For the Epileptic Chef, It’s Always Epilepsy Awareness Month
The sweet smell of cookies wafts through Artez Thompson’s kitchen. Pumpkin spice, black walnut, chocolate hazelnut. Once they cool, he’ll glaze them with purple frosting in honor of Epilepsy Awareness Month, his busiest time of year.
Epilepsy Awareness Month falls every November. But for the 43-year-old Thompson, best known as “The Epileptic Chef,” it’s a constant event. He’s lived with epilepsy for nine years. And while epilepsy awareness is his central mission today, it wasn’t always.
Home Cooking Plants the Seeds for a Rising Talent
From the start, cooking seemed etched in Thompson’s DNA. He baked his first cake at age 5 alongside his great-grandmother. German chocolate made from scratch. “That cake had a big influence on me,” he says. “It set the stage.”
At 7, Thompson’s mom allowed him to cook hot dogs. Soon, he graduated to spaghetti. By middle school, he was watching the Frugal Gourmet and Julia Childs on TV.
One day when his mom was out, Thompson got hungry. He sorted through the refrigerator and cooked up a dinner of macaroni and cheese, fried chicken and mixed vegetables. He wasn’t even a teenager yet. “She couldn’t believe it,” he says. “The next morning, she asked me to make an omelet.”
From there, his mom taught him how to cook.
At 19, Thompson enrolled in Chicago’s Washburne Culinary and Hospitality Institute, earning an associate’s degree in culinary arts. He dabbled in cake decorating—and unearthed a talent for it. The more he baked, the more his passion grew.
An Epilepsy Diagnosis Fuels Advocacy for Epilepsy Awareness
In 2010, Thompson was baking shamrock chocolate lollipops when he started “feeling funny.” He rested, but the odd sensations returned. With his tongue tingling and numb, he went to the emergency room. They checked him and sent him home.
One week later, he had a tonic-clonic seizure. Two weeks after that, he had another. At age 34, epilepsy had arrived.
A few years after his first seizure, Thompson moved to St. Paul, Minn. He had baked cookies for a women’s empowerment event when an attendee sparked an idea. “She said, ‘You have epilepsy, right? You should bake cookies in support of epilepsy awareness.’”
Within a month, Thompson had dismantled his business and rebuilt it with a new concept and logo. The Epileptic Chef was born.
The first batch of Epilepsy Awareness Month cookies Thompson sold benefited the Epilepsy Foundation of Greater Chicago. In 2016, the foundation hosted an event at McCormick Place convention center. Thompson asked if he could sell cookies there, “trying to test the waters,” he says. He sold about $80 worth of sweets that day, sharing partial proceeds with the foundation.
Since then his business has exploded. To his 1,200 Instagram followers and clients, Thompson is known simply as “The Epileptic Chef.” He sells cookies, cakes and cupcakes at pop-up shops, craft fairs and fundraisers around St. Paul.
He cares as much about raising epilepsy awareness as he does about baking. “I set up my stand and tell people about epilepsy,” he says. “They buy cookies, T-shirts and mugs, and I donate some of that back to the Epilepsy Foundation.” (See the Epileptic Chef’s baked goods and merchandise on his Facebook page.)
For Thompson, Epilepsy Awareness Month Means Ending Epilepsy Discrimination
Through baking, Thompson educates the public about epilepsy—and everything it means to live with it. For him, the days of working for others largely are over. He’s been fired unjustly too many times, a casualty of epilepsy discrimination.
It’s frustrating, he says, because companies do discriminate against people with epilepsy. “I’ve been fired from two jobs this year alone for having seizures,” he says. “I had one guy tell me if he had known I had epilepsy he never would have hired me. The minute people find out I have epilepsy, I’m gone. This seems to be the norm, not the exception.”
Having epilepsy has made Thompson cautious about the kitchens he agrees to cook in, even as a contractor. Fast-paced kitchens aren’t an option for him. Too much stress can trigger seizures. Besides, Thompson dreams of making it big on his own terms.
When he does, he’ll hire people with epilepsy to work for him, he says.
“We have a condition that we cannot control,” he says. “For employers to deny us employment because of it is unjustifiable and undignified. There’s no prosthetic limb for someone when you take away their spirit. And that’s exactly what they’re doing.”
Finding a Creative Outlet
Keenly focused on new marketing tactics, Thompson thrives on working with his hands. A true craftsman, he strives to make each design better than the last.
This fall and winter, he’s building a website, participating in holiday auctions, competing in a chili cook-off, granting interviews—and baking like crazy. Through November, Thompson is selling shortbread cookies in pumpkin spice, black walnut and chocolate hazelnut flavors. In late November and December, he’ll also offer egg nog, peppermint and crème de menthe cookies.
To taste the Epileptic Chef’s creations for yourself and support his epilepsy awareness mission, place your order through his Facebook page.
“Baking is a process,” he says. “It starts with an idea in your head that goes down on paper. Then, it jumps off the paper and springs to life, right in your mouth. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”