Mar 10, 2012

Top Chef's Lisa Ray finds a life worth dining for


en-lisarayLisa Ray swirls red wine around her mouth and her eyes flutter closed in ecstasy

“It looks peculiar in polite company,” she says, laughing and aerating the Malbec between her teeth with a swooshing sound. Then she laughs some more.

Sitting inside One, the tony restaurant in Yorkville, Ray is at once giddy and serene. The film actress, former model and new host of Top Chef Canada, which returns for its second season on Monday (Food Network, 10 p.m.), is in a happy place.

Her boyfriend Jason Dehni, vice president of international wealth management at Scotiabank, proposed last month in Napa. Now an engagement ring, a diamond the size of Gibraltar, sits on her finger. Ray is working, traveling, socializing, planning a wedding and laughing each and every day — in other words, doing things she was not just over two years ago during a near-death fight with cancer.

Her ordeal started in 2009. During a trip to India for Moksha yoga training, one of her passions, Ray struggled to get off the floor when her classes would end. It was as if an unseen force was pinning her down, short-circuiting her muscles, squeezing her bones. Upon returning to Toronto, she booked a physical — the first in more than a decade — unaware her world was about to spin off its axis.

One test result was so alarming that, upon glancing at her red blood cell count, Ray’s doctor jumped out of her chair and exclaimed, “How are you even standing?”

Ray was rushed to Toronto General for an emergency blood transfusion. This would lead to more tests, including a bone marrow aspiration.

About six months later, the diagnosis was grim.

An incurable blood cancer known as multiple myeloma had infiltrated Ray’s plasma cells. The news was virtually impossible to fathom. But the part that now bothers her most is this: instead of paying attention to the signals her body was telegraphing, Ray kept functioning. She kept up with her grueling schedule.

“That is not a testament to my willpower or to anything positive,” she says, framed by the dining room’s gossamer curtains and a panoramic view of Yorkville. “I think it’s actually an illustration of our modern-day ills of having to push through, to go no matter what. I was a poster child for that. I was pushing myself well beyond what I should be physically enduring. I was literally pushing myself into the grave.”

After getting intensive treatment with steroids and oral chemotherapy, Ray had a stem cell transplant at Henderson Hospital in Hamilton. Amazingly, she defied the odds and scored a decisive victory. Of course, with multiple myeloma, this does not mean the game is over.

“It is technically incurable,” says Ray, sipping a glass of room temperature water. “Here’s the reality about the disease that I am still living with: It’s a beast. Right now, I am officially in remission. But the beast is in the cage. It’s not that I am cured.”

Ray’s healing process has transcended the physical. She is ditching old attitudes, re-evaluating beliefs, changing her priorities. Her role on Top Chef, for example, has less to do with career ambition and more to do with the kind of message she now wants attached to her public image.

“That’s where the cancer came in and kind of reset everything in my life,” she says.

Hosting a reality show might seem like a strange move for the star of films such as Bollywood Hollywood, Cooking with Stella and Water. But the show, which she jubilantly calls “the best gig ever,” was a liberating experience in an industry that can be obsessed with unrealistic beauty ideals.

Ray tells a story. While on a promotional junket for Water in 2007, she was supposed to appear in a Vogue spread. She went to the magazine’s editorial offices, where she was given a once-over before any photographs could be shot.

While she “passed” this bizarre inspection, the pictures never ran. It seems the slender and petite Ray was deemed too fat for the fashion bible.

“I was kind of devastated about that,” she says. “Not because it was my life dream to appear in Vogue. I just felt, ‘How is this related to the film that I’m a part of?’ This is a film about women’s rights. It’s about the suppression of women. Isn’t that ironic?”

The experience may also explain the tortured relationship Ray once had with food.

“Although I never said it to myself, probably at some point in my life I was anorexic,” says Ray, who turns 40 next month. “For some portion of my life, I was bulimic. It’s shockingly common.”

Her illness put all of this in a new light.

“Cancer gave me the permission, I think, to celebrate fully and embrace the bounty of food,” she says, tugging on the lapels of her navy blazer and laughing again. “If you are denying yourself food, you are denying life.”

Living in various parts of the world has also shaped her appreciation of food and what it can mean to a society.

“Food brings people together,” she says. “I’ve lived in India. I’ve lived in Italy for three years. I lived in Paris for a while. These are really strong food cultures. It’s all about gathering over a meal and the wine and the discussions.”

She drags a piece of Alaskan black cod with miso through the butter sauce on her plate and lifts it into her mouth. The “accidental actress” who once trusted fate and circumstance to carry her from project to project, from city to city, is now operating with new clarity and focus.

She still loves acting. She still loves to be in front of the camera. But she is unapologetic about now using her celebrity to advance important causes and help others. The energy she exudes, that alchemy of giddiness and serenity, is the kind of energy you might expect from a person who has stared down her own mortality and walked away with new insights into who she was and who she wants to be.

“I realized I had been doing a lot of things in my life that had taken me very far from what my essential nature is,” she says. “That creates an ongoing conflict and tension in yourself. You carry that around and it’s going to manifest in some way.”

A few minutes later, we are talking about the hypercompetitive nature of a city like Toronto. Ray has a new motto, post-cancer: “I’m not competitive. I just get what I want.”

Her laugh ricochets around the dining room.

(Source: Toronto Star / Vinay Menon)

(Photo: Aaron Harris / Toronto Star)

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