John Lawson

6 min read

Celebrity chef John Lawson was diagnosed with a brain tumour, later identified as a low-grade oligodendroglioma, in May 2015 after suffering a seizure. The 40-year-old, who now lives in Puerto Escondido, Mexico, but is from Wickford, Essex, suffered a stroke following a biopsy and required intensive rehabilitation to recover his motor skills, memory and speech. He underwent an awake craniotomy and is now being monitored as part of a ‘watch and wait’ approach.

John tells his story …

I spent most of my young life wanting to be a footballer. My dad had played at a fairly high level and that’s what I aspired to do, but as I approached 16 I decided I needed to focus on something that would enable me to earn money. I came from a working-class family and needed to be able to support myself, so, after a paper round I wasn’t good at getting up for, I began washing dishes at a nearby pub.

“It was there I started preparing food and first got interested in cooking.”


After leaving school, I decided to do a three-year Chef’s Diploma at Westminster Kingsway College, in London. I wanted to be the best and, as a catering college that focuses on food at a high level, I knew it was where top chefs, including Jamie Oliver, trained. I gained good experience working at the Waterfront Place, in Chelmsford, and then had a successful trial at the prestigious Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, in Oxford. That job was really intense and seriously demanding. I worked long hours, sometimes for 10 days straight, but learned so much.

“It was cornerstone of the rest of my career.”

After that I worked at Daniel Boulud and Gordon Ramsey restaurants in New York; won Chopped, an American TV show in which four chefs compete using random ingredients; and did private cheffing for famous people, including the Beckham family. However, I yearned to see more of the world. So, when I was asked to be head chef of a new hotel Ramsay was opening in Melbourne, Australia, I jumped at the chance. Back then, the Crown Metropol Hotel was the biggest hotel in the southern hemisphere and, as head chef of its restaurant Maze, I had 60 chefs reporting to me.

“It was an extremely stressful environment.”

When I was given the opportunity to turn a failing Crown Casino restaurant in Melbourne around and put my name on it, I was relieved to be able to return to what I loved most, cooking. I wasn’t passionate about managing people or handling finances and had felt a disconnect with what I had been doing previously. Things at No 8 by John Lawson went from strength-to-strength and I got a Chef’s Hat, similar to a Michelin star, in the first year. I cooked for the boxes in the Australian Open, did all the food at the Melbourne Cup and even went on MasterChef Australia as a guest chef.

“It was after having the restaurant for about 18 months that, in December 2014, I started experiencing blackouts and dizziness.”

I had assumed the headaches and mid-conversation blackouts I was getting were due to stress and never considered having them investigated. I thought they were the reality of my life and just got on with it until I woke having a seizure about six months later, in May 2015. I was with my then-girlfriend who called an ambulance. I remember being confused over hearing lots of voices and was rushed to hospital where I was given the shock news that I had an ‘abnormal growth’ in my brain.

“I assumed having a brain tumour meant I was going to die and wondered how long I had left to live.”

My parents flew out from England to be with me and a few days later I had a burr hole biopsy at The Alfred in Melbourne. Unfortunately, something went wrong during the operation, and I suffered an uncommon form of stroke.

“I woke up brain-damaged, unable to speak, with no memory and without the use of the entire left side of my body.”

I required four months of intense rehabilitation, including strength training with a physiotherapist and many sessions with a speech therapist. As things improved, helped by my therapists and time, as the swelling in my brain subsided, I was required to complete various activities, such as going to the supermarket. I also had to complete a taste test and make them a cup of tea, neither of which I could do at first.

“I’d gone from running a kitchen with 60 chefs to failing a taste test and not being able to coordinate the steps needed to make a cup of tea.”

Once I had regained my strength, in September 2015 I had an awake craniotomy at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. By then my tumour had been identified as a grade 2 oligodendroglioma and it was thought most of it could be debulked. After a successful six-hour surgery, in which more than 90% of it was removed, I woke up feeling like myself. Unlike before, this time I knew where I was and who was with me. It was a massive relief.

“Afterwards, I was put on a ‘watch and wait’ approach and I’m happy to say that none of my scans have shown any signs of recurrence since.”

What happened to me has drastically changed my outlook on life. I did go back to the restaurant, but I soon realised the corporate environment in cuisine was no longer for me.

“I was in a transition period and severely depressed, even suicidal, so, after six years in Melbourne, I decided to return home.”

Initially, I went back to private cheffing but then my sister found a low-risk opportunity, a small restaurant for rent in Leigh-on-Sea. The building needed a lot of work, but we opened Food by John Lawson after three months. The concept was really simple: local, seasonal and organic food. There were no menus and we only cooked what was available on local farms.

The restaurant attracted people, like me, who were on a journey of healing. It was that which, after three years, made me realise what I wanted to do next. Having created a space for chefs to develop, I left the restaurant in good hands and went to share my gift for cooking beautiful food and my knowledge on health, sustainability and wellbeing with the world.

“I’m now a food coach living in Mexico and am even working with a couple of people currently who have brain tumours, which is really rewarding.”

I studied in one of the best colleges in Europe but I didn’t really understand about food that could nourish us until this happened to me and I started looking at the source of produce. I still suffer with short-term memory lapses, but I use strategies like brain training to overcome them. Health isn’t just one thing and can’t be only about what you eat, it’s about how you look after yourself more generally.

“I’m grateful for my recovery and find it a real privilege to be about to impart what I’ve learned on my journey to others.”

John Lawson
September 2023

Brain tumours are indiscriminate; they can affect anyone at any age. What’s more, they kill more children and adults under the age of 40 than any other cancer... yet just 1% of the national spend on cancer research has been allocated to this devastating disease since records began in 2002.

Brain Tumour Research is determined to change this.

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