basil and fresh pasta with good olive oil and great cheese. That’s all I fucking want. Oh, and I DM’d Noma. I was like, “I’m coming to town. I hope even if there aren’t spots, you could make a spot for me.” I received a reply from chef Rene Redzepi himself. Turns out people respond when you tell them you’re dying of cancer.

My brother and I were talking the other day and he made an interesting point. He was like, « As chefs, you guys deal with death every day. » And he’s right. When you’re a chef, you understand the circle of life. We’re butchering rabbits, whole hogs, and baby lambs; we’re filleting fish and cleaning shrimp. All these things have died for us. I suppose you have to see it as the natural progress of life. Perhaps I’ve had to face it a little bit sooner than expected, but it’s not an unfamiliar feeling.

There are days that I’m exceptionally afraid. There are days I sit alone and cry, because I don’t want to do it in front of my family. And there are other days that we all sit down and cry together, because it is such a scary thing. But at the same time, you can’t let that fear cripple you. It’s harder being miserable than it is to be happy.

As told to Hilary Cadigan on November 28, 2018

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Chef Fatima Ali on Having Terminal Cancer and What She’s Doing With the Time She Has Left | Healthyish

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Fatima Ali is a chef in NYC and a former ‘Top Chef’ contestant. Last year, she was diagnosed with Ewings Sarcoma, a rare form of cancer. She underwent chemotherapy and surgery and wrote about how the experience changed her relationship to food. In September, Ali learned that the cancer had returned and was told she had a year to live. Here, she writes about how the terminal diagnosis is giving her a new perspective on life.

Sitting in the airport lounge, I can feel her gaze locked on the back of my head before I see her. Her brows furrowed under dark bangs, small fists curled up around the sides of her princess dress. She stares at me, eyes full of curiosity and confusion. She senses that something is not quite right. It’s not just the baldness that gives it away or the sallow skin or baggy clothes. A cloud of death is following me. It’s followed me all the way to the first class lounge at LAX. I have never flown anything but basic economy on a domestic flight, but my illness has forced me to upgrade my life.

The cancer cells my doctors believed had vanished are back with a vengeance in my left hip and femur bone. My oncologist has told me that I have a year to live, with or without the new chemotherapy regimen. I was looking forward to being 30, flirty, and thriving. Guess I have to step it up on the flirting. I have no time to lose.

It’s funny, isn’t it? When we think we have all the time in the world to live, we forget to indulge in the experiences of living. When that choice is yanked away from us, that’s when we scramble to feel. I am desperate to overload my senses in the coming months, making reservations at the world’s best restaurants, reaching out to past lovers and friends, and smothering my family, giving them the time that I so selfishly guarded before.

I hate to use my illness as a tactic, but I swallow my guilt as I slip into Noma’s DMs to see if somehow the Copenhagen restaurant can accommodate a table for two for their already booked seafood season. I’m floored when I receive a reply from chef Rene Redzepi himself. Turns out that people respond when you tell them you’re dying of cancer.

In my wallet, I keep a crumpled cocktail napkin with a list of names scrawled on it. They’re people I need to make amends to before I go. I have to learn how to ask for forgiveness without expecting to receive it. It’s probably the most frightening thing I have ever had to do, and I’ve experienced some seriously terror-inducing moments.

I’ve spent more time in sterile hospital rooms in the past year than I have in my own apartment. This has become my new home, and the staff a part of my family. I wonder if I’ll accidentally call my nurse “Mom” when she sneaks in to check my vital signs in the middle of the night. My blood pressure always stays on the low side of calm. Everyone’s amazed that I’m taking it so well. But when you hit rock bottom, there really is no place to go but up.

An odd sense of relief has settled inside me, knowing that I can finally live for myself, even if it’s just for a few more precious months. I call a local hair stylist to come to my hospital room to dye half my hair platinum blonde and buzz the rest. He panics a little as he’s setting up, whispering to my brother in his thick Italian accent. “The dye… it won’t, uh, burn her scalp will it?” I tell him to carry on even if it does. It’s the only sense of control I feel like I have right now. I have embraced my alter ego. She doesn’t hold back.

“I love your hair!” they all say when I’m done. They think I’m brave, but really, I’m not. I’m scared. I suspect I won’t last very long. There’s a faint feeling deep inside my gut like a rumble of passing air, ever expanding and filling slowly until, one day, I’ll pop.

Until then, every day is an opportunity for me to experience something new. I used to dream of owning my own restaurant. Now I have an ever growing list of the ones I need to visit. From decadent uni and truffle toast at Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare to spice-laden Szechuan hot pot in Flushing, I’m sketching a plan to eat my way through New York and the boroughs while I can.

I think back to my favorite movie of all time, American Beauty. “I don’t think that there’s anything worse than being ordinary,” Mena Suvari says as she sits with Kevin Spacey’s lecherous character. I was always deathly afraid of being average in any way, and now I desperately wish to have a simple, uneventful life.

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