Twenty-year-old culinary student Angel Hankins’ outlook has always been about living the best life she possibly could, despite hardships and heartaches she experienced while growing up in South Central Los Angeles. The glowing, soft-spoken young woman loves to cook, she admits, and, even more, she loves to smile. She beams even as she says it.
So when Hankins decided to stop seeking chemotherapy for her stage 4 metastatic carcinoma back in May, she saw no reason why her perspective should change. In fact, she decided, she wanted to make the biggest difference she possibly could with the time she has left. And she knew just how to do it: helping teenage foster girls. Hankins had a dear friend in high school who’d grown up in foster care, and although the two shared similarities in suffering abuse when they were young, Hankins always felt lucky by comparison.
“I had my mom and my grandma; I had a home to belong to. I never went hungry,” Hankins said. “My friend talked a lot about food, about not getting enough, or not getting really good or tasty food. I always gave her what I had.”
Then Hankins was referred to hospice care — typically recommended for patients who’ve been diagnosed with a terminal illness and face the likelihood of only six months of life, or less — and the Southern California Hospice Foundation reached out to see if it could help fulfill a wish for Hankins. Any wish. Hankins jumped at the chance — though she didn’t want money, of which she had little, or a car, which she had only recently acquired and then recently totaled. What she’d been dreaming about was to cook a specialized, gourmet, three-course meal for foster girls in a fancy setting.
“I just wanted to meet some foster girls and take them out of their environment, show them how to dream big. I was hoping to give them something special to remember, ‘That time a chef cooked for me,’ maybe, or introduce them to a dish they’ll always remember, or a flavor that will take them back to that day. I wanted them to know what fine dining is,” the chef-in-training said.
Hankins, who had been enrolled at Los Angeles Trade Technical College’s culinary program before she became too sick from aggressive chemotherapy, began dreaming up dish possibilities almost right away. And as luck would have it, Hospice Foundation Executive Director Michelle Wulfestieg knew the perfect guests: foster teenage girls from Pasadena’s Victor Treatment Center, formerly known as Rosemary Children’s Services. The teens had made blankets for the foundation’s hospice patients in the past.
When Wulfestieg contacted Donna Pierson, a longtime supporter of local foster organizations, the founder and chairman of the GIVE-MENTOR-LOVE Foundation (formerly known as the Cottage Guild Foundation) knew exactly whom to contact to get the ball rolling.
Within just two months, Hankins began to plan a gourmet luncheon for six special foster teens, to be held at Robert Simon’s Bistro 45 in Pasadena. Simon offered to shut down the elegant, upscale restaurant on Mentor Avenue until early afternoon, giving Hankins time to prep and cook.
And word began to spread. Famed chef Gordon Ramsay heard of the young woman whose final dream was to create a spectacular meal. He invited her to lunch at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where they talked cooking and her having to take a break from culinary school. He offered her free access to his MasterClass cooking lessons, and asked if she had access to an iPad to watch them. When she told him no, but she could use her phone, he told her he’d just send an iPad the next day. And he did.
“I still can’t believe I met him; the whole time I was sitting there, I was like, ‘Is this real?’” Hankins laughed. “I was so scared! You know how he’s portrayed as the meanest chef ever on TV? He’s made grown men cry! But when I met him, he was so kind to me, such a humble person with such a big heart. Just a wonderful man.”
Shortly afterward, with the help of Wulfestieg, Hankins got to meet another idol — “Iron Chef” winner Cat Cora. Cora blessed Hankins with a professional cooking knife and words of encouragement, just before the young woman was whisked down to the nonprofit Hospice Foundation’s exclusive fundraising event in Newport Beach, where she acted as honorary chef.
When restaurateur-chef Wolfgang Puck was contacted to see if he might help Hankins plan a menu for her dream event, he was out of town, but he offered up his No. 1 man, Hotel Bel-Air executive chef Hugo Bolanos. Eager to help, Bolanos, who grew up in Pasadena, knew Bistro 45 very well from when he was growing up. His father was a waiter there, and as a boy, Bolanos would wait for him outside, being too young to wait in the kitchen.
“I feel like I just got so lucky to get involved. … It was my day off and I got a message telling me about Angel. When I sat down and heard her story I was just bowled over, of course — she’s so inspiring,” Bolanos said. “And to come back here and cook in the restaurant where my dad worked and where I was never allowed as a kid — it’s all very emotional and really feels like a full-circle moment.”
Finally, Hankins’ big day arrived. She had spent time with Bolanos creating a menu she thought the girls would like. Something decadent and special, something unforgettable.
The six girls for whom she was cooking arrived dressed for the occasion in flowing gowns and high heels, manicured and coiffed, excitedly chatting about the day planned out before them. They admired the restaurant’s gleaming floorboards, high ceilings and fun, artsy interior. Back in the kitchen, Hankins was dressed in her best chef’s hat, some of her nerves calmed when the fragrant dishes took shape.
