Again, I am sorry to have not written in quite a while, although I have been up to a lot more than I have been! I have had a crazy amount of opportunities that I have gotten to experience and am totally grateful for having them. I have a lot to report on, so this will be an incredibly long blog, so be prepared to dedicate a nice chunk of time towards reading about my escapades!
I have gotten to meet some amazing people along my journey with cancer, one of them being Chef Deneb Williams. My mom once worked at the Firehouse Restaurant in Old Sacramento, and Chef Deneb was working there at the time, and still is. I believe the story went that Deneb read my blog and contacted my mom, hearing that I had wished to cook in an actual working kitchen. Deneb ended up offering for me to cook in the kitchen beside him and to learn the ways of the kitchen. I was thrilled! We were going to be making a duck dish, along with a sweet potato gratin and plum chutney. I was incredibly nervous for this experience, as I had never in my life worked or even cooked in a kitchen besides the one in my own house or in the houses of friends. In case one has never heard of the Firehouse Restaurant, it is a fine dining restaurant in Old Sacramento, which resides in an actual old firehouse that was turned into a restaurant. The inside of the Firehouse is like a beautiful, Victorian home with huge portraits and chandeliers hanging from the ceilings. The dining room is filled with tables and chairs, that although are placed close together, is more than plenty of room in the quiet atmosphere. After my adventures in the kitchen (which I will get to in a minute or so), my mom, dad, brother, and I came back to the restaurant for a dinner service. I had never been to a fine dining restaurant in my life, so I was very excited for the meal. To my surprise, on the bottom of the specials menu, was my name. Guest Chef Lauren McCoullough. Yes, they did add an extra “o” in the beginning, but this was an honor. Never had I imagined that my name would be on the menu, right beside Executive Chef Deneb Williams’ name. I hadn’t worked in the kitchen, slaving away and spending so much time and effort to make my way up in the kitchen as a career, to earn my name on that menu. The dinner menu was amazing- it did not have too many things to choose from, which was a relief as all of the items on the menu looked delicious. As much as I was tempted to get the duck that I had helped prepare earlier in the afternoon, I ended up ordering the beef carpaccio and the the stone crab tomato bisque. I knew that I would not be nearly hungry enough to eat a whole entree of the duck, so I went for two starters instead. They were both amazing- I was truly impressed, this made me glad at what I had chosen to eat.
Now to get to when I was working in the kitchen. It happened to be Western weekend, or something of that sort, in Old Sacramento, meaning that there was now dirt roads instead of the pavement, and a ton of traffic, as there was no street parking on the dirt roads, or even cars on the dirt road for that matter. My mom and I arrived at the Firehouse at probably 2:03, which was a few minutes late and I felt guilty about it, especially since I had not yet met the chef who made this all happen for me. We slipped into a door for employees only and were quickly joined by Chef Deneb. He was a tall man with curly, brown hair. He greeted me and then showed me around the kitchen. I was very overwhelmed- this was way out of my element and I was quite frankly, terrified. Deneb showed me the enormous walk-in fridges, one was for more of dairy products and produce, and the other was filled with what he called “mison plais” which is translated along the lines to “everything in its place”. These are the items that have already been prepared, such as a salsa or some meat that had been butchered and ready to be cooked, and even pureed garlic. There was another room that was meant for the spices, as well as some sugar and flour- baking essentials. Then we made our way into the kitchen, which was huge. There was an entire station that was for baking, a place for butchering meat, a place for frying food, ovens, and everything else you could possibly think of. Chef Deneb got me right to work, getting the ingredients for the gratin. We got some eggs, ricotta cheese, nutmeg, pepper, and heavy cream to make the base of the gratin. When combining the ingredients, I decided to get fancy and attempt to crack an egg for the first time in one hand. To my surprise, it was an easy success. Chef Deneb was impressed that I was showing off. To be honest, I was impressed as well. This was something that I had seen on TV before, but had never actually done it myself. I then got to use an immersion blender for the first time of my life, and was so excited! I have seen these in cooking competitions, and wow, I loved it! It made everything easier, but it was kind of scary because the blender stuck to the bottom of bowl I was mixing