'Top Chef' Star Fatima Ali Penned Inspiring Essay About Dreams Before She Died of Cancer
By Tina Smithers Peckham
Tommy Garcia/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
Two months before her death, Fatima Ali took steps to ensure that her memory -- and her inspiring outlook -- lives on.
The former Top Chef contestant penned an essay in late November for Bon Appetit detailing her life, her love of food, and her final months following a terminal cancer diagnosis. The piece on Ali, who died on Friday at the age of 29 from a form of bone cancer called Ewing's sarcoma, will run in the magazine's March issue but has been posted early online to "share her perspective and honor her memory."
Ali began her essay describing a few fond memories from her childhood in Pakistan, where cooking quickly became ingrained in her entire being. She detailed her early days, including some tough times paying her dues, as a junior chef and manager at a series of New York restaurants following graduation from the Culinary Institute of America in 2011.
"Managing to get through a day like that -- and not only living to tell about it, but doing it again and again -- I think it really makes you understand what a human is capable of," she said, recalling one difficult day in particular. "We’re so resilient. If I had to do it all again, I wouldn’t change anything."
The fan favorite then opened up about her initial cancer diagnosis in 2017, which almost immediately landed her in chemotherapy.
"Honestly, until your first chemo cycle, I don’t think it really hits you," she shared, adding that she thought she was in the clear at one point. "Then your hair starts falling out, and finally you’re like, 'This is actually happening. This is the rest of my life.' I did eight rounds of chemo. It was horrible, but at the end, my scans were all clear. I thought I’d beaten it. Then it came back. Worse than before. It was metastatic. It had spread to my lungs. The doctors told me I had a year to live."
It was at that point when Ali decided that cancer or the time she had left wouldn't hold her back -- she intended to "make the most of it."
"I was like, 'You know what? Stop feeling sorry for yourself,'" she wrote. "I‘ve been to hospitals in New York and I‘ve been to hospitals in LA, and when you‘re around that much sickness, and you see people from all sorts of backgrounds, all sorts of ages, in all stages of disease -- it really gives you perspective. Because even now, it could be so much worse than it is. I‘m still very lucky to be able to do a lot of the things that I love."
The celebrated chef decided to use cancer as an "excuse to actually go and get things done." Her intention on how she wanted to live out those last few months? "To live my life. To fulfill all those genuine dreams I have. It’s easy to spend weeks in my pajamas, curled up in my bed, watching Gossip Girl on Netflix. I could totally do that. And don’t get me wrong, I still watch Gossip Girl. But now I’m doing things. I’m going out to eat. I’m making plans for vacations. I’m finding experimental treatments. I’m cooking. I’m writing."
Ali also shared that she partnered with her brother to write one recipe a day in a notebook, which she hoped he might publish one day. She also spent much of her final days eating at "a lot of restaurants" throughout New York, describing a time she and her family noshed on "melt-in-your-mouth Seekh kebabs."
Ali also recalled a recent conversation with her brother that put some perspective on her own mortality.
"My brother and I were talking the other day and he made an interesting point. He was like, 'As chefs, you guys deal with death every day.' And he’s right," she shared. "When you’re a chef, you understand the circle of life. We're butchering rabbits, whole hogs, and baby lambs; we’re filleting fish and cleaning shrimp. All these things have died for us. I suppose you have to see it as the natural progress of life. Perhaps I've had to face it a little bit sooner than expected, but it's not an unfamiliar feeling."
The star concluded that while she was living her life to its fullest, she was still very, very scared.
"There are days that I'm exceptionally afraid," she admitted. "There are days I sit alone and cry, because I don't want to do it in front of my family. And there are other days that we all sit down and cry together, because it is such a scary thing. But at the same time, you can't let that fear cripple you. It's harder being miserable than it is to be happy."