Cancer Survivor Opens Restaurant That Gives Back

by Kristine Hansen on August 6, 2014
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Snug in San Antonio’s ultrahip Pearl Brewery complex, a collection of shops, restaurants, and even a culinary institute housed in the now-defunct brewery buildings — you’ll find a gastropub-style restaurant with a creative bent called Cured.

“It’s the kind of food I enjoy eating,” says chef-owner Steven McHugh (pictured) of such dishes as his “tripped-out poutine,” which made with smoked pork and topped with pickles and gumbo.

“We take things that are familiar and turn them 90 degrees. The menu is at my whim. It’s a very farm-to-table restaurant.”

The farm-raised Wisconsin native cut his chops working for celebrity chef John Besh in New Orleans, opening Besh’s Lüke in San Antonio in late 2010. But a cancer diagnosis (non-Hodgkins lymphoma) earlier that year, followed by two operations and a year of chemotherapy, gave McHugh a new outlook on life. Last fall, he struck out on his own and opened Cured, which donates a dollar from every charcuterie plate sold to a charity on a rotating basis.

The Intuit Small Business Blog caught up with McHugh one recent afternoon during the lull before the dinner rush.

ISBB: How has beating cancer changed your culinary career?

McHugh: I look at it as a huge accomplishment. I don’t know if cancer realized how competitive I am. I grew up with six brothers. It was a catalytic kick in the butt to do something for myself, for my family, and my community. That’s how Cured got started. It’s really helped round out a philosophy, which is to cook locally. I’ve tried to be somebody who’s supportive of farming. I put a microscope on those ingredients and learn what items need to be paired together.

In what ways does Cured’s charcuterie plate donation educate others about cancer?

I got sick in 2010 and discovered the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. I got involved with them by going to events. I discovered there were all these people giving to this cause. I attribute people like that to helping save my life. Most of the research goes toward developing drugs that can battle these blood cancers. I started looking at the research and realized if I’d gotten sick when I was 18, and not 35, I probably would not have survived. The drugs and chemotherapy I received had not been discovered yet. My life was saved because someone else cared.

We decided we’re not going to be this restaurant that takes, takes, takes. We need to give back. We rotate the charity each quarter. The first quarter we raised $4,000. Second quarter we’re working with an organization called Team Gleason out of New Orleans that’s helping ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) patients. We chose Team Gleason because at the end of December our GM’s father passed away from ALS. We’re running a restaurant, but at the same time we are a part of this community and giving back.

What’s the most important small-business lesson you’ve learned since going out on your own?

Get out there and do it. My wife and I lived in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit and met a lot of people who quit their jobs and decided to do their own thing, or left the city. It took a storm like that to get them out there. For me, it took a storm of health. I said, “You know what? I always wanted to open my own restaurant.” You sit there and say “If it was mine, I’d do that.” Finally we said, “Let’s stop talking about it.”

I was fortunate to work for John for 10 years, for someone who gave so much of himself.  He’s so talented  — and not just in the kitchen. All the good he did after Katrina, for example. Here’s someone who had two restaurants close down and he’s out cooking for people who have nothing to eat. People believe in him and appreciate what he’s doing.

Your goal is to promote local foods and sustainable farmers. How do you creatively promote and package this trend for customers?

It’s important to put our money where our mouth is. We have a farmers market once a week right in front of us. Anybody can show up on a Saturday and walk the market with me. There are usually four of five of us who go out with a big cart. We load up with produce, dairy, and whole animals.

We put (sourcing) right on our menu and tell people where it’s from. When we ran out of pumpkins (for our pumpkin salad) I had to pull it — and people were upset. It gives us something to look forward to the next year. We have such a wonderful growing season in South Texas. It’s amazing how many people are growing beets here, even in May, when you usually think of it as a winter vegetable.

We’re always looking for heritage animals. We try to help people understand that these are heritage-breed animals that could have possibly been lost through time.

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