With a glittering career as a chef, restaurant owner and lecturer, Jonathan Reen was in the prime of his life. Then, at the age of 46, he was diagnosed with primary progressive MS. For six months, as his symptoms got worse, he had to give up the work he loved. But now, after a period of readjustment, he’s set up Urban Chefs, a new business offering cooking lessons to people in their own homes. Here he explains how his lifelong passion for food has kept him going through the ups and downs.
Growing up in the heart of the countryside, near Arundel in West Sussex, my earliest recollection of interest in food is when my grandfather would appear on a Sunday morning with a pheasant or rabbit. For a five-year-old boy, learning to pluck or skin was fantastic, especially when we got to eat the end-product: a pie or a stew that my grandmother had made. Nan didn’t have a fridge but large marble slabs in her larder, with jars of ingredients everywhere.
I’ve been a chef for 30 years. In that time I’ve been head chef for the Charterhouse Bank in the City of London, Goldsmiths Hall and Farnborough Air Show, to name a few. As Head Chef for senior management at British Airways head office near Heathrow, I orchestrated the grand opening of the site, attended by Prince Charles and a further 3000 dignitaries.
A move to the country
In 2004 my partner and I decided to try our hand at running our own business. We bought a pub in South Hams in Devon, and my philosophy was to create beautifully cooked dishes from fresh, locally sourced, free-range, organic and bio-dynamic produce. My pub restaurant featured in the Good Food Guide, CAMRA Good Beer Guide and the Michelin Guide. After several successful years in the business, we decided to sell up. Which was just as well, as it turned out.
We moved to Reading to be closer to family and settled into a more urban lifestyle. I felt I needed to have a slightly less frantic pace of life – after all I was knocking on as a chef at the grand old age of 46! I managed to secure a part-time post as Chef Lecturer at Hammersmith and West Ealing College.
One day we took a trip back to see old friends in South Devon. It was a beautiful September day and we’d decided to go on a coastal path walk. We’d only walked a mile when I kept tripping with my right foot and feeling really tired. My partner joked about me having too much to drink but I knew it wasn’t that. I put it down to tiredness, but when it happened again several weeks later, I decided I should go and see my GP. I was sure there must be a simple explanation.
He referred me to my local hospital. One of the specialist doctors thought I might have something called Hereditary Spastic Paraplegia but would need to do further tests before they could confirm it. Eventually they called me in for an appointment, and told me I had primary progressive MS. I left the hospital in total shock. The first two years were a blur and I just seemed to block everything out to do with the dreaded word MS. I kept thinking they might have made a mistake. After all, apart from a slight limp I looked fine.
Then in 2012, I started getting double vision and was unable to work for six months. Not being able to drive, or read or go to work, I started feeling completely useless and just fell into a state of depression. I was put on antidepressants and saw an MS counsellor which really helped. I’d also managed to give up smoking which for me was quite an achievement.
A positive outlook
A year has passed and now I’m doing really well. I’m so much more positive now. I started going to acupuncture which really helps with my fatigue. And, touch wood, I haven’t had any more problems with my eyes.
I’ve also just started up my own cookery school, The Urban Chefs, delivering cookery lessons to people in their own homes, as well as teaching larger classes at Hammersmith, Weybridge and Newbury colleges. I’m also still working as a part-time chef lecturer, imparting my wealth of knowledge and skills by teaching culinary arts to a multicultural mix of pre and post grad students at Hammersmith College, in West London.
My future seems a lot rosier now and I don’t dwell on the fact I have MS. In fact someone once said to me treat it as your friend – I have MS and it has me. We have each other.