Early Wednesday morning, R.J. Cooper will be experiencing something of a role reversal. The James Beard Award-winning chef at Rogue 24 will face the working end of a knife when he undergoes open-heart surgery at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.
During an interview yesterday afternoon, Cooper sounded optimistic, if understandably nervous, about the procedure to correct a heart defect known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or a thickening of the heart muscle that makes it harder to pump blood. His nerves weren’t exactly calmed when the hospital called to delay the surgery (initially scheduled for this morning) by almost 24 hours. (“Tell you what the anxiety is killing me,” Cooper wrote on his Facebook wall.)
The chef says he has been watching videos of the procedure, which involves “opening my chest and spreading my ribs” to decrease the muscle mass in his left ventricle. He’s lost about 25 pounds ahead of the surgery (his secret: “not boozing every night”), but the hardest part of the procedure, he says, will be the fact that doctors will literally stop his heart.
“The only thing that is freaking me out is that they turn your heart off and put you on the pumps,” Cooper says. “They can’t do this while the heart is moving.”
Cooper says he has been trying to tutor his surgeon, Duke Cameron, about how to cut open his patient. The chef compared the procedure to butchering an animal and pulling out the offal. The good doctor apparently was not amused.
Assuming all goes well, the chef will be in intensive care for two to three days after the surgery and then at Hopkins for another five to seven days after that. Cameron has apparently told Cooper that, because the chef’s chest will be sewn up with titanium wires (“like trussing a chicken,” Cooper says), he will be out of action for six to eight weeks. He won’t be allowed to lift heavy objects or do anything that could slow the healing of his chest incisions.
Cooper says he will be able to see visitors once he’s out of ICU. You can also send the chef get-well messages via a special page set up on CarePages.com (registration required).
During his absence, Cooper has created what he’s calling Rogue Sessions, a series of one-week-long guest appearances by chefs, the celebrity kind and otherwise, who will create their own 24-course tasting menus. First up is Bryan Voltaggio from Volt (whose session is sold out), followed in coming weeks by chefs such as Jose Andres, Scott Drewno from The Source, David Posey from Blackbird in Chicago and Nancy Oakes from Boulevard in San Francisco. The dinners will run $185 each.
So what was Cooper doing with his extra day before surgery? Working, of course. And getting nervous: The added wait, he texted today, “just keeps the anxiety going another day.”