Imagine falling in love with food without even being able to taste it. While battling cancer, baker and co-owner of the Nickel Diner Kristen Trattner did just that.
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As a visual effects artist for George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic, Kristen was accustomed to tight deadlines and pressure. Working 12 hour days, she didn't think twice about a swollen lymph gland until she went to the doctor and a week later, at the age of 36, was diagnosed with stage 3 tongue cancer.
Due to the radiation treatments, Kristen developed third degree burns on her face and in her mouth. "Everything happens in your mouth. It's where you speak; it's where you taste; it's where you kiss," Kristen explains. "So when this area closes down, you sort of forget what it's like to be human."
Even though she lost her sense of taste, she discovered a love of cooking. "I would cook, and I would cook all day, because I could still smell. And smell became the thing that linked me to what I think is my journey back to health," Kristen says. After completing the radiation treatment, Kristen slowly regained her sense of taste and changed her life.
As a woman over 40, Kristen realized that some things just happen for a reason. She says she's actually pleased she got cancer, because it led her in a different direction. She said goodbye to the money and the fame of the movie industry, moved downtown, and met Monica May, who ran a café down the block. Monica and Kristen decided to open a diner together in an abandoned building in a Los Angeles neighborhood.
Without a business plan and a name, they leased the space without any idea of what they were doing. Kristen calls the Nickel Diner their love child. The menu is based on food that Monica and Kristen enjoy eating, famously their maple bacon donut.
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"One day we were sitting at the café banquette, riffing on how cool it would be if you could have your French toast collide with your bacon and your syrup in a donut," says Kristen. "What makes our donut great is its brioche, so it's kind of like an adult donut."
Food Network's "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" recently featured the Nickel Diner, and suddenly they were getting visitors from outside of the area. Kristen says she's amazed at how far people have driven to eat at the diner. She believes handcrafted, high-quality food should be accessible and affordable to all.
"For all the years I worked in the motion picture industry and for sort of the glamour of the motion picture industry, it does not compare to feeding people well. And there's just a moment where somebody puts something in their mouth, and they are surprised, and they're delighted. And it's so simple."
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