Jason considers himself a professional people person — and for good reason, with a lifetime working in the restaurant industry his character, and reputation, is well established. He knows, equally well, that presentation matters — a garnish on your plate, the manager remembering your name, the very expression of care. Feeling loved, feeling cared for, is of intangible value.

Throat cancer threatened to take away Jason’s everyday, but at Northwestern Medicine, he found the treatment that saved his life, with the same care and hospitality he’s made a profession identifying.

When Jason learned he had stage IV squamous cell carcinoma of the throat, he underwent a neck dissection. He told his friend what was happening and she had a suggestion.

“She was the one that said, you know what, my father went through cancer as well and he was treated at Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University,” Jason remembered.

Shortly after that, Jason met his new team.

Throat cancer scan

“It was life changing,” Jason said. “I got personalized, specific care. All the people I would talk to I met from the get-go: This is the Lurie Cancer Center team that will be working with you, they’ll meet every Monday and talk specifically about your case. This is your head nurse, this is your oncologist, your radiation oncologist, your doctor for check-ups. Everything was so dynamic in a way that made me feel like I was being cared for.”

Stage IV squamous cell carcinoma is the most advanced form of throat cancer. While curable, it can cause complications affecting the ability to swallow, eat and speak. Before arriving at Northwestern Medicine, Jason’s left tonsil and all of the lymph nodes on the left side of his neck had been removed. His new team created a treatment plan that involved a seven and a half week course of daily radiation and weekly chemotherapy.

Meanwhile, a personal recurring nightmare had come to life when Jason’s treatment required all but seven of his teeth to come out. As a food lover, public speaker, and someone who simply likes to smile, it was one of the hardest parts of his experience. And it affected his everyday on multiple levels: Fine dining is one of Jason’s passions, not to mention his livelihood, and the loss of his taste buds was a shock. Moreover, Jason is a people person. He works front-of-house and spends considerable time with guests at his establishments. As he likes to say, your smile is your business card. Dentures at 47 felt tragic.

And it affected his everyday on multiple levels: Fine dining is one of Jason’s passions, not to mention his livelihood, and the loss of his taste buds was a shock.”

“It was a big blow to my confidence and my self-esteem,” Jason admitted.

Today, he is optimistic. He can enjoy food again, too: About six months ago, all of a sudden, sensation returned in his mouth. He’s not operating at full capacity — taste buds can take up to five years to regrow and they significantly impact saliva production, making chewing and public speaking strenuous — but Jason is staying positive.

“Not only am I in remission for two years,” Jason said. “But I think as a human being, I’m really whole and in a good place mentally.”

Jason has worked in the people business for as long as he can remember. The moment his parents told him he could not work in the restaurant industry was the moment he knew he would do nothing else. His mother and stepfather, who had immigrated from Korea and China respectively, worked together, cocktail waitress and bartender, at a number of historic restaurants and nightclubs in the late 60s until opening their own Irish pub in Andersonville.

It was above that Irish pub that Jason grew up, cleaning the bar for five bucks. He would pretend to be a bartender, pretend to be a short order cook, pretend to be a waiter. His parents’ desire for their son to look outside the restaurant industry only increased his fascination with the field. “I lived this whole fantasy life,” Jason remembered. “And the only thing that’s different between fantasy and reality is action.”

Jason went to college, by which time his parents had sold the bar, turning their attention to a fine art gallery on Michigan Avenue. Yet, not far from their gallery and unbeknownst to them, Jason was working at a restaurant.

Jason and his parents

While cooking has and always will be a passion, Jason quickly found his way to front-of-house, never looking back. “Everyone is born with a gift, and my gift is people. Being a maître d’, being a manager, being on the floor, making people feel good, making people feel special,” Jason said of his skillset. “I’m a people pleaser.”

Really the most amazing thing I felt from the minute I walked through the front door was the amount of care and hospitality and love.”

Jason credits his parents with teaching him the essence of hospitality. It’s something, a quality, he’s become finely attuned to and something he immediately picked up on during his throat cancer treatment.

“Not service, but hospitality. Service is what happens to you and hospitality is what happens for you,” Jason explained. “I think the one thing that makes the biggest difference for patients at Northwestern Medicine, whether they know it or not, is the level of hospitality they receive. Obviously the facilities are so modern and the accommodations so accommodating, but really the most amazing thing I felt from the get-go was the amount of care and hospitality and love. I felt taken care of from the minute I walked in.”

Jason and his girlfriend

Another invaluable source of care was his girlfriend, who quit her job and moved in with Jason to help him cope with the changes. She was his rock, his hope, his foundation and his inspiration throughout his recovery.

Now, Jason spends his days working on his latest venture, a new sushi spot. His physician views his cancer as cured; his taste is coming back. He still cooks for himself and for fun. His everyday looks similar to what it once was, but with one significant impact.

Jason has a theory that people who experience or survive cancer go through something of a paradigm shift. It’s somewhat counterintuitive, but true — you don’t sweat the little things, but you also value the small stuff so much more.

A restaurant owner swinging by your table, personally thanking you for coming in. A doctor respecting your time, caring about your health with a personal touch. As any restaurateur can tell you, never underestimate the impact of a garnish.

Making an #ImpactEveryDay