As a chef of national celebrity, a published cookbook author, philanthropist, and a three-time leukemia survivor, Jack Witherspoon isn’t your average 13-year-old kid.
His story begins in 2006, when he was restricted to a hospital bed during his first relapse into leukemia – a disease he had already beaten once, when he was two. He lay in bed and absorbed Food Network shows like a sponge, retaining everything and feeling increasingly inspired.
He was six, and he decided he would become a chef.
Now, just seven years later, the television appearances and book signings and phone interviews have become near routine for Jack, a Redondo Beach kid who attends Richardson Elementary and likes to hang out with his friends and his brother and ride his bike.
He’s cooked on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” and appeared on “The Bonnie Hunt Show,” “The Rachael Ray Show,” CBD, KCAL, and Fox. His cookbook, Twist It Up, won best fundraising, charitable cookbook in the U.S. at last year’s Gourmand Awards. He has been a guest chef at Chez Melange in Redondo Beach, a guest judge at the New York Food and Wine Festival, and a guest star on the “Life After Top Chef” series featuring Fabio Viviani.
And this week Jack fulfilled a personal dream he conceived all those years ago in the hospital. Sunday night, he appeared on Food Network.
In late July, Jack spent two weeks in a downtown L.A. studio filming for “Rachael vs. Guy: Kids Cook-Off,” a four-part series that features Rachael Ray and Guy Fieri mentoring eight of their protégés from across the country. Jack is one of them.
He’s not allowed to say much about the show – the network is yet to run three more episodes – but he can explain how it works.
Rachael mentors half the kids, Guy the other half.
“I got the honor of being picked by Rachael, which was amazing and extra awesome because I’ve been on her show before,” Jack says.
The kid contestants study and cook and learn from their mentors and then they enter a cook-off, judged by celebrity chefs who assign point values to each dish and each kid. The series’ finale reveals the kid with the highest score, who wins a Food Network web series.
“Filming was just so awesome,” Jack says. “We got to learn from Rachael and Guy, people who I’ve been watching on the Food Network for so long. It was an amazing experience. Definitely the best cooking lessons I’ve ever gotten.”
For Jack, filming was also a rare chance to meet other kids his age who share his passion.
When they finished filming in August, Jack’s fellow contestants-turned-new-friends are scattered around the U.S., but he does his best to keep in contact with them.
As he enters another school year, Jack is in full remission and reports that everything is “going really well.”
He’s long displayed a buoyancy and optimism that has surprised even his parents. He told them, years ago, when he was re-diagnosed with leukemia: “Look, guys. We’ve already done this once. We can do it again.”
Now, if ever he thinks about cancer, it’s not with resentment but with a determination to raise money for pediatric leukemia research. To date Jack and his parents have organized charity events that have raised over $100,000 toward a cure.
“[Having leukemia] was real devastating but I got through it and I’m feeling great,” Jack says now.
“Now that I’ve gone through all this I don’t want to just be focused on my journey. I also want to focus on the fact that I’m following my dream and I’m cooking and I want to be a chef.”
His track record suggests he already is one.
Jack hopes his story inspires people to fight for their dreams, even if they are facing unfavorable odds. Sharing his journey on national television, he says, is a chance to “share my message with the world and show you can do whatever you want you just have to follow your dreams and persevere.”
Find Jack at www.chefjackwitherspoon.com or on Facebook. Check www.foodnetwork.com for air dates and reruns of “Rachael vs. Guy: Kids Cook-Off.” ER