Together, she and Bolanos worked side by side, chopping, dicing, sprinkling herbs and salt. Hankins, seizing the opportunity, asked lots of questions: “How do you know exactly how much to plate on each one if you don’t measure?” Bolanos smiled. “I just eyeball it. It’s about 4 ounces,” he said.
Hankins playfully rolled her eyes, and Bolanos looked up to add, “Hey, I’m just the sous chef today.”
Before the meal, Hankins welcomed and introduced herself to the girls, telling them about herself and why this moment was such a dream for her. In typical fashion, Hankins didn’t hold back: “I’ve been crying all day, I just went into the bathroom earlier and had a good one,” she admitted, as the girls giggled with understanding. She continued to tell them, “The reason I wanted to do this… well, I guess I feel like I’m blessed. I’ve been through so much and I’m still able to smile. I know all kinds of pain already, like death and all that stuff.”
She talked about her situation — and later on in the day, she sat with the girls who wanted to talk and shared her own story. She believes in being an open book, she told them. People should live to express their emotions.
“I’m still here, and I’m gonna put a smile on my face while I am. And I’m tired, y’all,” she added, laughing softly. The cancer tires her, she admitted, and she’s in pain. “But I am so incredibly happy I get to be here with you guys, and hopefully you like the menu and we can all talk and share some stories, and I’m here if you’d like someone to talk to, because I know how that feels to just want to talk and feel normal. … I want to be normal, too.”
Separately, Hankins shared details of her journey. She had suffered abuse and molestation at a young age. She’d lived with her grandma since she was 16, and finally was living her dream in culinary school, when, at 18, she found out she was pregnant. It would be tough to have a baby so young, she knew, but she was ready. By the time she went in for her 12-week checkup, however, she got the devastating news: her thyroid levels were way off, and two bumps that she’d always had near her throat, and been told were harmless, were in fact cancerous. She was told she’d have to sacrifice the baby in order to begin treatment, which “just broke my heart,” she recalled. She underwent the procedure and surgery to remove the cancerous lumps, only to learn afterward that the cancer had already spread to her lungs and liver. For a time, she would go after school to the hospital, on the weekends, and then back to school, after treatment. She was determined to get through school. But the aggressive chemotherapy she underwent made her incredibly sick. “I started having nerve damage in my skin where it felt like I was burning everywhere, I had sores on the bottom of my feet and my hands; I couldn’t walk.”
So she made the decision to quit the treatment, and keep living the best life she could.
“Since then, my whole life has changed again. … I’ve just met so many incredible people,” she said, gesturing toward the young women before her —“just like you all here today.”
One by one, courses were served — fresh lobster on homemade linguini with pesto, tender seared lamb with a red wine reduction glaze, broccolini and sweet potato puree. The girls oohed and ahhed over the dishes. Hankins began to eat in the kitchen, noting, “Chefs aren’t supposed to sit down with their guests,” but Pierson persuaded her to join the group.
The girls ended up finishing a wonderful meal together, talking a lot about food and flavors, Hankins giving words of encouragement to them to stay in school and go to college. Follow their dreams. They added each other on Instagram.
One young woman, 16-year-old Leah, noted her happiness about the experience.
“I’ve never had a chef cook for me before … it was so nice. Angel is a beautiful person, and she’s different. She’s just not like everyone else. She knows how to express herself, and she’s so open with us,” she said, adding that the pasta was the best she’d ever had.
Nearby, Wulfestieg spoke about the extraordinary nature of Hankins’ mission. In all her time at the Hospice Foundation, she had never met anyone whose last wish was to help someone else.
“Angel is very unique — she is so full of life and doing so remarkably well, and is eager to continue to create life experiences,” Wulfestieg said, adding that even Ramsay was taken with her. “It’s just a testament to Angel’s personality and her warmth and her love to serve food and serve others with kindness. She’s using her gifts and talents to give back and give hope … here you have a woman who shows her emotions, knowing she is going to die and isn’t afraid to talk about it. She’s just an incredible human being.”
After the luncheon, the girls hugged, talked, cried, and hugged some more. Pierson, whose foundation is dedicated to mentoring the foster girls and helping them create new lives, spoke at length with them afterward. The six girls were awestruck by Hankins, she noted, and can’t wait to arrange more occasions to meet.
“It was absolutely life-changing for these girls that attended. … Each girl walked away a changed person,” Pierson said. “To see someone as loving and selfless as Angel, doing this with such joy, and such a message of hope, it was just incredibly profound. We all cried so much.”
Hankins plans to meet her newfound friends again soon, and she’s eager to teach them more about healthful, fresh food and share some Cajun recipes, one of her favorite cuisines.
In the meantime, she hopes her story will draw attention to the Victor Treatment Center in Pasadena. Hankins would like people to help more foster youth stay together with their siblings — something she had hoped to do when she was older, she added.
To learn more about how to help foster girls at the Victor Treatment Center, or offer donations or volunteer to its foundation, the Give-Mentor-Love Foundation, contact Donna Pierson at (951) 500-9553 or