A Cape Coral teen who is allergic to food but dreams of being a chef is getting the chance to try on the hat at a restaurant in Washington, D.C.
Samantha Pecoraro, 15, was diagnosed five years ago with eosinophilic esophagitis, a rare disease that makes her allergic to most foods. To reduce her pain, she stopped eating last year and now relies on a feeding tube.
Pecoraro first turned to cooking as a way to continue to be a part of what would no longer be a daily activity - meal times with family and friends. She found passion for it and is now a culinary arts student at Oasis High School.
On Sunday, Pecoraro will co-host a benefit dinner and silent auction with Executive Chef Aaron McCloud at Cedar restaurant. One hundred percent of the proceeds collected from the event will benefit the CURED Foundation.
"We are so excited and overwhelmed that strangers would open up their hearts and homes to help," Ellyn Kodroff, who founded CURED with husband Fred after their daughter was diagnosed with the disease, said via e-mail.
CURED, or the Campaign Urging Research for Eosinophilic Disease, is committed to finding a cure for the various eosinophilic disorders. The one that Pecoraro has - eosinophilic esophagitis - is also known as EoE.
"Samantha touched their hearts, and they are raising funds for CURED," Kodroff said.
McCloud learned about Pecoraro and her situation earlier this year and decided that he wanted to help. He came up with the idea of flying her and her family to D.C. and giving her a weekend "apprenticeship" at Cedar.
The weekend would culminate with a benefit dinner for CURED, in which Pecoraro would help develop the five-course tasting and help cook it.
"It's Samantha's dinner, after all," McCloud said, adding that the meal will encompass a lot of different techniques.
Pecoraro spent Friday at the restaurant learning from McCloud and will return to Cedar today for further instruction. He wanted to focus on her using her other senses to cook, relying on texture and aroma elements.
"There are a lot of things we use as cooks," he said. "Taste is not where it stops."
The apprenticeship also puts her inside a working professional kitchen.
"A lot of it is just going to be absorbing what a downtown D.C. kitchen is all about, the environment and getting a feel for what that's all about," McCloud said. "It shows Samantha a lot about what a professional kitchen's about."
A shocked Pecoraro cried when she first learned of McCloud's offer.
"I was speechless when I got that call," she said Friday, adding that she is overwhelmed by the generosity of everyone who helped put it together.
"I am so thankful to be given this opportunity to do what I love," Pecoraro said.
Asked about her first day as an apprentice, she said she has "just been taking it all in" - learning how to work the line, get food out the door.
"I'm finding it takes a lot of determination from start to finish with each meal. I find it fun to have to do something and need it done now," Pecoraro said, calling the energy and hustle and bustle in the kitchen "her calling."
"It's coming naturally to me, and I'm really enjoying myself," she said.
As for Sunday's menu, McCloud and Pecoraro are trying to develop the dishes so that they emphasize the senses of sight, smell and touch.
"I cook off my other senses, so he's really trying to do a play on that," Pecoraro said.
Her biggest fear for Sunday's dinner service?
"Since the floor does get slippery when cooking, I'm so afraid I'm going to slip and absolutely mess something up," she laughed.
The silent auction features donated items from D.C. businesses and individuals, including restaurant tasting menus and theater tickets. The suggested dinner donation was $150 for adults and $120 for children.
"We just wanted to raise as much money as we could," McCloud said.
Asked about his community's initial reaction to the fund-raiser, McCloud explained that people were unaware of the disease and a little confused. But after learning about Pecoraro's story, they were "blown away," he said.
"She's a really inspiring kid," McCloud said. "The incredible irony, and inspiring part, of her story is that she loves to cook."
He called the event a way to raise more awareness about EoE.
"Sam's an incredible ambassador for that," McCloud said.
Pecoraro recently was diagnosed with mitochondrial disease on top of the eosinophilic esophagitis. Mitochondrial disease deals with energy generated for cells, and she is currently on a new prescription to help mitigate that.
"I honestly feel a lot better on the pills," she said.
Cedar is at 822 E. St. N.W., Washington, DC 20004.