Anyone who has worked in a professional kitchen can tell you good help is hard to find. Four-year-old Isabelle James, better known as Isa, can guarantee it.
However, the world’s tiniest chef has lucked out. Her dad, Chef Lucien Gregor, has volunteered to help her out at Chickiepoo’s, 209 E. Main Street, in the Ohio River city of Madison.
Besides kitchen staff, Isa has an additional obstacle.
Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, also known as A.L.L., to be more specific.
When not in the kitchen with dad, or helping mom, Phoebe James and big sister, five-year-old G.G. (Gibson) in the 14- seat dining area, Isa is undergoing chemotherapy. She and her mother trek two hours north to Indianapolis’ Riley Hospital for Children to receive medical treatment every Monday and Tuesday.
I’d like to tell you this is a sweet bedtime story with a happy ending, but the future is unknown for Isa.
Although there is approximately an 85 percent chance she may live five years after she was diagnosed in January of 2009, statistics after the five-year mark drop dramatically.
With the knowledge the tiny chef could be gone at any time, Eat Here Now! is the restaurant’s motto. Sooner, rather than later, because right here, right now is the only moment you can count on and living fully in each moment is exactly how they live. To be fully connected to every single moment, not distracted by iPods, laptops, televisions or cell phones, and to simply focus on each other is what Chickiepoo’s is all about.
No carryout orders are taken. No reservations are accepted. Cash only.
Eat here now.
Not later. Not without realizing what you are eating, or with whom you are enjoying the
In this moment.
Even more than a restaurant, Chickiepoo’s is a dream…and a reality.
When Chef Lucien realized Isa’s dream was to become a chef just like him, his own dream of becoming a corporate chef became unimportant. His new dream was to make sure Isa’s dream became a reality while he still could.
Walking away from a dream career of working for a four star restaurant, James’ new ambition became his family. With a lucrative position in a resort kitchen, he would have had a grueling 80-90 hour week away from his children and wife. He understood that was not enough.
Not enough time. Not enough family.
“I became selfish,” the soft-spoken owner told me. “I wanted every moment with my family I could possibly get.”
With next to nothing in its bank account, the James family devised a sketchy plan on how to remain together for as long as time allowed. By opening their own restaurant, they could keep the girls nearby as much as possible and make Isa’s dream a reality before it was too late.
The girls are able to be with both of their parents on a daily basis, when Isa is not in the hospital.
The success of the bistro is vital to maintaining the flexibility needed for Isa’s treatments, including home-given medicines. Realizing that life is never easy, they try for some sort of normalcy with the children without regret or self-pity.
“If Chickiepoo’s is gone, because people chose to not eat here, they missed that moment,”
said Phoebe. “Just like our Isa. She is here now, but she could be gone in the next moment, so we live in the present. The restaurant parallels our lives.”
The boutique eatery receives the same attention to detail that Isa gives to her drawings, which decorate the walls. She personally tests foods from the kitchen, including her favorite dish, pasta, whether it is spaghetti or noodles.
Chickiepoo’s buys and uses the best quality and freshest produce, dairy and meat from local farmers and townspeople. The menu is derived daily, dependent on what products the 31-pound, fragile cook is able to obtain from her sources.
However, if you like a particular dish and it is on the menu board today, order it quick, because it won’t be available tomorrow, or possibly even the next moment.
Starting the eatery on a shoestring budget, the family is rich in one thing…the ability to believe.
Even with 10 long pages of medicines and their side effects for little Isa, including almost certain sterility and the possibility of new types of cancer from the very treatments given to save her young life, the family still believes in the positives.
"When nothing worse could possibly happen, then you stay positive, because anything that isn’t bad is a positive,” explained Phoebe James. “If she isn’t dead, then that is the positive. If she’s alive and feeling ill, it’s still a positive, because it gives us another day, another moment. There is only positive.”
And yes, you guessed it, the bistro is named for Isa, whose nickname is Chickiepoo.
If you know of a heartwarming story you would like me to discover and share, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Me, I will be right here, remembering all the reasons we’ve gotta believe...
209 W. Main Street
~ Hours of Operation ~
Lunch and Dinner
--This post was originally published under "Gotta Believe" in West Side Community News and the West Indianapolis Community News in Indianapolis.
*Photos by EJMusgrave