On the Line: Audra D. Wilford Of MaxLove Project

Every so often, I learn about a nonprofit that extends beyond doing good for a worthy cause. There's a personal story that needs to be told and shared. It's these connections with others that make interviewing On the Line subjects so interesting. As we head into the home stretch of 2016, I wanted to share the story of Audra and her son, Max.

Please discuss how you were inspired to start the MaxLove Project.
Initially, after Max was diagnosed, I wanted to give back and build community. We didn't have access to a support network (and we needed one), so we created it. We started with a simple mission to support other kids fighting cancer with “Max's love” as represented by the therapeutic Cloud b Twilight Turtle. As Max progressed through treatment, we saw new opportunities to step up and support families further with evidence-based healing foods and integrative medicine, and thus our mission very organically shifted as well.

Tell us about Max. What's his personality?
Max is nine years-old and in fourth grade in Tustin. He's shy (initially), goofy, funny, active, playful, imaginative and creative. He loves to play handball with his buddies and run, something he couldn't do for quite a while after his first surgery in 2011. Max loves video games and inventing new, yummy meals.

Most undervalued ingredient:
Ha! Great question! Shallot, for sure. It's everyday magic.

What is your culinary background?
I worked at a pizza place in high school in Kennebunkport, Maine. After graduating, I traveled quite a bit and floated around pretty unsuccessfully in college. I eventually landed in Phoenix, Arizona, where I worked in a 24-hour dive diner and decided I could stand to learn more about cooking and maybe even make a career out of it.

I was 19 when I enrolled in the culinary arts program at Scottsdale Community College, a program known for producing real cooks, not entitled, prima-donna “chefs”. From there, I worked my way up from prep to line cook at a number of fine dining restaurants in Phoenix and Portland, Maine. But truthfully, I was a kid. I worked hard, but there was so much I didn't truly get with limited life experience.

While you are classically trained, you chose to pursue graduate school. What prompted the decision to move away from foodservice?
I remember working saute at Obachine, a Wolfgang Puck restaurant in Phoenix. Every night after work, we'd all go out for drinks (of course). We were making $7 an hour (no benefits) with pretty limited mobility. It dawned on me that I left college, but most of my friends in the kitchen never had the chance to go. So my first commitment was to at least finish undergrad. Once I did that I was hooked, and I became really passionate about education and resources needed in underserved communities. That's my activist side; I just felt like I could do more in the social activism space to help others than as a cook. So I changed course and eventually made it to Columbia University for grad school.

One food you can't live without:
My first reaction to this question is coffee and wine, but I'm thinking you mean an edible food product. This is a super tough question! Okay, olives. Olives are really a perfect food. From the fruit itself to the oil, I can't imagine life without olives.

Best culinary tip for the home cook:
Don't be afraid of salt! Sodium is an issue in processed junk foods where both the salt and the sugar are jacked up at alarming rates. If you're eating real foods, salt is one of your best ingredients. When seasoning meats and fish, you'll want to use salt super generously, far more than you would think, considering that much is lost in the process of searing, grilling, etc. Along with salting properly comes tasting along the way.

Let's discuss the recent Farm to Fork Dinner at Tanaka Farms.
It was amazing. Absolutely magical. In only the second year of the event, over 550 guests experienced the creative talents of five guest chefs in the middle of a working farm, raising over $200,000 for MaxLove Project for our unique cancer research, culinary medicine center, and our integrative medicine center. It's my dream event, and it's amazing to see it come to fruition. Now we're perfecting. Save the date for September 23, 2017!

You've held positions in both front and back of the house. Do you have a favorite station in either?
Back of the house: Sautee (generally), but I loved taking on a saucier role at a French restaurant I worked at once. It taught me a lot, as I was also the resident broth maker!
Front of the house: Bartending.

You're making breakfast; what are you having?
Our family now eats with Max, using a special high-fat and low-carbohydrate diet to help Max continue to fight cancer, so my specialties have shifted a bit. I would make a “bagel” made from almond flour and psyllium husk, and a beautifully soft egg scramble that incorporates a ton of butter (whisked in on low heat), shallot and green chiles with a touch of raw cheddar.

What is your everyday life like supporting a child fighting cancer? What changes have you had to make to sustain his long-term health, and how did you family adapt?
We've achieved a “new normal” so to speak. Max has been fighting for over half of his life now. It's been a very long road, but one that has also given us so many gifts. We don't take our time together for granted. We have so much more perspective now, valuing life on a totally different level. We are fortunate to be here together. We are grateful for all we have.

Day-to-day, we challenge Max to use his left hand that doesn't work quite as well. We ask him to stand while playing video games. We ensure that he gets really great sleep and his diet is incredibly rigorous. We've all adapted to some version of Max's therapeutic ketogenic diet (high-fat, low-carb), and that's actually changed the family's health for the better.

All this attention we see as “provision” as opposed to “deprivation”. For us, it's all about finding the positive story and message. Max did complain a few weeks ago that we don't treat him like he has cancer, and he wishes we would so he could get away with more things. It's our belief, even if indeed his cancer is incurable, that we are raising him to be an amazing young man, and that only comes with a ton of love and challenge as well.

Hardest lesson you've learned:
To embrace the unknown and live more fully in the present. It's been a gift to shift in this way. It was incredibly hard, especially at the beginning, when I was so focused on “when” Max would be cured.

What's the Gold Apron Society?
The Gold Apron Society gives leading chefs and professionals in the hospitality industry a platform for championing culinary medicine in the fight against cancer. Together we understand that culinary literacy and real food are powerful tools that can improve quality of life and lower health risks for all cancer patients and survivors.

Culinary medicine is the practice of using real food to restore health, reduce side effects of conventional treatments and improve quality of life. But it can only be effective through culinary education, positive social support and rigorous nutrition research. This is where the Gold Apron Society will impact thousands of childhood cancer families.

What have you learned from Max through all of this, and what do you hope you have taught him?
I have learned so much about courage and resilience. We are tough beings, built to face adversities. Max has taught me to walk right in, head on, and to find the good things in each experience facing challenge.

I hope Max is learning empathy and generosity via MaxLove Project. As a kid fighting cancer, it's natural to become more self-focused, as one would, as you fight your own battle. But generosity is empowering, and this is what I hope Max feels throughout each day.

Is there anything you'd like readers to know that we haven't asked?
I just want to give a shout-out to our amazing chef partners— Azmin Ghahreman, Zov Karamardian, Michael Puglisi, Cathy McKnight and Greg Daniels— for stepping up to support our movement for culinary medicine. I am personally so grateful to each of them for believing in MaxLove Project and our mission to help families thrive against childhood cancers. Together we WILL  build a theraputic teaching kitchen that will not only serve families locally in OC, but will be a research center that will positively impact the lives of children nationally as well.

How can readers participate or contribute towards the MaxLove Project?
One thing that is so needed by every nonprofit and so under-organized by the public is dissemination of messaging. It's easy and free! Jump onto social media (you can find us at @maxloveproject) and share, share, share! You can help us share our messaging and grow, without having to pay Facebook to grow our audience. Thank you! On social media, you will also find regular opportunities to help out.

And, if you know any chefs/restaurants who would like to get involved, please contact me!

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