in, and surprised me. Chef Deneb then got to using the mandolin to peel some sweet potatoes. I decided that I was not going to try this, as mandolins are incredibly not user-friendly, making it easy for someone to slice a piece of flesh off of their hand. That, and my hands and sometimes whole body get twitchy, I think it is because of the medications that I am on, mainly methadone. Chef quickly got all of the sweet potatoes sliced. He then showed me how to lay the sweet potatoes in order to keep them neat. Basically, one row gets put down going horizontal, covered in the dairy mix I had earlier made with the blender, then another row of sweet potatoes are put on vertically. This is kind of like I imagine cross-stitching is. It was quite a labor of love, making sure everything was neat and well-distributed. This made sure that there was an equal amount of dairy and sweet potatoes, to make sure that the gratin was neither dry nor runny. Then we got down to make the chutney. We got out some plums, as they are in season and are nice and fresh. To get off of the skin easily, instead of boiling the plums- which takes quite a large amount of time, we quickly fried the plums. It sounded weird at first, but if you consider the logic behind it, it makes quite a lot of sense. As long as the oil in the fryer is hot enough, the skin gets cooked quickly and cracks a little. If the oil is not hot enough, it takes a long time for the skin to crack, which makes the plum sap up the oil, making it greasy. Since the oil was hot, the plum was not greasy at all and the skin was wiped clear off of the plum when rubbed by a washcloth. We added a few ingredients to a frying pan, along with the plums, to make the chutney. Chutney is basically a sauce- but what it has to have to be considered a chutney is any fruit or vegetable, sugar, and vinegar. That’s it. Chutney 101! Vinegar takes away the richness of something to make it a bit acidic, because the duck dish is so rich as it is, it needs to be cut by the chutney. I was so tired by the end of just making the two components, I opted out of helping with the duck. I had been in the kitchen for about an hour and a half, and was already tired. Deneb told me that in one day, a chef walks about 7 miles, just walking to and from the fridges and different cooking equipment. After my time in the kitchen, I totally believed it. Everything is so fast-paced, I broke a sweat in no time. I can honestly say that I am not cut out to be in the kitchen, well in restaurants that is. I am perfectly content being in the one at home! I will admit, in the pictures taken, I was not nearly as smiley as I normally am. I was under so much pressure that I put on myself, as Deneb was nice and teaching me the “why’s” of the kitchen, and going at a nice pace. I was just out of my element and was nervous. But I had such a good time there, it was amazing. So you guys should go and visit it as well!
One of my photographer friends, Gabriela Michanie, who photographed me to make me feel like a model, set me up with a helicopter ride. Yeah, you read that right, a helicopter. She did all of the communication for me on that, as I do get a little bit of social anxiety now, mostly on the phone, and I truly believe she understood that. She asked me what time I was available, and set up a time for me to go on a two-person helicopter ride. This was through Cutting Edge Aviation, based on McClellan Airfield in Sacramento. Turns out that the owner of the company, or a pilot, fund-raised to get me the ride. I do not quite know the details behind it. I will be honest, I got very nervous because I did not know exactly where I was supposed to be. I called, and then was quickly told where I was supposed to go, which was so nice! I saw how cute the helicopter was, and was so excited immediately. The pilot was so nice- he even let me drive the aircraft for a little bit. I can honestly say that I believe if I were in an emergency situation, I would be able to fly the helicopter. It was difficult to steer, as there is only one lever to control the helicopter. One lever, which determines the direction the helicopter goes in, the altitude, and turning it. That took quite a lot of muscle! When I was operating it, I went about 75-80 mph, and when the pilot was driving, he we went up to 100 mph. It was interesting, the higher the altitude, the slower the speed, and vice versa. We went over Sac State, Folsom Prison, and the American River. We got to ride for about 45 minutes, which was really cool. We had to talk through headphones because the helicopter was so loud. It was a fantastic experience, and at the end of the ride, when we were starting back on the runway, I believe he shut off the engine, and we dropped quickly, which made me jump and scream (he did warn me though) and then we slowly went down the runway and hovered until the helicopter dropped. I was so happy that I was able to experience this- it made for a great photo op, and great memories as well.
