Chef makes a meal of surviving illness

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 June, 2011, 12:00am


Taryne Hall shows up in capri pants exuding vivaciousness and confidence, and it's easy to overlook her scarred right calf.

She's hardly typical - no one who had cancer at the age of 26 is, especially not one who recounts the six-year-old memory by saying: 'For me, cancer wasn't all that bad, I found a way to gain control through diet and surround myself with positive people.'

She's also articulate, attractive, the boss of leading Hong Kong catering company Relish Kitchen and blissfully in love with a fellow chef. And last week, she launched Relish Your Health, a cookbook she wrote, styled, photographed and printed - for free - for the Hong Kong Cancer Fund to hand out to cancer patients.

Yes, anything but typical.

For a year she had endured pain in her calf, which several doctors had diagnosed as persistent deep vein thrombosis. But shortly after moving to Hong Kong from London to be with her mother and sister, she had an operation on the leg, which led to the correct diagnosis on September 9, 2005: an 18cm-long peripheral nerve sheath tumour.

Hall says she was 'shell-shocked'. It sent her crashing from the high of the previous night, when she had pulled off her fledgling company's first major catering event, impressing 150 guests at the opening of Oi Ling Antiques on Hollywood Road.

A few days later, she had the first of three operations - an entire chunk of her right calf was sliced off, with skin grafts from her left thigh used to patch it up. Seven weeks of radiation therapy followed.

Throughout all this, she never believed she would die. 'Not a chance. I'm an optimist,' says Hall, who was born in Rotorua, raised in Auckland, developed a passion for cooking at age eight, and left home at 19 to travel the world and hone her craft. 'I asked myself, 'What can I do to keep going, be healthy and survive this?''

She had always been a conscientious eater, but now was more serious about diet than ever. Unlike environmental stress and other external factors, after all, food was something she could control.

She conducted extensive research into macrobiotics and other extreme diets thought to benefit cancer patients, but soon realised that they weren't sustainable. So, she decided to combine her knack for using ingredients with a new thirst for information on cancer-fighting foods, to find a realistic, middle-road approach in which whole foods could be enjoyed.

At Christmas 2005, with her radiation therapy completed, Hall returned to New Zealand, where she spent six months travelling around, soaking up the fresh summer air and sunshine, and cooking for friends and family. This, she says, was the beginning of her next chapter.

It was a healing journey of turning her newfound knowledge into recipes, the result being Relish Your Health. The cookbook is filled with mainly veggie-based recipes made with whole, organic and natural ingredients that had been used with success throughout her young catering career.

Despite the pages of healthy fare, she also advises readers in the book to indulge once in a while: a balance she calls 80 per cent good, 20 per cent naughty.

'I will still go out to a restaurant and eat absolutely everything on the menu with gusto, but most other times I make sure that the fuel - and I think of food that way, fuel - that I'm putting in my body is serving my body and doing good for me.'

Cancer-free for six years and back on track with a full life, Hall, an avid skier, is determined to lead a positively charged life.

'There are things that limit me, but I just do it anyway. On long treks, for example, my leg starts to ache after a while,' she says. 'But I just push through; I don't let it stop me. I don't use it as an excuse.'

Three of the best

Taryne Hall's top three tips:

Where possible, omit refined oils, refined flours and sugar. I still eat pizza and burgers, but I make it a special occasion. Don't eat mindlessly; be conscious of eating and enjoying food.

Introduce good things into your diet: antioxidants, berries, pomegranates, juices, whole grains, good oils (like Udo's oil). If you get your 80 per cent good, then you can have your 20 per cent bad. (For me that's wine.)

Exercise. It brings peace of mind and happiness, and circulates oxygen - the kryptonite to cancer.