Chef Thomas Lents has been in the Michelin system most of his career, but his biggest accomplishments lie elsewhere. When Tom received a life-changing colorectal cancer (CRC) diagnosis in 2015, his priorities and values shifted. So, too, did the way he saw his career.
“A lot of my CRC journey ties into my career as a chef,” Tom said. “It was one of the most difficult experiences I went through, but in the end gave me a much healthier relationship with my profession. It helped me create a work-life balance and was a blessing in disguise.”
The Beginning of Chef’s Shift
Tom didn’t always see things this way. Before his health challenges, Tom was on the fast track to prestige. He committed the majority of his life to the pursuit of Michelin stars and accolades, admitting it was “all-consuming.”
Then, in 2004 as a mere 31-year-old, Tom received a wake-up call when he was diagnosed with multiple aggressive precancerous polyps. He had them removed and began receiving regular colonoscopies.
“Most of the kitchens at this point in my career were male-dominant,” Tom said. “I used this experience to begin advocating for men’s health, something I’m still passionate about today.”
A Cancer Diagnosis That Catalysted Deeper Transformation
Unfortunately, Tom’s health problems didn’t stop there. In 2015, he was diagnosed with stage II colorectal cancer. A tumor that was missed on several colonoscopies started growing aggressively in size.
“Fortunately, Dr. Strong and the group at Northwestern led me through this journey. They had to remove part of my colon and refashion my rectum,” said Tom. “It was a lengthy recovery with a difficult transition. I had to figure out how to come back in a lower capacity to a highly stressful career.”
Tom tried to stay positive. In his mind, he saw his stoma reversal surgery as a sort of “finish line.” He was surprised when he found out he still had a long road of healing ahead.
“There was lingering fragmentation. I had to learn how to use my bowels again,” Tom said. “But I had this amazing opportunity to look at my values in life. I was forced to learn I could no longer operate at the previous level I had as a chef. So I started to delegate, take breaks, work less. I began developing teams and growing the people around me in order to remain successful.”
Development Over Accolades
Having gotten married in 2013, Tom knew he wanted children one day. Unfortunately, some of the surgeries he had undergone could lead to potential infertility. With so much going on physically and emotionally, he knew it was time to reach out for help.
“I tried to tough it out – as so many men do – and it was hard on my wife,” Tom said. “A friend put me in touch with someone who went through a similar situation, and he became a sort of mentor to me. He helped me to understand I was not alone and there is healing power in this experience.”
As Tom began to slow down and look at the bigger picture, his whole philosophy about cancer, work, and life changed.
“Cancer doesn’t stop after the surgery – the effects don’t stop there,” Tom said. “If you let it beat you mentally, that becomes a problem. You have to work through that.”
Chef Tom noted a huge difference in his persona before and after his cancer diagnosis. He went from having an accolade-driven independent mindset to emphasizing team building, delegating, and mentoring.
“Development and growth is where the value lies, rather than awards and achievements,” Tom said. “I found so much more meaning in the people around me than the accolades I had previously received. I used to dream of achieving and maintaining 3-star Michelin hotels. Now I just want to be able to retire and travel the world, eating great food from all of the chefs I’ve mentored.”
Tom now has a four-year-old son, something he could have only dreamed of before. He uses his newfound wisdom to teach others about his ideology on food, joy, and life.
Chef’s Philosophy on Food
Chef Tom’s unique philosophy on food may very well change the way you think about the hospitality industry.
“The way I’ve always looked at my role with food is I try to create joy. I want to create restaurants where people can find happiness and respite,” Tom said. “Fundamentally, I believe that’s the core of the hospitality industry – we cook with intent in a healthy and conscious way.”
As Tom works to develop more teams of food workers, he aims to instill his philosophy in those he teaches as well.
“My job now is to mentor chefs, pushing them to be the best versions of themselves, and helping their opinion, style, and character make it to the food on their plate,” Tom said.
Chef Tom to Speak at Blue Hope Bash Chicago
Not only is Chef Tom passionate about health, development, and the love and joy that goes into the food he creates, but he is also a firm believer in the Alliance’s mission. Tom will be speaking at this year’s Blue Hope Bash Chicago and looks forward to spreading his message to others.
Having grown up in Battle Creek, Michigan and now serving as Culinary Director for the Aparium Hotel Group, Chicago has been a part of Tom’s world for as long as he can remember. Speaking at Galleria Marchetti on May 11, he looks forward to breaking down stigmas about this disease and inspiring others on their path to recovery.
Learn more about the Blue Hope Bash Chicago and how you can get involved.
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