I decided that I had to visit my friends and coaches at DVC. I ended up leaving for Walnut Creek on Sunday night. I woke up at around 9 on Monday morning, headed over to DVC and stopped on the way for Krispy Kreme donuts. The guy working there hassled me for only getting one donut (although I did order two iced mochas) but I stood my ground and only got one. He then proceeded to hit on me- I was annoyed by then because he took forever and then said “Well, here’s a funny story, when I was getting the milk…..” and started talking about my car. Clearly he did not see my wedding ring, which I use as a quick excuse to decline offers of a date. I don’t care that I am single- but the ring is such a great thing to have to keep creeps away- sad as that is to say. Then I drove myself to the Diablo Valley College parking lot, and took a spot. I was walking and suddenly came across my buddy Steven. We hugged for quite a while, and he said he was so glad to see me. I was really glad to see him as well, I missed everyone so much, of course including him, as I consider him one of my close friends. We then ran into Alexa, and I handed her one of the iced mochas I had ordered, as I had gotten it for her. Man, it was good seeing her and Steven, and everyone who I came across. We walked together to the pool, where I got to see coach Rick. Boy, he was so glad to see me. I told him that I planned on coming back to school for the spring semester- and swim as well. He quickly took me away to take me to see the Athletic Director to get me going to start school and to swim. Since I was supposed to have 24 units between swimming each semester, I will have to petition to be able to swim without those units in between. I have to say, I have a pretty darn good reason for not having those units in between. However, I do plan on having the 12 units during swim season (the minimum amount of units needed to play a sport) so that I do not have to file another petition to not have the units for swim. Everyone was on my side, and are offering to help me in any way possible. I am so thankful, because I am going to need a lot of help. This will be a huge transition. I will still be doing chemo for who knows how long, to keep my tumors in check and to keep them from spreading or growing- and possibly making them shrink. Because I will still be going through chemo, I will be incredibly tired during my chemo weeks, and my teachers will be informed of my health problems so that they will be able to understand a little bit of what I am going through. This will help both them and myself deal with things that can possibly come up during the season. Everyone is so supportive of me, it is really amazing and heart-warming. I also noticed that a lot of my friends and teammates still have their “Lauren Strong” keychain things still on their backpacks or swim bags. Yes, I saw them you guys, and boy, it made my heart scream! I feel so loved and supported, I honestly had never realized how much everyone cares about me, and that they are proud to show it. It truly made me appreciate the teammates and friends that I have, and even in this quiet way, they are always supporting me. I notice every little thing that happens and just don’t say anything, but trust me- I notice when people support me. You guys know who you are, and I hope you know how much I realize and appreciate what you guys do for me. It helps me through my days when I am not feeling good at all, when my PTSD is really bad, when my emotions get really bad- I am reminded of how much I have to be thankful for in my life. I have the best support system I could ever wish for. I felt so at home back at the pool, although I did not step food in it, I just felt back to normal. I got to see everyone, I will try to name everyone in no specific order: Courtney, Steven, Alexa, Jose, Caitlin, Nadeen(M), Ella, Dom, Michael, Nick, Charlie, Peachy, Colette, Andrew, Emma, Emily, Hannah, Caroline, Eduardo, Lee, Melissa, Megan, Mitchell, Monty, Riley, and Victoria. I did miss some people, mostly because I missed my alarm and woke up really late on Tuesday.
I ended up hanging out with one of my great friends, Job, because he was going away for Army training for a month. We had a little party, we got to drink and cook, and just have a good time. Alex, Abe, Karina, Luke, and others were there, and we did have a great time! I loved hanging out with them and just eating and whatnot, playing a few games, rapping, and laughing.
