Famed chef faces neuroendocrine cancer with hope
With dinner service at his upscale supper club only a few hours away, Minnesota Chef Jack Riebel took a few minutes out of his 12-hour workday to talk about his experience with pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer.
“I feel like I have been given a second chance,” he said. “At the end of the day, I feel lucky. I have a wonderful life. I do things I love. I look at all the things that are possible, things I am able to do and achieve.”
To his journey with neuroendocrine cancer, Chef Riebel brings the infinite determination, optimism, and resilience he leverages to launch award-winning restaurants.
A James Beard Award nominee who has spent close to four decades cooking in the Twin Cities, Chef Riebel has commanded the kitchens of some of the region’s most respected restaurants. In 2017, he reopened The Lexington, a St. Paul dining institution with a 75-year history, as executive chef and owner.
A neuroendocrine tumor diagnosis
In June of 2019, Chef Riebel learned he had pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer with liver metastases. He had been experiencing gastrointestinal discomfort for about six months. His primary care doctor recommended the Chef ease up on the ample food and drink central to a restaurateur’s lifestyle. Sensing it was something more, Jack Riebel saw a radiologist who ordered a CT scan. Within an hour, Chef Riebel’s phone rang with the news—the scan showed what appeared to be metastatic cancer.
The news came as a shock. Chef Riebel’s 2016 CT scan was perfectly normal. Over the last decade, he had undergone frequent imaging tests for a range of gastrointestinal issues including gastritis, giardia, irritable bowel, and diverticulitis.
Finding treatment for pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer
A battery of tests followed to classify Chef Riebel’s tumor at anatomic and molecular levels. “I underwent a biopsy and every other test known to man,” said Jack Riebel. “They left no stone unturned.” Chef Riebel’s care team at Virginia Piper Cancer Institute at Abbott Northwestern Hospital recommended six rounds of chemotherapy with carboplatin and etoposide as the first line of treatment.
He found in his care team— what he looks for in his hospitality teams— trust, tolerance, and tenaciousness. After four rounds of chemo, a PET scan showed a 99% reduction in tumor mass— which prompted a change in his treatment plan—he could stop chemotherapy. Chef Riebel transitioned to maintenance therapy with a somatostatin analog and regular monitoring of his few small liver lesions.
When food is your life
A beloved regional celebrity chef, Jack Riebel’s neuroendocrine cancer diagnosis and treatment response were widely reported in the media. The Twin Cities responded with an outpouring of well wishes and support. “I received lots of love,” said Jack Riebel. “Correspondence, phone calls, world-class chicken noodle soup, and pounds of food poured in.”
In addition to chicken soup, Chef Riebel has developed a new fondness for split pea soup. He also craves tacos, he described his hankering vividly, “cheesy with a crispy hard-shell filled with seasoned meat, cilantro, and diced fresh tomatoes.” The digestive challenges of pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer have been tough on Chef Riebel who is used to tasting and eating what he cooks. Chemo took away his appetite, but he is beginning to get it back. “I eat white now,” he said. “White rice, white bread.” But he can’t eat all white food. “I love ice cream and I can’t eat it anymore,” said Jack Riebel.
Work-life and home-life
“I am stubborn and independent,” said Jack Riebel. “I am used to telling people what to do. Asking for help is hard.” But he has learned to ask for help. Jack’s wife and mother are his primary caregivers.
He encourages his family to share his optimism, “This is a new journey, the next chapter in life,” he tells them. “I responded so well to chemo; I will be around for so much longer.”
Jack Riebel is inspired to make the most of this new chapter in his life. As an expression of the gratitude he has embraced, he wants to give back and help others. He named Neuroendocrine Tumor Research Foundation as the charity for a January benefit wine tasting event he is headlining in the Twin Cities.