Chef Brian Mita isn’t afraid to show off the incision that left 20 or so metal staples in his stomach, a holdover from surgery last month. On June 13 doctors told Mita, the 41-year-old chef at Izakaya Mita in Bucktown, that he has Stage 2 colon cancer. The restaurant is the only source of income for Mita and his mother, Helen Mita, the septuagenarian who owns the five-year-old Japanese pub and restaurant.
“I always try to think positive so I’m confident that I can survive this bad card I’ve drawn,” Brian Mita wrote in a Facebook post on June 14. “Please hug your loved ones for me and know that I will survive this. Love you all, b! #survivor.”
Over the weekend, Brian Mita had those staples removed. But over the last few weeks, he engaged in a series of spirited family discussions. Brian Mita, who should start chemotherapy in a few weeks, convinced his family that he could keep working through his cancer treatment. He has, however, reduced his workload; they’ve hired kitchen help so Mita can focus solely on management and bartending duties. The main thing he’s dealing with is fatigue. The only restriction doctors told him to be mindful of is to avoid lifting objects weighing 20 pounds or more. Helen Mita also noted that her son struggles to bend over. Brian Mita consented that he’s a bit slower post surgery.
The five-year survival rate for Stage 2 colon cancer is 90 percent, according to the American Cancer Society. Mom and son have positive outlooks. The restaurant underwent a light remodel earlier this year to reflect those feelings. Brian Mita said the positivity comes from Buddhism. He’s experimenting in the kitchen chasing after Michelin bib gourmand status.
But when chemotherapy starts, Brian Mita won’t be able to work for four to five months. Looking for a solution, Brian Mita’s twin brother, Steve, visited him during the July 4 holiday, traveling from New York. Steve Mita (who handles social media for the band Foreigner) started a GoFundMe page for his brother. Brian Mita applied for Medicaid to cover his hospital costs. He won’t be able to work for six months as he recovers from chemo, and the donation would keep him afloat to cover the supplemental income. It went up on Wednesday afternoon to a $15,000 goal. As for Friday morning, more than $7,300 was raised. The Mitas then increased the goal to $25,000 as more than $9,000 has been raised. Brian Mita said he hopes to donate money that surpasses the goal to Hope for the Day, a mental health charity affiliated with a Logan Square coffee shop.
Brian Mita, who grew up in the restaurant industry (his father owned a suburban steakhouse. Ichiban, frequented by Chicago Bears football players, including the 1985 Super Bowl team), called the incision a “toro cut,” referring to the prime piece of tuna that’s cut from the fish’s underbelly. The restaurant is one of the handful of Japanese pubs in the city. Brian Mita is particularly proud of his all-Japanese drink list and sake selection.
It’s been a difficult few months for Brian Mita. He doesn’t hide behind the fact that he’s struggled with alcohol and anxiety. He’s seen a therapist on a weekly basis for years, and is intent on mentioning this so that he can help break down any embarrassing stigmas that accompany psychological therapy. Mita also said he’s been sober since October, when he returned to the kitchen as the restaurant’s chef. The move came after he separated from his wife, who worked in the kitchen. Brian Mita wouldn’t say much about the separation.
October was also about the time Mita’s health began declining. He complained of constipation and other digestive issues. His mother said she urged him to visit a doctor.
“I knew something was wrong,” Helen Mita said. The mother, on the verge of retirement, has been working longer hours at the restaurant, traveling from her Vernon Hills home where she lives with her daughter and Brian’s sister, Tina.
Access to health care in general, including mental health resources, is a problem for restaurant workers. Brian Mita bemoaned the difficulty in arranging coverage for his workers. Not everyone wants to pay premiums and it’s a challenge for small businesses to provide employee coverage. Insurance is just another hurdle to running a family-run restaurant. The restaurant is Helen and Brian Mita’s sole revenue stream.
Brian Mita hopes he can return to work in fall/early winter. He says he’s got much to look forward to: His sister is expecting a child around that time and December would mark the restaurant’s five-year anniversary.
Stubbornness is a trait usually associated with chefs who are chasing perfection in the kitchen. But for Brian, it parlayed into staying away from the doctor’s office, which didn’t help him. He dropped from 175 pounds to 160. Some of it, he said, was due to quitting alcohol. But the rest of the weight loss wasn’t natural. Still, after the diagnosis Brian Mita continues to work six-day, 80-hour weeks, for the most part. Some days are better than others. He hopes he can decrease that to five days.
“When your name is on the building, you have to do everything you can,” Brian Mita said.
Mita now weighs 145, and it’s a struggle to maintain that weight, but the chef community is helping. Sometimes anxiety takes away his appetite, sometimes it’s the medication. Protein shakes help sustain him; he’s taken to social media to post photos of his attempts at gluttony. He ate a whole roasted chicken in one night. He prepared a gallon of noodles with Alfredo sauce, devouring that in two days. Upon hearing about his illness, Owen and Engine/Bixi Beer chef Bo Fowler stopped by to drop off her famous burgers. (“I’ve gotten fatter thanks to her,” Mita said.) He’s also received support next door from Le Bouchon chef Oliver Poilevey and staff. He’s appreciative.
“People suffer every fucking day and it takes a village to help you survive,” Brian Mita said.