Last weekend, I got my wish fulfilled by Dream Foundation, which allowed me to go to Los Angeles to be at a filming for Hell’s Kitchen. My mom, dad, and I drove down to LA on Friday at around 4. We got to the W Hotel at about 10pm, and the nightlife was just getting started. The W hotel is generally where rich people go to stay, as well as celebrities, so I felt like a queen when I went there. There were people dressed all fancy in the lobby, sitting at one of the many seats that were available in the extravagant hotel. When we got up to the room, we were surprised that we were greeted by champagne, chocolates, and a few personalized cards for me. So, I had a sip of champagne to celebrate, while my parents enjoyed a little bit more of it, and went to bed, as I was incredibly tired and normally go to bed earlier than that. On Saturday, I woke up at around 10, which again, is earlier than normal for me. But it was well worth it, as we went down to the lobby to eat breakfast/lunch. I got a huge burger and truffle cheese fries. The fries were absolutely amazing! After that, we all went up and got changed to go to the pool. I only put sunscreen on select areas, mainly my face, so after two hours in the sun I got absolutely burnt. But being outside felt so good that I did not care too much. We all got ready for our dinner with Gordon Ramsay (well at Hell’s Kitchen) and went downstairs to be picked up at 3 to get to the filming. We were significantly early, but sat down outside until we were let inside a sitting area. We then met Dawn Reid, who was there to accompany us to dinner. She was sent by Dream Foundation to represent them, and boy was she nice! Of course, you never know what to expect when you first meet someone who you know nothing about, but I was nervous for no reason! She ended up being a pretty, blonde lady with more freckles than I have, and was tan- so I saw a bit of myself in her. She was well dressed and so nice, she laughed a lot and was funny, but she did warn me that she had a bit of Jersey in her, and she could tell that I had a bit of attitude to me as well. We all got along right away! Gordon ended up coming through the lobby, and greeted some kids from Make A Wish- there were about 3 kids who you could tell had gone through treatment. I guess you could say I did not fit in with the group, especially because of my age- not to mention that you cannot tell that anything is wrong with me at all. I have a nice amount of hair now, it is nice and blonde and I have bangs again, I guess I keep coming back to those, I used to have them when I was a little kid and had them for the longest time! I have freckles from being out in the sun, have a bit of a tan, and am not sickly skinny anymore. I am finally bright-eyed again, and laugh a lot. At first, Gordon did not recognize me, until my mom spoke up about Skyping with me. You could then see in his eyes that he recognized and remembered me. He took me into another room so we could speak with a little less background noise, and asked me how I was doing, and said that I looked absolutely great and healthy. We spoke for a while, and then he had to leave to go to the kitchen. After about 10 minutes, everyone was led outside to walk on the red carpet to go inside the actual restaurant- which was actually a building that was made to look like and to be used as a restaurant. Inside was beautiful- and we were not allowed to take any pictures, phones were not even allowed in the premises. When we went inside, there were cameras littering the floor, videotaping us from every direction. This was exciting, there were maybe 14 or so video cameras capturing our every moves and our food orders. I ended up ordering the lobster risotto, beef wellington, and the olive oil cake. Wow, I have to say my favorite was the lobster risotto, which I ate up so fast- there were huge pieces of lobster, with nice salty, saffron risotto. I didn’t even give my parents any of it, I ate it so quickly that there was nothing left for them. The beef wellington was so huge, that I was not even able to eat one of the medallions, which I have to say, it was way bigger than just a medallion! It was so tender, and the puff pastry/ filo dough was fantastic. But my favorite part of that dish was the parsnip puree. It was so buttery and tender, I need to make it myself! I had to order the olive oil cake because I had heard of it more recently, and apparently it was supposed to be good despite what it sounds like. And boy, was it delicious!!! I was so impressed! I ended up trying my parent’s panna cotta, which was absolutely amazing as well. Dinner and appetizers were the best, as well as the bread and butter too. I was very happy- they even gave us the choice of sparkling or still water, and of course I went with still water because I hate carbonation. We were constantly waited on, which was nice so we never had an empty glass of water (or wine for everyone else). After dinner, all of the people who were invited because of their respective