In the New York of the early 90s, I lost many of my friends to AIDS. I cooked and cared for one of them during the last six months of his life. It was an incredible experience that I am grateful for. It taught me two things: the value of service, and not to be afraid of dying. It also became the spark for my career switch later in life. As I wrote this article, I realized that I have in fact been reinventing myself my whole life. For many of you who are facing a need to find work again later in life, I hope you find inspiration in my story.
I am Ann Ogden Gaffney: a two-time cancer survivor, cook and lover of life.
My Career Beginnings
I started out as an artist, a painter, who became a knitwear designer, which morphed into a 30-year career in fashion. Fashion took me to Paris, where I lived for 12 years. Then I worked in New York as a high-end design consultant for industry giants like Calvin Klein, Saks and Barneys.
My fashion career allowed me to indulge in two personal passions: travel and food. I first traveled abroad at age 8 and began cooking at 12, learning Italian specialties from my Mom and sturdy British classics from my Dad. Moving to Paris was a revelation. My job took me all over France, Italy and the Far East, joyously sampling the local cuisine wherever I went. I not only ate in amazing restaurants, but I also ate in the homes of the families I worked with, experiencing the flavors of real home cooking first hand. I started to cook in earnest at home in Paris, pulling all the techniques and flavors I had come across into my own cooking, which helped me feel less homesick when the next phase of my life took me to live in New York. It brought me there at a difficult time.
Embracing the Unexpected
I received two cancer diagnoses in a row. The first, in 2001 was kidney cancer. I had surgery to remove a kidney and no further treatment bar CAT scans. I was lucky. Life went pretty much went back to normal. Not so with my second diagnosis three and a half years later, an unrelated breast cancer that required surgery, chemo and radiation. From my experience caring for my dying friend, I had the two tools to help me stay strong. I decided to take a hiatus from work to get through my treatment. This decision changed my life.
Stepping back from my career, I began to understand that there was life beyond fashion. My cooking skills had enabled me to cope with side effects in ways my fellow travelers in cancer couldn’t. They didn’t have the knowledge to turn special diets or nutrition recommendations into easy meals as I did. I started to help them with tips, then with recipes.
When my treatment was over, I took a meeting with a fashion client about a project. As he talked, I realized that I could no longer dedicate myself to skirt length trends or finding the right color blue for a shirt. I understood I’d been given a second chance. My heart was with the people in the cancer suite: I made my decision to leave fashion on the spot. In 2007 I decided to found the nonprofit Cook for Your Life.
A clear, well-crafted mission statement was needed to provide a framework for success. I wanted Cook for Your Life to give the cancer community the practical knowledge to use cooking as a tool to help them improve their nutrition during treatment, and to encourage healthy survivorship. And for free. Since I’d suffered from two completely different cancers myself, I wanted our mission to be non-cancer specific, so we could help as many cancer patients as possible. We eventually decided upon; ‘We teach healthy cooking to people touched by cancer”.
With our mission statement prepared, we began to shape the form and content of our classes. Despite being a great cook and knowing a lot about food, I knew nothing about the nuts and bolts of nutrition, or, beyond my own cancer circle, how to recruit patients to my classes or even where those classes could be held. I had to learn everything on the fly.
First I traversed the Internet to find information about food and cancer. I quickly realized it was a minefield of information and misinformation, so I started to pick the brains of the oncology nutritionists at my own hospital alma mater to see what I should trust. One of my chemo buddies introduced me to a chef, who took me to a local cooking school where I could negotiate kitchen space. Then I was introduced to the patient navigator of the breast center of a local hospital. She like my idea and had funding. She and I put our heads together and came up with a plan for what was to be my first – Cook for Your Life – cooking class. After seeing how the women who came to that first class reacted to the experience, I knew for certain that Cook for Your Life would be my future. I loved it.
Creating Opportunities for Myself and Others
Becoming a nonprofit allowed us to raise money for classes via tax-deductible donations and keep providing free programming. I put my ideas down into a business proposal, which I took to a retired businessman friend for review and advice. He unexpectedly offered to help me with seed money for classes and a lawyer to make our 501(c) 3 status happen. I broke down. I’d spent hours at the Foundation Center looking into ways of braving the maze of bureaucracy to set up the mechanics of becoming a nonprofit, and knew what an incredible gift this was. We officially received our nonprofit status in 2008.
Since then working in tandem with New York’s major hospital systems, our free classes and programs have served over 9,000 patients in person. In 2009 we were the first organization in New York to offer culturally adapted healthy cooking and nutrition programs in Spanish to the underserved community of Hispanic breast cancer survivors. This work has led to a National Institutes of Health funded collaboration with researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, and to several published academic papers on our work together.
In 2012 we launched our free recipe website which to date has had over 3 million unique visitors and will soon be available in Spanish. In 2015 came the cherry on the cake. My James Beard nominated cookbook for cancer patients, Cook for Your Life, was published.
My journey has been truly amazing. Looking back, there were signposts that pointed the way that I didn’t immediately see; cooking for my friend with AIDS was a harbinger of my future. Now I am a James Beard nominated, award winning cookbook author and food activist who runs a cooking nonprofit for cancer patients. In the end I believe it is important to stay flexible and be inquisitive, because the doors that open in life may not lead to where you first thought of going. Trust where the path takes you. You’ll know when it’s right.
Ann Ogden Gaffney is the founder and President of Cook For Your Life, an organization that teaches healthy cooking to people touched by cancer. Her book, Cook For Your Life, won the 2016 Books for a Better Life award for best cookbook and was nominated for a 2016 James Beard Award. To learn more about the organization or to find recipes, visit www.cookforyourlife.org or follow on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.