#MondayMotivation: So You Beat The Unbeatable—Now What?

Chef Steve McHugh faced down a life-threatening diagnosis. Now, his restaurant stands in tribute.

June 12, 2017 ● 3 min read

As told to Priya Krishna by Steve McHugh | Photograph by Josh Huskin

I was working for Lüke, one of John Besh’s restaurants in New Orleans, doing 500 covers a night, when one day I started to feel really sluggish and slow and tired.  

I couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong, but I kept leaving work early and coming in late.    

I went to my doctor several times, but he couldn’t find anything. I went to a specialist—still, nothing. I went to an allergist, who finally ordered me a CT scan, and there it was: a tumor in my chest that was blocking some veins that relieved blood from my head. That was why I was having headaches and swelling—that tumor was cutting off my blood supply. I had lymphoma.    

Right before my diagnosis, I told John I would move to San Antonio to help him open a restaurant. I started to wonder whether it was worth it to move in the midst of all of this. I asked my doctor, and he said that the last thing I should do is to stop living my life. So I moved to San Antonio, found a great oncologist, and starting going through chemo, all while helping John open his restaurant. I was undergoing treatment at the same time that I was setting up supply chains and meeting with contractors and farmers. But going to work was what kept me sane.    

I distinctly remember the day I was declared in remission—it was the fall of 2010, right around the time that we opened up the restaurant. It was the greatest feeling. When you have cancer, even though you are trying not to, you end up putting a lot of stuff on hold, like travel, and buying a house. You just don’t know what the future will bring, so it was this huge relief.    

I worked at John’s restaurant in San Antonio for two years, but after a while, I started to think about the long term. My lymphoma had forced me to put my life into perspective, and I decided that, even though I loved John, I needed to live more on my own terms. When an opportunity to open my own restaurant came up, I decided to check it out. It was an amazing space, but it needed serious rehabbing. Any developer in their right mind would have torn it down. But I was working with an amazing owner who was asking me what my vision was, and what kind of food I wanted to cook.  

I decided the concept behind my restaurant would be about letting my ingredients decide my fate. If we were going to buy whole animals from our farmers, we had to utilize every part. We weren’t going to take a 300-pound pig, cut it into some parts, and freeze the rest. I had a ton of experience curing and working with charcuterie, so I knew I wanted that to be a centerpiece of what we did. Someone on our marketing team presented me with the perfect name for the place: CURED—an homage both to the life I had led and to the menu I had developed.  

Having cancer was truly a humbling experience, and I never forget the people who helped to save my life. We donate a portion of our proceeds from each charcuterie plate to a different charity every month, and we hold an annual dinner to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.  

The restaurant has had an amazing run. We’ve been open for three and a half years, and we have tremendous opportunity in front of us. Being sick forced me to slow down and really think about how important the time I have is. 

I don’t need to kill myself trying to be some big-time restaurateur—I am just proud to look back at everything we have accomplished, and have still to accomplish, at CURED.