The right ingredients

Firms and lawyers get in the kitchen to help cancer patients

Photo courtesy of Culinary Care
Photo courtesy of Culinary Care
March 2020
By John McNally
Managing editor

Courtney White remembers how much her dad, Barry, a former partner at Mayer Brown, loved food.

“I was definitely raised to think about lunch while we were eating breakfast and dinner while we were eating lunch,” she said. “It was pretty much what got him through each day … looking forward to food he was going to have.”

Then food took on a whole new meaning for White when her father died of lung cancer in 2006. Meals during Barry’s chemotherapy treatments were a time when White, and her family, could spend more time with her father.

It was a learning experience for White as she saw families struggle to get proper nutrition as patients undergoing chemotherapy typically aren’t given meals as the treatment is usually considered an outpatient procedure.

White was lucky enough to have a community bring her family meals they could share together while Barry underwent chemotherapy.

This sparked an idea with White.

As a result, she created Culinary Care, a nonprofit organization that she says has provided more than 15,000 meals to patients and their families. Culinary Care’s website (culinarycare.org) notes that there are 125,000 cancer deaths each year that are “a direct consequence of malnutrition.”

The meals are free and prepared by a host of local restaurants the organization has partnered with to help ease a little bit of the burden families in need experience during such stressful times. White said the organization provides 300 meals per month.

In 2015, White and Culinary Care have created its annual Corporate Cook-Off fundraiser where law firms and other groups throughout Chicago have given money and their time to help create meals, with some friendly competition tossed into the mix. White noted that Mayer Brown helped her get Culinary Care off the ground and has taken part in the Corporate Cook-Off event — which has become the group’s biggest fundraiser of the year. The event comprises an interactive cooking challenge — White said it’s like the Food Network’s “Chopped,” but less aggressive — where firms are paired with a local chef to create a healthy meal for a cancer patient. The teams are judged and at a fundraising gala the winners are announced.

“We wanted to do something that was fun and interactive because that’s what food is,” White said.

Foley & Lardner partner Michael Kasdin is impressed by what White has created. He has known her for more than 10 years as White is married to one his oldest friends and Kasdin has been attending her events since its inception when he worked at Dentons. He brought a group of colleagues from that firm and now he’s hoping to get Foley & Lardner to get involved on a deeper level.

“I can’t even get my mind around how’s she’s done this,” he said. “I’m talking to management right now about getting the firm to get behind it. I’m hoping we can give them some real money.”

Kasdin’s appreciation and respect for Culinary Care’s mission goes beyond his friendship and respect for White. Kasdin’s wife is a cancer survivor and he understands how lucky they were to have the means to provide her with proper meals and nutrition.

“We were in a unique position as we could afford the food being brought in. I could afford to have someone cook while she was basically just trying to stay alive,” he said. “To think about having to do that without the means just blows my mind. I can’t imagine dealing with everything else you’re having to deal with and then have to worry about how you’re going to eat.”

Toby Eveland, a partner with Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr, brought his firm to Culinary Care’s event for the first time last year. He’s itching to get back to the cooking station this year. Last year, the firm was in the low fiber division and he learned that fiber could be difficult for cancer patients to digest.

The team of 10 employees — the maximum a team can have, according to White — made a grilled shrimp and papaya salad with homemade rice crackers and cilantro vinaigrette. Eveland said Culinary Care was brought to his attention by a lawyer who lives in Lincoln Park who wanted to add it to Saul Ewing’s list of initiatives.

“It just looked great and we thoroughly enjoyed it,” Eveland said. “We’re really impressed with the program there. We were honored to get to partner with Culinary Care that has such a worthy mission of supporting cancer patients and their families with great meals. In our family, food is love. That was the mindset we embraced with the competition. We did not win, but I thought our dish was fantastic.”

Having firms such as Mayer Brown, Foley & Lardner, Saul Ewing and others in the corner of Culinary Care had been one of the biggest factors in the success of the nonprofit.

“It makes a huge difference, particularly when you’re going out and talking to restaurants about getting involved and donating meals,” White said. “Having somebody in the community that is so well respected being that first belief system is a huge help.”