Meet "The Dragon": An Interview With German Lam

Food, philosophy and a fight for survival

Born in the Chinese Year of the Dragon, Chef German Lam is full of fire and light. He takes seriously his role as a dragon, identifying strongly with this powerful, mythical king of all animals. German is intense, a natural talker who wants to make sure that you get exactly what he’s trying to tell you.

And the thing is, what he wants to tell you just might save your life — or at least make it more worth living.

I had the pleasure of speaking with German about his transition from top professional chef to entrepreneur, his battle with cancer, his philosophy of life, and his plans to help others with their own health struggles. He’s a passionate crusader, and his enthusiasm for better living through eating is impossible to deny.

GermanLamTheDragonTurnsToWaterBookCover_MeetTheDragonBookoftheMonthBlog (1)
The cover of German Lam’s StoryTerrace autobiography

The "freestyle lifestyle" creator was born in Santiago, Chile, to parents who had emigrated from China. He developed his knowledge of fine cuisine from his father, who managed a butcher shop, and carried those lessons with him as the family moved to Brighton, Massachusetts, in 1970. German’s parents wanted to give their children the best opportunities that an American life could offer. 

For his part, German worked hard to build his career as a chef, serving at five-star restaurants in the Ritz-Carlton Hotels of Cleveland and Boston. He also started Glam Foods, a food coaching business with a mission to teach people to eat well and live healthier lives. In this program, his students began cooking creatively by using whatever ingredients were at their disposal to make satisfying meals — a method German has coined as "freestyle cooking." 


Chef Turned Author

German first discovered StoryTerrace while reading an article about rule-breaking businesses on the Virgin blog. A huge fan of CEO Richard Branson, German was looking for a little inspiration to fuel his own entrepreneurial spirit. "Everyone wanted me to write a cookbook," he says, "but life’s timing is crazy."

That’s because, at the age of 53, while seeking treatment for what he thought was an ear infection, German was diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer, a type that is located at the back of the nose. 

Instead of giving up on his book, he changed gears: "Cancer changed my whole philosophy. I knew I could put my power to good use helping others."

Although devastated to discover the shocking news, he knew at that moment that it was time to let the "dragon" out from within him to fight this cancer. He also knew that, like water, he had to adapt to and accept the situation, hence his book title - The Dragon Turns To Water with a Freestyle Lifestyle.

To that end, German set about telling the story of his diagnosis, treatment and the ways he learned to cope with his illness. His goal in writing was to provide inspiration and support for others going through the same battle.

LISTEN to German Lam read an excerpt from his book describing his cancer and its treatment...


Everyone Needs a Coach

GermanLamClientBlog_GermanwithhisfriendJohnQuackenbush_ACancerResearcherGerman with his friend John Quackenbush, a cancer researcher 

The biggest lesson German learned during his cancer treatment was simple yet profound: We need others.

German, a husband and father, is surrounded by a caring family, yet he quickly realized that he couldn’t rely on them alone for help. They were fighting their own battles, because German’s illness affected them, too. And, try as they might, they just didn’t know what it felt like to be unable to eat or do any number of life’s most basic tasks.

But life has a way of putting the right people in your path. German met John Quackenbush because their sons practiced Taekwondo together. They got to know each other as fathers first, but when German learned that John was a Harvard professor and cancer researcher, the two had an immediate bond. John helped German navigate through some of the most difficult times during his treatment. "He’s my brother for life," German says.


Food for Healing

GermanLamClientBlog_Germanreliedoncarefullyresearchedhomemadesmoothieswhenhecouldnteatfullmeals-2German relied on carefully researched homemade smoothies when he couldn’t eat full meals

Because German’s cancer affected the nose and throat, the radiation treatment targeting these areas left him unable to eat. He was often in incredible pain as the powerful radiation led to sores on his tongue and mouth. "Treatment changes your whole system," German explains. "I knew I needed nutrients, or I would need a feeding tube."

As a chef, not being able to eat was a serious blow, as it took away one of German’s main joys in life. But he also used his extensive knowledge of food to create nutritious smoothies to stay nourished during his treatment. "There’s a reason behind every single ingredient," he explains. "Now I can share what I learned with others so they can nourish their body when it’s being attacked by cancer and radiation."

Being a family man, with a wife and two sons, when he was no longer able to cook himself, he taught them. 


Lessons in Food

GermanLamClientBlog_ingredientsforChinesedumpings,adishGermantaughthissontomakewhenhewastoosicktocookIngredients for Chinese dumplings, a dish German taught his son to make when he was too sick to cook

At his lowest point, German wasn’t well enough to eat or strong enough to cook. One day, he walked his 17-year-old son Jonathan through the process of making dumplings. These complex little packets require careful folding to complete — patience and finesse that aren't exactly in a teenage boy’s wheelhouse of skills.

Still, German spent the day coaching his son. German couldn’t taste the filling, but he taught his son to do the tasting for him to make sure the flavors were perfectly balanced. "I’m relying on you to be my hands and to figure out when it’s just right," he said.

When they were done, German’s son had achieved a beautiful dish. German himself wasn’t able to partake, but he was very proud. 

"Eating is so basic to life. It helps you grow and think," says German. "You need training to explore new foods, just like life, so that when something you rely on is gone, you have a lot more options to choose from to replace it in your life. Eating develops your personality."

His family was able to provide the food that German fell in love with, but they also supplied the love and support that he needed to pull through. 


The Dragon Turns to Water

GermanLamClientBlog_GermanandtheProtonRadiationteamatMassachusettsGeneralHospitalGerman and the proton radiation team at Massachusetts General Hospital

German’s radiation treatments required him to enter the depths of the radiation machine, a notoriously claustrophobic place. To add to the sci-fi creepiness of the experience, he also had to wear a mask and a special mouthpiece to protect the delicate skin in these areas from burns. 

During his first session, German says he "went stir-crazy" and began to hyperventilate. The staff asked is he wanted to take some medication to help him calm down.

"No way!" he answered. "All medicines come with side effects, and I just didn’t want that. Instead, I knew I had to become like water. Just let go and flow."


Ringing the Bell

GermanLamClientBlog_GermanwithLaurieFrankoftheRadiationOncologyTeam (2)
German with Laurie Frank of the radiation oncology team

At the end of radiation treatment, patients at Mass General ring the bell to announce that they have completed one of the hardest things they’ll ever go through. It’s a major milestone, and one that German couldn’t wait to achieve.

Still, the moment wasn’t quite what he had imagined. By the time he got there, he had been through so many physical and mental trials that he knew he would never be the same person that he was before. 

"You always focus on the end, on ringing the bell. But there’s a lot of agony to get there. With cancer patients, you don’t always hear about the darkness, but it’s there."

On October 3, 2017, the cancer tumor had been successfully destroyed and German was given a clean bill of health. Still facing a long recovery period, it is German’s positive attitude, his support system and, of course, the dragon spirit inside of him, that keeps him hopeful every day in his life. 

German likens his experience of treatment to Ash Wednesday. "Part of me on the inside is dead, is ash, but I still carry it with me." 

In writing his book, he wants to let other cancer patients and survivors know that it’s okay to feel this way. You can’t be the same person you were, but you have been given an incredible gift.

"You have a second chance at life," he says. "So how do you want to live it?"

Do you have a story of overcoming a challenge that might inspire others? StoryTerrace can help you share it with the world! Get in touch to find out more about writing your memoirs today.

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Written by Elizabeth Trach
Image credits: by German Lam

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