charities (being Dream Foundation and Make A Wish) we got to go into another room to hang out with Gordon after the service. Gordon saw the Make A Wish kids first, and sat at their table to present them with chef’s coats with his and his sous chefs’ signatures on them. I was pretty happy that I did not get a chef coat, as Chef Deneb had given one to me when I cooked in the Firehouse. After a while, Gordon came over to my table (just my mom, dad, Dawn, and I) and sat down. We all chatted, and he presented me with a mint condition, autographed, cookbook with a huge metal case. It was only one of one thousand that had been produced, so he told me I had to be careful with it. We talked for a while, especially about how well I was doing and my plans, and then we also talked about how he is competing in the Iron Man in a few weeks in Hawaii. He joked around and told me that he wished I could be there to coach him for the swimming part, as that was what he is worst at. I told him a few tips, like keeping his head down, which makes you float and keeps your butt up. He also plans for us to Skype again in about a month so we can talk after his Iron Man has been completed. I was already thrilled that we were talking again, and I am honored that he enjoys me as a person, and likes talking to me. He also said that he would like me to come down for MasterChef Kids and be in the audience, or be at the filming, something like that. That would be pretty darn amazing for me. It was such a great experience for me, I could not be happier with how everything turned out. We all hugged, took pictures (Dawn got her phone back after the filming) and then said goodbye. I was so tired after the event, that I just went to bed and relaxed. The next day, my family and I went to a restaurant that had crepes (which is what I was craving) and then walked down Hollywood Blvd. to go sight seeing. We got to see many things like Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum, the Chinese Crest Theatre, and the stars. We took lots of pictures, and we were all so tired. After we got back, we ate a big slice of pizza and I went to rest. When I woke up, I realized I had a voice mail from someone in Florida. I listened to it, and realized that it was Robert Irvine, whom I had left a note for (he was 4 doors down from me) earlier the day before. Of course, I did not realize the message until the day after, and was ecstatic that he had taken the time to not only call me, but he said he was going to be in the lobby for around 10 minutes to meet me, however I did not have my phone on me at the time. It was nice that he was willing to talk to someone who had left him a note (which I felt made me a little bit creepy, but I was being sincere) and just be a great guy. Later, that night, my parents and I stayed downstairs in the lobby and snacked a bit, as we had heard that there was going to be a Project Runway Emmy’s afterparty in the hotel. My dad and I watch that, so we were both thrilled. However, we did not end up seeing anyone we knew, so at about 9 or 10, I left because I was tired. Although there was nice jazz music being played live, I just got tired. My dad stayed out until 12, and said that he still did not see anyone- so I was relieved that I did not end up staying up that late. On Monday morning, we went to Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles because it is a staple. I was soo happy with what I had gotten, and the waffle was so fantastic, but the best was the chili cheese fries that my mom had ordered. I ended up not feeling too fantastic, probably because of exhaustion, so we ended up heading home after that. I was relieved, because I was ready to go home.
On Tuesday, I went to visit Andrew, as I have been putting it off, because I have been so nervous about it. I decided that I had to show him the pictures that I had taken in LA and that since he had visited me when I was really bad, it was only fair to do the same for him. Andrew was completely coherent, and I got to see his mom and Katie too. I stayed for 30-40 minutes I would say, I did not want to wear him out. He was happily munching on the Habit burger, and was asking all about what I had done and all of my experiences and my health. We shared a bit, and then I decided that it was time, so that Andrew would hopefully have the time and energy to go outside in his hospital bed again. I know he appreciates the sun as much as I do, so i figured a little Vitamin D would do him some good. He is so inspirational to me, and he has been amazing, keeping hope and being a nice, genuine person like he always has been. I am always amazed at his attitude, and will try to see things that the way he does no matter what!
Ok, so I have been writing for about 2 and a half hours now, and I am pretty tired of writing! I will add pictures a little bit later, but I need to take a break and I believe that everyone deserves to hear how well I am doing.
P.S. I was taken off of hospice a little over a week ago I would say.