Even as she faced her own mortality, “Top Chef” fan favorite Fatima Ali wanted to reach out to her followers with words of inspiration.
In an essay written for Bon Appetit magazine three months before her death on Friday from bone cancer, Ali showed her warrior spirit. The full essay will be in the magazine’s March print edition, but was shared online “to honor her memory,” according to the website.
The essay detailed Ali’s life and her final months when a grim outcome appeared inevitable. Still, she refused to wallow in misery.
“I decided not to spend whatever time I had left (whether it’s a year, a month, another ten years—you don’t know until you’re gone) lamenting all the things that weren’t right,” Ali wrote. “Instead, I’d make the most of it. I’m using cancer as the excuse I needed to actually go and get things done, and the more people I share those thoughts with, the more I hold myself to them. If I write this intention down, if I have it printed somewhere like I do here, I have to hold myself responsible, because I have people counting on me.”
Ali began her essay with some memories of her Pakistan childhood and her early days as a low-level cook and manager in New York restaurants after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America. It was an exhilarating time, filled with challenges to be overcome. She made it to “Top Chef” in 2017, and though she didn’t win, she was voted a fan favorite for her Pakistani influenced cooking. Her future looked bright as she aimed toward opening her own restaurant and introducing the world to the wonders of her home country’s cuisine.
But an excruciating pain in her shoulder refused to respond to Advil, and eventually led her to the emergency room. She wound up in chemotherapy.
“Honestly, until your first chemo cycle, I don’t think it really hits you,’ she wrote. “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.”
At that point, Ali decided, she would live whatever remaining time she had to the fullest.
“I’m using cancer as the excuse I needed to actually go and get things done, and the more people I share those thoughts with, the more I hold myself to them,’ she wrote. “If I write this intention down, if I have it printed somewhere like I do here, I have to hold myself responsible, because I have people counting on me.”
So she launched an ambitious program. Writing a recipe a day, eating at the city’s wide variety of restaurants, plans for trips overseas and more.
But the realities of the draining disease took its toll, and she confessed feeling “exceptionally afraid” at times.
“There are days I sit alone and cry, because I don’t want to do it in front of my family,” she said. “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.”
Ali passed away at her family home in San Marino, Calif. on Friday. She was 29 years old.
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