When an American Chef Needs Brain Surgery
She remembers sitting on a red tricycle in the sun when she was three years old and having a feeling of euphoria consume her. She has no words for what this is; that would come later. This happens on and off until she is seven, when it abruptly stops, replaced by intense migraines. In her thirties the euphoria returns, this time accompanied by a number of other feelings that are mysterious and unsettling. By now she's working as a chef and about to open what will become the hottest spot in town. A few mornings a week she wakes up to the smell of burning rubber. The sensation is accompanied by an overwhelming rush of nostalgia and anxiety. "I'd hear my heart pounding in my head," she says. "I'd become sweaty with fear and feel like I was in the wrong place at the wrong time."
She is setting up a new kitchen, hiring her crew and designing a menu, so she assumes this is stress. Deep down she fears it might be something else. But what? Demonic possession? Hallucinations? A descent into madness? She has no idea and no time to worry about it. There is a highly-anticipated restaurant to open, and the most powerful critic in the land is already polishing his pen and saddling his white horse. This is destined to be the defining moment of her young career. So she does what any good chef would, in pretty much any situation: she puts her head down and gets to work.
This is the story of Allie Plumer.
Plumer grew up in Rhode Island. In college she started working at the New York City Greenmarkets for the legendary Bill Maxwell. Her shift would start at 5 a.m. "Bill was a real salt of the earth farmer, wildly popular with the big name chefs. I didn't know what kale was when I started," she tells me over the phone from her family home in Cranston, RI. "Food and cooking was all we would talk about. It was the foundation of my career."
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She worked at the Greenmarkets for eight years. Her first commercial kitchen job came in 2008. She kept on with Maxwell until his retirement in 2013, when she came into kitchens full time. Five years later, in 2018, a man walked into Lot 2, the restaurant she co-owned in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and headhunted her to open his new restaurant.
It launched in the summer of 2019 to a deafening buzz and a two-to-three-week waiting list. If Plumer thought stress was the cause of her issues, she was now experiencing it at its highest level. Hell hath no fury like that of a perpetually slammed restaurant garnering rave reviews in the first few months of service.
"It would take me 45 minutes to put my chef clothes on and make coffee," Plumer recalls. "I should have been making my prep list and unpacking deliveries but I wouldn't know where to start. I was constantly forgetting things."
By the fall she was having "brain spells" frequently throughout the day. "I'd be in the middle of chopping and I would put my knife down, walk into the dining room and put my head on a table."
She relied heavily on her team, but that team was getting fed up. No one knew what was wrong with her, least of all Plumer, and the pace never slackened.
"I thought she was burning out. She would forget to order or delegate and if somebody else did something that wasn't what she told them, she'd get mad." says Trina Quinn, a former line cook. "You can't even run your own kitchen but you're gonna yell because somebody didn't chiffonade the parsley?" The head chef seemed to be losing her marbles and the relentless demands of service kept the pressure at full boil.
"It was an absolute shitshow," according to Quinn. "We didn't know what was going on though, and that's really unfortunate."
Quinn quit. "We had a great kitchen family and one person kinda ruined that. I definitely blamed her. During service we were barely getting by." At her exit interview, she listed Plumer as the cause. "You need one person steering the ship and it was sinking."
Within a week Plumer was fired. Unemployed, plagued by mystery symptoms, and depressed while locked down in her Park Slope apartment, Plumer turned 35 on May 4, 2020. She and her girlfriend Stacy Dover-Pearl celebrated with a Fudgie the Whale Carvel cake. The remains of that cake were still in the freezer four days later when she was rushed to the hospital. Plumer had just suffered her first grand mal (now called tonic-clonic) seizure.
And so in the midst of a pandemic, in the hardest-hit city in North America, at a hospital overrun with people dying of COVID-19, our hero was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
"It is my natural inclination to go in the woods to suffer alone, because I'm just some weird animal at heart," says Plumer. It was Dover-Pearl who set up the GoFundMe on November 4. Until then, Plumer had been mostly silent about her diagnosis, telling only family, so this is how most of the people in her life—and the majority of folks in the industry—found out about her situation.
"My brother Clayton, and his wife Katie, put the word out in Rhode Island where I grew up," says Plumer. "I had big-name chefs spread the word and donate. Actors I've fed. People I went to high school with 20 years ago. Regulars who had small children when I started cooking, who are now in high school. Matt Hyland, who owns Pizza Loves Emily, not only donated a huge chunk himself, but he also ran a pizza special for a month to raise money for my recovery."
Other notable donors included Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale, Gail Simmons, David Lebovitz, Melissa Clark, Cherry Bombe founder Kerry Diamond, Joe Lo Truglio from Brooklyn Nine-Nine and his wife, Orange Is the New Black's Beth Dover, as well as her co-stars Emily Tarver and Emma Myles.
The campaign hit its goal of $10k within two days and was at $50k within a week.
Plumer's doctors helped her to navigate insurance and Medicaid. "I'm very fortunate that my doctors are doing most of the fighting. It's something I understand so little about, never having been at the mercy of the public health system. It's almost like this taboo thing, it denotes that you are of a certain level of economic status [and] somehow determines what type of person you are," she says. "As a New Yorker I don't often think of people on the public health system as being in the upper echelon."
