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Food & Wine As his partner battled cancer, chef Jérôme Ferrer helped the best way he knew how: he cooked

Chef Jérôme Ferrer poses in his restaurant in Montreal on Feb. 13, 2018.

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

Seven years ago, the life of Jérôme Ferrer, a renowned Montreal chef, took a drastic turn. It was late at night during a party when his partner, Virginie, suffered a second late miscarriage in a few months of trying to get pregnant. Several hours later at the hospital, five doctors came into Virginie's room to announce to the couple that the 36-year-old, non-smoking woman had stage 4 lung cancer.

It was like "thunder" had hit the couple, who had waited years to start a family as they established their careers. Ferrer, a French-born chef who arrived in Canada in 2001, is at the head of several famous culinary establishments in Quebec, including his bistro Beaver Hall and Le Cellier du Roi. His most famous restaurant, Europea in Montreal, is one of the 14 Canadian establishments and four free-standing restaurants with the exclusive Relais & Châteaux label, a list of some of the finest hotels and restaurants in the world. At the time of her diagnosis,Virginie was working with him on the administration side. They had met as young adults while in a hotel and restaurant training school; although it took more than a decade before the timing was right, they became a couple in 2004.

While his own father had died from the same disease, the chef was in shock and at a loss at how to handle his wife's diagnosis.

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"The only weapons I had for me were my know-hows: cooking," Ferrer said.

Ferrer obsessively devoured dozens of books and scoured the internet to find information about food and cancer. Most of the literature he could find in French focused on foods that were said to prevent cancer, but those were useless at this point. He eventually found a few pieces of advice here and there, such as removing all spices from his cooking to make it more palatable. It was a first step but not enough, he said.

He could see Virginie losing her smelling and tasting abilities because of chemotherapy. Her appetite was gone and she would sometimes force herself to drink tiny bottles of meal replacement made of water, lactose and soy protein, recommended by doctors when she was not too nauseous to ingest something.

"I felt so powerless and yet it was my own field: cooking, the transformation of recipes, of products," he said.

With so little information available, Ferrer remembers deciding to become a "sorcerer's apprentice" and figure out a way to help Virginie with food through trial and error.

Cooking and eating had always been a big part of their life as a couple. It was never the same thing. One day it would be traditional French cuisine and the next Asian, African or Spanish fare. Ferrer and his wife had always been passionate about cooking not just for themselves but also to entertain their family and friends, including Virginie's 10-year-old son from a previous relationship.

Helping Virginie eat while she was sick was more than a way to keep her as healthy as possible for Ferrer – it was also a way for him to help her continue with her social life and make her smile.

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For a little more than a year, every Wednesday after her chemotherapy session, the couple had a ritual. Ferrer would make Virginie a bath with candles. While she relaxed, he would cook a simple soup and set a beautiful table. It was always a different soup. It had a base of vegetables and he would add a boiled egg, cooked fish or some chicken which he would blend. The result was a creamy soup with a granular texture. Sometimes she would be able to enjoy part of the meal and other times she would have to run to the bathroom to be sick.

But Ferrer didn't give up.

"It sounds stupid but there's a psychological side to having a meal," he said. "Feeding herself like everyone else was also her way of saying, 'I exist like everyone else.'"

Ferrer eliminated food and meals that were too greasy, too cooked, or raw. He stopped cooking cabbage: It gave off an odour of sulphur which made Virginie nauseous. He cut down on seasoning since it would create too much acidity for her stomach. He started playing with textures, and making fruit-juice popsicles, which would also soothe her uncomfortable dry mouth, a common side effect of chemotherapy. Candies, caramels and chocolates were good during chemotherapy sessions because they helped with the iron taste induced by the medication. Sometimes, he found that preparing several appetizers and putting them on the living-room table like tapas made it easier and more appealing for her to eat. She could take all the time she needed and take small bites at a time while talking or watching a movie.

But his magical moment came when he found one of her notebooks with her grandmother's recipe for stuffed tomatoes. "All of a sudden, she ate it in an almost gluttonous way," he remembered.

Virginie ate two full plates of stuffed tomatoes that evening. She couldn't explain why the meal didn't make her nauseous. It was not only easy but enjoyable to eat.

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In hindsight, Ferrer thinks it was because of all the memories it brought back to her. It was the first recipe she'd learned to make with her beloved grandmother from Provence, in southern France.

"The meal brought her back to a time when everything was fine, a time when there was no disease, there were no worries," he said.

Over the course of a little more than a year, Virginie's state slowly worsened and doctors told the couple there was nothing left to do but to let her go.

"When she left, there was a lot of misunderstanding, of anger, of mixed feelings," said Ferrer. "I even wished to immediately stop cooking because I thought that I would no longer be able to continue this job where you need to be happy to give happiness."

As he grieved for Virginie, an idea made its way to his mind: He would write a book to help people like him who had struggled to accompany a loved one through cancer. The book, Faim de vivre, was published in French in January. The title is a wordplay meaning both "end of life" and "hungry for life."

"Deep down I thought I'll write this book, a testimonial book, to help people – and maybe also to finish mourning, to close a chapter."

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Recipe: Stuffed tomatoes à la Provençale

Preparation time: 20 min

Cooking time: 25 min

Serves: 4 to 6 people

  • 6 large, ripe tomatoes
  • 1 cup ground pork
  • 1/2 cup of breadcrumbs
  • 1/4 cup minced parsley
  • 6 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tbsp herbes de Provence
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 350 F.

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Rinse the tomatoes well with cold water and slice into two. Place in an oven-safe dish.

Drizzle the tomatoes with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.

In a small mixing bowl, add the ground pork and breadcrumbs. Add garlic, parsley and herbes de Provence, and season with salt and pepper. Drizzle with olive oil and mix well. Form the mixture into 12 balls.

Place one ball on each half tomato.

Bake between 20 and 25 min.

Source: Jérôme Ferrer

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