After battling the disease, the executive chef is back on track.
Six years ago, the life of Gahanna native Jonathan Olson changed. Then an up-and-coming chef at the Calistoga Ranch resort in Napa Valley, he was diagnosed at a local hospital with Burkitt lymphoma, a rare cancer known for its fast growth of tumors. He was in his early 30s.
“For four or five days my stomach was distended and I couldn’t eat,” recalls Olson, now The Keep’s executive chef at Hotel LeVeque. “I was in a lot of pain. At first I thought it was just indigestion. I was executive sous chef at the time and I told the chef that I had to get it checked out. I went to this tiny mountain hospital and they figured out pretty quickly that I had cancer.”
He immediately started chemotherapy and, after a week, flew back to Columbus where he resumed treatment at the James Cancer Hospital. The aggressive chemotherapy was tough on his body—and his mind. “The hardest part for me was that it started to affect my memory and my brain,” he says. “I knew I had a son, but I couldn’t remember his name,” he says, looking away as though the memory is still too painful to express.Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to our weekly newsletters.
The treatment was so difficult, in fact, that it was stopped and a stem cell transplant was recommended. Olson’s stem cells were removed from his body, washed and reinserted. He says he stayed optimistic, despite an arduous recovery and six or seven months in the hospital. Divorced, he moved in with his mother and stepfather while he underwent physical therapy to correct damage to his muscular system. “I had to learn to walk again,” he says. He wanted to be able to walk in the grass with his then-3-year-old son.
He considered changing careers, but cooking was a passion he discovered after trying more traditional colleges. With a degree from the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute and experience at three Ritz-Carlton hotels in Cleveland, Philadelphia and Boston, in addition to the Napa resort, he knew he wanted to continue in the industry. Thus, he challenged his stamina by doing small dinner parties for people in their homes. “I needed to test my feet,” he says. Eventually, he went back to work—first at the Black Creek Bistro and then the Renaissance Columbus Hotel’s Latitude 41. Finally, Marriott—the parent company of the Ritz-Carlton, his former employer—came calling: Was he interested in opening The Keep?
He took the job. During his work at the Ritz, Olson learned a lot from being immersed in its “food-centric” hospitality culture. “It’s fun to be in Columbus where we have an increased number of local purveyors,” he says. “We try to get the best products that we can. My job, as chef, is to try to enhance the products we get. We can have fun with interesting, vegetable-forward dishes that we create.”
At The Keep, Olson designs a variety of creative vegetable and salad dishes. Fresh seafood, pork, beef and poultry are also featured, as are a couple of vegetarian entrées. Salt and sugar are used thoughtfully. Certainly, the desserts—the Buckeye Bar, Beignets, Spiced Pear Cake—are sweet and memorable.
About the cancer? “I’m convinced it was stress,” says Olson, who maintains that he led a fairly healthy lifestyle. “I have made conscious, life-changing decisions like knowing when I need to step away from my work. I do love what I do, but it can be all-consuming.”
Two years ago as Olson continued to recover—attempting to replenish his autoimmune system and readying The Keep for opening—a second miracle occurred. “Pretty much, I had been told that I’d never have kids again,” he says. A week prior to the restaurant’s debut, he learned that his second child was on the way. By that point in his recovery, Olson was in a serious relationship with another Gahanna native, and their son will be 2 in April.
“Moving forward, prioritizing life as a whole is really important,” he says. Olson, who regularly participates in Pelotonia, is working with the JamesCare for Life Program to do an invitation-only, hands-on cooking demonstration and dinner in January for young cancer survivors.
Reprinted from Columbus Monthly Health 2020.