For a cook making minimum wage, to take time off for any illness, let alone long-term recovery, is simply not an option. On top of that, their employer even offering insurance isn't a given. "It's been a long time since I've worked in a restaurant that offers insurance," says Plumer. "I've never worked with a cook who didn't have to move back in with their parents after a long term injury. Earning minimum wage and working your ass off doesn't exactly put you into a position where you are able to save money for your future."
As for what she hopes Medicaid will cover: rehabilitation and therapy, post-surgery monitoring like EEGs and neurophysiology tests. "I really have no idea how it works and my anxiety is to the max on this subject," explains Plumer. Since the surgery, certain topics are literally hard for her to talk about. She sums it up as best she can, "I would be very fucked if we hadn't done this GoFundMe."
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"It made me feel like a complete asshole," says Quinn when she learned of Plumer's diagnosis. "I always felt resentful of people who brought their personal life into the kitchen. But you find out something like that. I could have been a better person." She reached out immediately, sending Plumer a message.
"It's not about rehashing and apologizing for what happened in the past, though we did do that," says Plumer. "It was about her extending a hand. Hearing from Trina was great."
Lilia restaurant co-owner Sean Feeney knocked on Plumer's door a week after her first surgery. "I could still hardly communicate," she recalls. He brought food from his co-owner Missy Robbins and the Lilia crew for Plumer and her parents. The night before his visit he'd been on CNN advocating for restaurant workers. She couldn't believe he'd made the time to personally come to her apartment, and she told him as much. His reply? "Family comes first, always."
In a year when the extreme deficiencies of the restaurant industry were dragged into the light, a young chef at the top of her game had to partially finance her own brain surgery and recovery through crowdfunding at a time when the majority of her colleagues were out of work. This shows us a few things: that the restaurant business is broken, but that the people in it are not. We destroy ourselves for this industry, but we also take care of each other in the trenches.
She went in for a five-hour mesial temporal lobectomy at NYC Langone the morning of December 10. What the doctors found was surprising. The thing that had shown up as a tumor on scans turned out to be something else entirely.
"It wasn't until they cut into my brain that they saw it was white and calcified, and what was to be removed was quite obvious. It wasn't a tumor at all!" (Insert gif of Schwarzenegger screaming "It's not a tumor!")
The scarring on Plumer's brain was caused by Focal Cortical Dysplasia (FCD) Type II. People can live their whole lives with FCD and never know it. In Plumer's case the part of her brain that was scarred and no longer receiving blood or working correctly had shown up as a tumor.
"It's actually a positive thing because there is no chance that the cut off part of my brain will grow back, which is great, but the damage that's done is done."
Her therapy aims to correct that, so the right side of her brain will compensate for the missing portion. The "cold" part of Plumer's brain is gone and the healthy part will soon start making connections and rewiring itself. "The right side of my brain will learn and adapt but it will take time and it's not perfect," she says.
Remember the red tricycle? The feelings of euphoria, later replaced by migraines? Plumer also had learning disabilities as a child, as well as perpetual anxiety, and an inability to react in certain situations the way most people would. Uncovering this situation in her brain explained a lot. It wouldn't be a stretch to say that the non-conformist world of kitchens was appealing to her because she literally had a messed-up brain that made her something of a misfit in the regular 9 to 5.
She's been recuperating at home with her parents in Cranston, taking seizure medication and undergoing speech and memory therapy. Her hazel eyes are clear and luminous as river stones. If not for the stitches that snake along her temple line, and her trouble finding words when speaking, she seems as bright-eyed and well-adjusted as anyone who hasn't undergone the most stressful and terrifying experience of their entire life.
"I told my mom last week that going into work in a restaurant is like going from 0 to 60 instantly, like walking onto a road that has fast cars driving on it, and I can't even cross that road right now. It's not something I can fathom," says Plumer.
While her brain is healing she's had a lot of time to think and to explore the blank spots in her memory. "I forget what it is to run a dinner service right now, but before that felt like something ingrained in my soul. I can picture things in my head but have no recollection of what they are called." Dover-Pearl used to love Plumer's beef stew. "I can't even remember what cut of beef I used." The two look over photos of dishes Plumer made in the past. "I don't recognize most of them or know what was used to cook them."
She's been forced to consider her career in a new light and parse out the parts of it that mean the most. "Running the show in the kitchen is not the heart of me. Cooking eight things at a time behind the line while I'm being yelled at is not what I pine for," Plumer says. "Cooking with my staff and bringing them together, teaching young cooks how to make food, and seeing the pride on their faces. Seeing satisfied diners when we're crazy busy. To know that the dish that people won't stop talking about is something that I created from scratch. This is what I miss the most about our industry. It's a foreign language I can't speak right now. I don't know what comes next, but I'm not done with this line of work."
A note on the artist: Tisha Myles had a brain tumor removed in 2011. She was a 24-year-old art student, working as a food runner, and had no insurance or Medicaid. Because she is a Canadian living in Canada, the surgery and subsequent recovery cost her nothing.