By Douglass Williams, as told to Champ Clark
I was diagnosed with Crohns when I was 16. We knew something was wrong. At first, they thought it was appendicitis, but the doctors at Childrens Hospital in Philadelphia rightly identified it as Crohns disease.
Crohns is an inflammation of the intestines, and mine was smack in the middle between the lower and upper intestine, where the ileum is. The ileum is the prime spot where nutrients go to get absorbed by the body, and the doctors removed 6 inches of intestine and then connected everything back together.
Ill never forget when I came out of surgery, there was a big plate of steaming food delivered to the room. A hot dog, fries, applesauce, milk. What the hell? It made no sense. But that just goes to show you where the mindset was with Crohns back then. It wasnt taken seriously as a disease that could be treated with a focus on diet. It was a disease that was treated with medicine. Period.
Difficult Teen Years
After I got out of the hospital, I lost about 80 pounds. I was a shell of my former self and I couldnt just be a normal teenager. Imagine youre 16 and youre in the back of your best friends car and theres a girl with you. And you go to a drive-thru. Everybody orders burgers, fries, and sodas. And then you have to stick your head out the window and say, Can I have a burger, with no bun, no ketchup, no fries, no soda, maybe lettuce on the side?
It was awful! And it was awfully embarrassing having to crap and piss all the time and not know exactly when it was going to happen and what to do about it. You cant play in gym because your stomach hurts, and its impossible for anyone to really understand, particularly other kids. You just want to go into a dark room and crawl into a ball, and thats pretty much what I did.
My dad was a chef and my mom was a cocktail waitress, so I was kind of born into the hospitality business. I wanted to be a chef too, but how could I possibly do that? I couldnt even eat the things I wanted to eat. But then I thought, I can make a mean-ass omelet. The only thing I was able to eat at the time was eggs, and I was eating them every day. So I cooked omelets, I did souffls. Eggs became my specialty and kept the cooking bug alive until, at 18, I got my first kitchen job at a restaurant working you guessed it the omelet station! And thats when I saw my future and realized that becoming a chef could also heal me.
Soon after, I went to culinary school. When I got there, it was, Uh oh, I have to taste things now! How am I gonna figure this out?At first, I was taking bathroom breaks so I could spit out food that would otherwise trigger my Crohns. But I couldnt keep doing that because I had to stay in the classroom. But every cooks station has what are known as Slim Jims rectangular trash cans that sit up against the table youre working at. I know it sounds strange, but that turned out to be a life saver.
I developed a great longing for the texture of food, for the flavor, the sensation, the emotion of every bite. Like the crispness and crunch of a sourdough roll on the outside and the warm chewiness inside. Its all so comforting, and when you cant eat the foods you want the foods you love you lose that feeling. It does something to you. Youre so limited. You feel a void.
Dealing With Stress
But this is what I discovered about myself: Crohns is all about dealing with stress. Medicine helps with inflammation, but what hit the switch on my remission was managing stress. I dont mean kitchen stress. On the contrary, the kitchen was my refuge. It was where I went to get away from all the stuff that can get you down why doesnt this girl like me, societal pressures, and a million other little things I shouldnt have been worrying about.
So I learned how to calm myself and let life play out the way its going to play out. I do transcendental meditation, which, for me, is a great release. I also love to read and travel. Reading gives me a type of solidarity with my own condition, and travel gives me a deeper appreciation for the human condition. That combination along with cooking has helped keep me in remission for the past 10 years.
People in kitchens all tend to do something to help them get through the night: they drink, they smoke, some drug. Its really hard work. When I got into the kitchen is when I started to heal. Having Crohns saved my life because it forced me into a corner. I felt like a shark in the water with only one fin. I had to swim twice as hard just to survive. I put everything I have into my cooking, and at the same time, I was forced to have a long-distance relationship with the food I wanted to eat. I had to claw my way back, one bite at a time.
Food as Healing Energy
The foods that help me the most mentally and spiritually are foods cooked with love by others. I, of course, can cook for myself, but because I taste a good hundred times before I finish a dish, my palate gets fatigued. Somebody cooking for you is one of the most beautiful acts of kindness there is. Its a nurturing, nourishing gesture that I have never taken lightly. It immediately puts me at ease and transmits a healing energy that completely opens me up. And when Im cooking for others, I pour the exact same energy into that dining experience. Its all about healing through food physically, psychologically, and emotionally.
My advice for foodies with Crohns is to make a list of things you like and are longing for. Sweet, savory, saucy, crunchy, whatever it is that does it for you. And then try to find the healthy equivalent to those things. Discover whats out there. The things you discover that you can and like to eat will lead you to more things you can eat. You might even find that you end up liking those things more than the original. Simply put: Focus on what you love to eat and can eat. And dont let stress rule your life.
Having Crohns sucks, but I wouldnt change it for a second. It made me who I am.
Douglass Williams is the owner and top chef at MIDA, an Italian restaurant with two locations in Boston, Massachusetts.In 2020, the 37-year old father of two was recognized as one of Food & Wine Magazines Best New Chefs in America. Williams was also a James Beard Award Semi-Finalist in the same year and is a 2022 James Beard nominee for Outstanding Chef.