On the marble countertop in Jeanette Chen’s New Canaan kitchen one Saturday morning are seven quarts of soup in plastic containers, along with a pint of something dense and orangey, all set for delivery.
Chen is busy doing the same thing she has for many years — preparing foods, at no charge, for a cancer patient in need.
“She loves tomatoes but can’t tolerate them because they’re acidic,” Chen says of the soon-to-be recipient, a woman fighting throat cancer. “So this is ‘tomato’ paste that’s all beets and carrots.”
“This is like my second calling,” she says. “When you’re cooking for your family or a needy person, you put a lot into it. It’s the way I show people that I love them, by cooking for them. You make a little time for someone and it can mean so much.”
Chen has been cooking almost her whole life. At 13 she studied cookbooks in order to prepare meals for a sick relative. Then at the University of Rochester she met her future husband, Michael, and often cooked for him and his suite-mates. Their sons (Ryan, 24; twins Jeffrey and Kyle, 22; and Alex, 15) have kept her busy in the kitchen … maybe too busy.
“We used to ask them to choose a restaurant on Friday nights but they usually wanted to stay home and eat their mom’s cooking,” jokes Michael.
“And on vacation, instead of staying in a hotel, they wanted us to rent a condo so I could cook,” says Jeanette. “For me it’s a treat to get out of the kitchen.”
Education and achievement
To have a second calling there had to have been a first one, and for Chen there sure was.
After earning an undergraduate degree in engineering, she would get an MBA at Columbia. A meteoric rise in corporate finance followed. Barely 10 years later she was a managing director at GE Capital in Manhattan.
“I moved up quickly,” she says.
“My area of expertise was company turnarounds and restructurings. I really enjoyed it, though it could be stressful work and I had to be thick-skinned. I was in my 20s negotiating with CEOs, telling them we may have to pull the plug and liquidate their companies.”
When she had her fourth child, Chen decided to become a stay-at-home mom. It was not an easy choice to make, and the transition was difficult.
“It was hard to leave GE Capital,” she admits. “It had been my whole identity. It took me three years to come down from that high. I’d spent days and nights with those people and didn’t really know anybody around here.”
Additionally, Michael’s parents moved in with them. His father had Parkinson’s disease, and as he grew weaker, Jeanette was determined to create and provide foods he could digest. She’d always enjoyed cooking, and now it was something important to do.
Son Alex also presented a food challenge when he was 9 years old.
“I like to figure things out food-wise,” says Chen. “When someone can’t eat something, I think, ‘What can I do?’ Alex had food allergies and intolerances years ago. He was allergic to like 20 things. For his birthday he wanted me to make him a calzone. He couldn’t have anything with gluten, couldn’t have tomatoes, and calzones have sauce, and couldn’t have dairy, so no cheese.
“I spent a whole day creating something that had no tomato, no wheat, no flour and no cheese, but looked and tasted like a calzone. He said it was so good. I was thinking, you have no idea how long that took!”
Aiding cancer patients
While working at GE Capital, a woman on her team named Francine was in the beginning stages of what would be a lengthy, courageous battle with breast cancer.
The two women were friendly but not friends. After Chen left the company she heard that Francine’s condition was worsening. Chen reconnected with her and one day Francine called, asking for a ride to the hospital.
“I dropped what I was doing and took her,” says Chen. “After that I went with her to doctor appointments. When you’re going through something like that it’s very lonely. People don’t know what to do. Her parents were out of state and her husband was busy working.
“She had cancer for eight years, in and out of the hospital. Toward the end I would visit her at home. Most people don’t want you to see them when they’re that sick.”
Chen did more than keep Francine company. She prepared special meals for her, making sure they could be eaten by someone struggling with cancer, and all that brings.
“I had to learn what to cook,” she says. “As I went along I learned the different side effects of drugs and medications, whether it’s mouth sores, having trouble chewing or swallowing, nausea, loss of appetite, and a change in taste buds. You have to stay nourished going through cancer treatments. Eating takes a lot of work for patients, a lot of energy. They’re tired. Sick people want foods they don’t have to work to eat, that go right down.”
Michael Chen notes that his wife’s devotion to Francine at the end was what impressed him most.
“After a while there was no hope; she was going to succumb to cancer,” he says. “A lot of people walk away because they don’t know what to do. It’s end of life. Jeanette never walked away.”
One day Francine wanted to visit her friend and caregiver. “Her husband drove her over,” recalls Jeanette. “She didn’t have the strength to get out of the car. She dropped off a little gift and died a week later, at age 39. That was her way of saying thank you and goodbye.”
Some time later a woman named Thuy was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Jeanette made her a priority.
“Years before, we had children who attended the same elementary school, and I introduced myself when I was picking up my son one day,” explains Chen. “We went to lunch, then I did not see her for a very long time. When she got cancer, a friend of mine let me know, and suggested I give her a call, which I did.
