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A&E >  Food

Spokane woman with cancer enjoys dinner from Michael Wiley with ‘hearts wide open’: ‘It made me forget my illness for a night’

UPDATED: Thu., July 15, 2021

Chef Michael Wiley and Joan Lee at Prohibition Gastropub.  (Courtesy)
Chef Michael Wiley and Joan Lee at Prohibition Gastropub. (Courtesy)

After months in self-quarantine, Joan Lee simply wanted to go out to a nice meal. A friend planned a visit to Spokane, so it was a chance to enjoy a dinner away from any thoughts about her cancer or other piled-on health issues.

Lee felt safe going to a restaurant after a COVID-19 vaccination, but because of her strict dietary needs, the choice of where to eat proved daunting. So Lee’s daughter decided to pitch the question to the Facebook group Food Finder Spokane.

“I’ve got a doozy for you,” wrote Rhiannon Cook. “My mom, fighting cancer (she’s way more than that, though), has been having issues with her blood pressure and now her kidneys. Because of these issues, she needs to eat a low sodium and low potassium diet. It’s been one wave after another.”

Cook said her mom’s friend wanted to treat her, but they couldn’t think of where to go. “Here’s the curveball … (Mom) had a severe infection in her mouth and had to have all of her teeth pulled. So, it has been extremely hard trying to figure out what she can have and can chew.”

Within minutes of her post, the group’s comments quickly named chef and restaurant owner Michael Wiley, who frequently creates tasty dishes for people on restricted diets. The chef and his crew at Wiley’s Downtown Bistro, 115 N. Washington St., took on the challenge – and then some.

On June 30, Lee and her friend entered the bistro, where she was served pasta with butter and white wine cream sauce, cut-up shrimp, garlic, pepper and no salt, along with creme brulee for dessert.

When the bill came, there was no charge, just the words, “#F*ck cancer, hearts wide open.”

Wiley, who worked that night at his other restaurant Prohibition Gastropub, had messaged Lee prior to the dinner to learn about her favorite dishes.

Lee said Wiley responded quickly to do planning, which led to an unforgettable night.

“Mr. Wiley said, ‘Great, got it done, and what does she like?’ ” Lee added. Bistro manager Dan Love provided top-notch service during their meal. “The whole night, my friend and I were treated like queens. I’d say I felt like a movie star, but that’s not good enough. I felt like a queen.

“My friend who lives out of town was so impressed. She thought it was wonderful that someone would bend over backwards like that for someone they didn’t know. It made me forget my illness for a night and have a good old time like I’m used to.”

Wiley said he got tagged in the Food Finder’s discussion by patrons who know he often handles such requests. Kris Kilduff, founder of the group, even offered to pick up the tab if the bistro would create a dinner for Lee, but Wiley said his eatery would cover the bill.

“I said, ‘Sure, I’d love to do that,’ ” Wiley said. He messaged Cook, then Lee, to get more information.

“We figured out what we could do based on what we had in-house that night that would be a good fit for her. I have such a great team at the bistro who are used to doing this. I leaned on them, too.”

Strategy led to creating the pasta dish and other items, absent salt and potassium, yet tasty and soft.

When Lee and her friend arrived, they expected a nice dinner, but Wiley said his crew rolled out a red carpet.

“We made it really, really nice for her, no embarrassment,” Wiley said. He credits Love for making the night even more memorable and for giving Lee a complimentary logoed hat to offset Spokane’s current heat and sun.

“Really, all that I did was just say yes,” Wiley added. “Of course, I’m going to take care of somebody with some special diet issue. We do that all the time with tons and tons of people who come to us for gluten-free needs or dairy-free or pescatarian.”

The past 16 months in the restaurant business have been incredibly stressful, he said, so he knows of people in the industry who aren’t doing any modifications now or say they will when they’re more staffed up.

But Wiley said he believes that more and more in the world, there are choices of doing something exceptional still or deciding against doing that because of stress.

“So a lot of people are choosing to take the opportunity to choose stress and to say no, instead of taking opportunities to take positivity and fight that stress and say yes,” Wiley said.

“For us, we’re 100% in that latter category … if you’ve already given up on doing special things, it’s too late. Just do less hours, go to five days or whatever you need to do, but never ever ever give up on doing something special. That’s the whole reason we do this.”

That night was special, so much so that Lee wanted to thank Wiley personally. She and her friend made a quick stop at Prohibition Gastropub on their way home.

“I have a friend in Michael now; he was so down to earth,” Lee said. “I wanted to meet him and thank him in person because I thought it was just wonderful. The moment he comes out, he gives me this big ol’ sincere hug.”

A photo of Wiley and Lee together captures her mother’s joy, said Cook, who wasn’t able to go to the dinner. She knew Lee was in good hands.

The evening out had followed almost a year since Lee received a cancer diagnosis. Cook and her young children didn’t go places until Lee got vaccinated to avoid exposing her to COVID-19. There’s also been treatments, doctor appointments and a series of medical issues.

After her post, Cook received multiple offers of support and help, from free nutritional services to recipes for her mom’s dietary needs. Cook said she saw the kindness in Spokane that she’s known growing up here.

As her mom got ready to go out on June 30, Cook also watched Lee’s excitement.

“When she got ready, she put on a dress, which she hasn’t done in a while,” Cook said. “She went out and was just glowing. I have not seen her that happy and glowing and able to enjoy a meal without any concern since before her cancer diagnosis. It was just so touching and so moving.

“I’ve been crying happy tears for the last week. When I saw what they did, it just was beyond what I expected. I just cried and cried that someone took care of my mom as well as I do.

“She deserves it. My mom has been a lifelong caretaker both as a mother and as her profession. She’s so used to doing everything herself, but her body is not allowing it at times.”

Cook said her mom was a little apprehensive when she first heard about the post, as she had privately battled cancer, but then was able to put that aside and enjoy herself. “For once in a very long time,” she said.

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