Celebrity chefs rally round Yorkshire’s Tim Bilton in his cancer battle

Last year, chef Tim Bilton found out his cancer was terminal and he might only have a year to live. He writes a blog about his life and has been amazed by the response. Catherine Scott reports.

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It has been a quite a year for Tim Bilton and his family. What should have been one of the worst years, after being told cancer had returned, was terminal and he could have just a year to live, turned into one of the most memorable.

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“It was devastating to be told the cancer had returned for a third time, was stage four and was therefore incurable and if I didn’t have treatment I would only have a year to live,” says Tim, 47.

Tim Bilton pictured with hiis wife Adele, and sons Henry and Charlie at their home at Highburton, Huddersfield.Picture by Simon Hulme

“But in many ways it is liberating. I had always been so driven and a perfectionist. When you are given such a prognosis you reassess everything that’s important to you, and for me that’s Adele and the boys.”

Tim also decided to talk openly about the disease, which first struck him in 2013 when he was tipped for the top, in his blog On a Knife Edge.

The idea had been to raise awareness of men’s cancers and encourage anyone who feared they may have the disease to seek medical help. But above all he wanted it to be brutally honest about what he was going through.

“There was no point writing about it if I wasn’t going to be truthful,” he says.

Tim Bilton pictured at Cannon Hall, near Barnsley.Picture by Simon Hulme

What Tim couldn’t envisage was the response, not only from the general public, friends and family, but from the culinary world.

And one positive that has come out of it is his friendship with Michelin-starred chef, Jean-Christophe Novelli.

Jean-Christophe’s son Valentino was diagnosed with the childhood cancer neuroblastoma at ten weeks old. Now three, he is cancer free but has severe autism which means he may never speak.

It was while taking part in Celebrity Hunted for Stand Up to Cancer that Jean-Christophe planned to meet Tim having heard what he was going through, but it didn’t work out.

Tim with sons Charlie and Henry and celebrity chef Jean Christophe Novelli

Jean-Christophe said: “I rang Tim and the first thing he said was ‘How’s your son?’ I couldn’t believe it after everything he was going through the first thing he thought about was my son. He is a remarkable man and a great chef. I truly believe he would have had two Michelin stars by now if this hadn’t happened to him.” Novelli really wanted to help the Yorkshire chef and organised to visit Cannon Hall Farm, near Barnsley, where Tim works and do a fundraising masterclass with him.

But that wasn’t all.

“I decided to contact my chef friends and ask them to send a short video message of good wishes to Tim,” said Jean-Christophe.

And even he was surprised by the response.

Jean Christophe Novelli and Tim have become good friends

From Tim’s former mentor Raymond Blanc, to chef Ken Hom, from Jamie Oliver and Tom Kerridge to Gordon Ramsay, video messages of support for Tim flooded in.

“It was crazy,” recalls Tim. “Jean-Christophe has become a really good friend and we speak on a regular basis. It’s as if I’ve known him all my life.”

One particular video had a real poignance for both Tim and Jean-Christophe.

“I hadn’t spoken to Gary Rhodes in ten years but I left him lots of messages asking him to call and I was surprised when I didn’t hear anything,” says Jean-Christophe. “Then weeks later I got a call from him saying he had only just got my message as he didn’t use that phone any more and he immediately did this amazing video message for Tim.”

A few months later Gary died suddenly from a head injury in Dubai.

“He was such a lovely man, and then suddenly he is gone, it hit everyone really hard,” Tim says.

Tim Bilton at his restaurant The Spiced Pear at Hepworth nr Holmfirth where he was tipped to get a Michelin star until cancer struck in 2013 just as he was opening the restaurant

Support has also come from Leeds-born, three-starred Michelin chef Marco Pierre White. “I answered the phone and this really recognisable voice said ‘Hi it’s Marco’ I just couldn’t believe it,” says Tim. “As a young chef he was my hero and everything I aspired to be.” Marco now calls him every other week for a chat.

Yorkshire chefs have also done their bit to support Tim and his family.

Adam Jackson, now of the Feversham Arms, in Helmsley, and formerly of The Park restaurant, in York, held a fundraising dinner which raised £5,000. Tim was too ill to attend, but was moved but the support.

Then last summer, his friend Wendy Preston helped Tim’s wife Adele organise a surprise event for Tim with the help of Tommy Banks, Steph Moon, Andrew Pern, and hosts of local suppliers who all gave their time and produce for free. Along with Adele, Tim’s children, Henry, 14, and Charlie, seven, are the centre of Tim’s world and he spends what time he has left preparing them for when he is no longer around.

“We have always been very honest with the boys. Charlie was only one when I first got cancer so has never really known Dad without it. For Henry it has been harder, but they are both amazing boys. The other day Henry had to write a piece about his hero – and he chose to write about me.

“I am writing a book for the boys. I try to write about 300 words a day, about my childhood about what I think is important, about meeting Adele and bits of advice for them in the future when I am not here.”

Cancer first struck Tim in 2013 just as his fine-dining restaurant, the Spiced Pear, in Hepworth, near Holmfirth, was about to open. He was diagnosed with a very rare form of cancer in his eye and his world, and that of his family, was turned upside down.

“My way of dealing with it then was to try to ignore it. Cancer happened to other people but not to me, I didn’t have time. I was so busy getting the restaurant open.”

Straight after chemo and radiotherapy at Sheffield’s Weston Park Hospital, Tim was back behind his stove.

Then in the summer of 2015, the cancer spread to his saliva glands and he was forced to admit that he needed to take time away from the business. The surgery and subsequent treatment, which led to a loss of taste, made him feel worse than the illness, and there were times when he wanted to give up.

But gradually he built his strength back up and dared to hope he had beaten the disease – until last spring. He has three monthly scans and undergoes regular immunotherapy which is keeping the cancer at bay. It leaves him with extreme fatigue, but if it gives him longer with Adele and his boys then he will continue to do it.

“I have made my peace,” adds Tim. “I don’t want to leave my family but I know it is going to happen, and in some ways that’s liberating. We are all going to die, the difference is I know that it will be sooner rather than later and that changes your outlook on life and prioritise what’s important, and that’s my family.”

Tim Bilton has been shortlisted as Inspirational Individual, in the Yorkshire Choice Awards, on March 14.

Tim with Jean Christophe Novelli and Nigel Barden
Tim now works at Canon Hall Farm. He says not only does it give him a distration which he loves, he also needs to provide for his family
Tim with son Charlie who was only one when his dad's cancer journey began