“She had three young girls,” says Chen. “At the time I had four young boys and my in-laws living with us. I went to cook for her and her family. Her situation was sad. She had been a foster child and didn’t have any real friends. People were wondering why I was helping her so much. They didn’t understand that you help because you want to.
“I cooked meals and carved out time for her over the nine months she was alive, and it meant so much to her. It’s been about nine years since she died, also at age 39. I hadn’t seen her kids in so long, then reconnected with her oldest daughter who had just graduated from high school. We had lunch. She said her mom called me her best friend.”
Helping and learning
Over the last few years Chen has aided almost 10 more local cancer patients, cooking for them and providing whatever else they needed, whether it be driving them to appointments, sitting with them through chemotherapy treatments or simply encouraging them to stay positive. Most of them are doing well (see Survivor Stories sidebars).
Her knowledge of how and what to cook has grown significantly since first doing so for Francine.
“People with cancer and in treatment want to eat real food as long as possible,” she notes. “A lot of it is emotional and psychological. They know they will need to eat pureed foods at some point. I try to make sure what I prepare has visual appeal. Make it look good so they’ll try it, because they often have no appetite.”
Chen is a believer in molecular gastronomy, defined as a sub-discipline of food science that seeks to investigate the physical and chemical transformations of ingredients that occur in cooking.
“Food consistencies are so important for sick people,” she says. “When you can’t chew you have to be careful you don’t choke. There are certain ways of thickening foods, and ways of using cooking methods and certain ingredients to transform consistencies of foods. Making food into shapes is also something I’ve been curious about. Restaurants serve foods with shapes. Why not do that for the ill or elderly?”
A bigger impact
Jeanette and Michael Chen have been married for 29 years. Michael, who once worked with Jeanette at GE Capital and now owns a consulting firm, has always been thankful for his wife’s culinary skills.
“I grew up in New York City. My grandmother lived with us and made all the meals,” he says. “Every night was the same thing; a bowl of rice, some meat and milk. So for Jeanette to cook all kinds of things is great.”
A few years ago Michael suggested Jeanette start a website to share her ideas and recipes. “I told her she has a gift,” he says. “She’s showing it one at a time with people, when she could have a much bigger impact.”
He didn’t have to mention it twice.
The website — jeanetteshealthyliving.com — is a non-stop work in progress that mostly offers recipes, diets and healthy living advice. Jeanette is also spreading the word on social media, with many followers on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.
“I started to record my experiences and what I was cooking for people in cancer treatments,” says Chen. “I’ve been working on it a lot. It’s a place to share stories. I would like people to know that they can do what I’m doing. It just requires having a heart and taking the time. People are so busy. But if they can just carve out some time and make an effort it can mean so much to someone else.”
In addition to food-oriented information, Chen writes reflective, diary-style entries on topics generally revolving around her interpretation of the meaning of life. In one, she expresses her views on people helping others in these troubling times.
“I’m not a risk-taker by nature and risking my comfortable life feels a bit scary,” she writes. “But I’ve been wondering a lot lately about what life is really meant to be. There’s got to be more to it than just working day in and day out, or retiring and playing golf, tennis or doing whatever we like. Shouldn’t we be doing something to make an impact that will make this world a better place before we’re gone?”
The site now has sponsors, and Jeanette is thinking about what’s next. A cookbook is a possibility.
Loving living here
The Chens knew they had a choice to make with their youngest son headed off to college in a year or so.
“Growing up in the city I always dreamed about having grass,” says Michael. “As an adult I’ve lived in Stamford and New Canaan, and love it here. We’ll soon be empty-nesters and decided that this is our home. Instead of downsizing and moving away we’re doubling down and finally finishing our basement. This is where we want to be for another 10 or 15 years.”
His wife agrees.
“I’ve lived in Connecticut since I started working,” says Jeanette. “I like the suburbs, the four seasons and going for long walks. So many towns in Connecticut have a quaintness and are family oriented, with fireworks on the Fourth of July and parades on holidays. The schools are great and I love the convenience of being close to New York.”
That settled, Jeanette is content to grow her website, cook for and help the sick, and is also getting more involved with community nonprofits. She wants to start giving cooking classes, as well, but that has been put on temporary hold as this spring she moved her 90-year-old aunt to Connecticut, and has been caring for her, as she has no other family.
It has not been easy for Jeanette to do what she does with cancer patients.
“You get attached to people you’re helping. You dive in and sometimes they die and it’s hard, really hard,” she says. “We’re not alive just to have a good time. Life wasn’t meant to be easy. It’s the way you look at things. We have so much to be grateful for. I used to try and plan into the future. But you see people die young and realize you need to just enjoy every day, because you don’t know. So I try to live each day with purpose.”