Ben Macdonald: Cooking With Chemo

What you put into life is what you get out of it. And what you put into your body will see your body either rewarding or punishing you in return. As our Superfood specialist Candice Roat notes in the autumn issue of MyCityLife Magazine #02 with her article The Powers of Natural Foods, she acknowledges that the food we eat affects our moods and health. This is especially so when the body is fighting for its life. 

While Ben Macdonald has become a household name through Masterchef, the New Farm character’s connection with food has traversed through a unique and fascinating journey. Certainly food is part and parcel of our every day lives, but our experiences with it forges quite the unique relationship.

Ben grew up amongst New Zealand’s lush greenness on a farm in the North Island’s Whangarei. But a propensity for geekiness and an interest in design and manufacturing led him into IT where he was able to jet set across the globe as a part of his career. From the US to all around Europe, his foodie palate was well educated in all cuisines from street foods to the finest tables, rustic traditions and innovative techniques. But it was in 2002 while in the UK that Ben would face a huge challenge – one that would test his health, and his love for food. Diagnosed with acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia, Ben spent six months in and out of hospital followed by three years of treatment.

This experience has left lasting impressions, which the Leukaemia Foundation of Queensland has called upon as part of an innovative programme. Cooking For Chemo aims to provide patients and carers ideas for creating easy, tasty and nutritious meals that will suit their changing tastes and lifestyle during treatment. This course of live cooking demonstrations will be followed by a series of videos set for release in the coming months. Lead by Billykart Kitchen’s Chef Ben O’Donaghue and uniting Ben’s own personal experiences and love for food, Dietician Peter Rhodes and Haematology/Oncology Nurse Amanda Ferguson complete this unique team for an initiative destined to positively impact upon lives. 

And so, following Session 1 hosted by The Golden Pig Food & Wine School, we sit down with the Masterchef challenger and discuss his personal experiences and challenges and how Cooking With Chemo could make all the difference.

You’ve had your own personal experiences with Leukaemia and dealing with chemotherapy: so many people are brushed by the bittersweetness that chemo brings. But with chemo, what was the one positive light you could see regardless?
For me, it didn’t matter what the odds were. If there was a chance of getting better, I was focussed on being on that side of the equation. There were some very difficult times, of course, but the support of friends and family and the expertise of the doctors and nurses is what helps get you through and stay on track. Food can sometimes seem like the last thing you want, but it is also the fuel that drives your body and you need it to get through the treatment.

What were the first things you noticed that affected your tastebuds and what can chemo patients expect to find with their tastebuds during their treatment?
I probably noticed my sense of smell changed first. I tended to favour simple flavours

What foods did you enjoyed eating before the treatment that you found were profoundly affected by it? How did you deal with this?
I love spicy food, but it didn’t appeal to me much during my treatment, so I steered away from Asian/Indian food to a degree. I would still eat it occasionally, but found it easier to fill up on things that weren’t so spicy or with too many complex flavours.

What were foods you were surprised by during treatment that you may never have considered to be so flavoursome?
When I was at my worst, during the most intensive chemo I wouldn’t eat much – if at all. The smell of food made me feel so ill that I would keep an orange by me bed and break the skin and smell it so that I couldn’t smell the food.

What foods are particularly soothing and helpful during chemotherapy? And years down the track now, how has your palate bounced back? Is it keener or less so?
Buttered toast is a lifesaver, as you can eat it even when you feel terrible. Energy rich foods were always great, such as pasta, polenta and risotto and I would add in cream, butter, cheese, olive oil and nuts to add more goodness where I could. After the treatment my palate returned to normal quickly. Having done even more travelling and tasting of foods, it has developed even more.

What are your thoughts on Leukaemia Foundation of Queensland’s initiative of Cooking with Chemo?
I think it is a brilliant concept and wish it had been done during my treatment. It will help patients know what to expect but also give them valuable information on nutrition and meals they will be able to achieve.

Ben Macdonald, Chef Ben O’Donaghue, Peter Rhodes and Amanda Ferguson will continue to present more sessions of Cooking For Chemo from The Golden Pig Food & Wine School. We’ll continue to update the details of this programme.

For more information, contact the Leukaemia Foundation of Queensland on 07 3055 8233 or email here.

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