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'Top Chef' Contestant Reveals Life-Changing Diagnosis

Dan Jacobs

This week on Top Chef: Wisconsin, the "cheftestants" will work in two big teams on a meal of bar snacks. It's a high-caliber task that calls for collaboration, communication, and support in a group environment, very different than the usual "every man for himself" model the Emmy-winning food competition encourages.

But if there's one person this season used to relying on others to help him get the job done, it's Dan Jacobs. That's because, seven years ago, the Chicago native received a devastating diagnosis of Kennedy's Disease. The rare neuromuscular disorder, comparable to ALS, blocks nervous receptors and causes progressive weakening and atrophying of the muscles, particularly in the limbs. And, as shown in the sneak peek clip below, it's consistently at the forefront of his mind as he puts his cooking--and himself--on the national stage.

Dan sought a diagnosis after experiencing uncharacteristic weakness while exercising. After talking with a physical therapist friend, he was advised to see a neurologist. Conveniently, his sister-in-law happened to be one. What followed was an arduous day of testing, poking, and prodding, before a blood test confirmed the Kennedy's Disease diagnosis.

Related: Everything to Know About Top Chef: Wisconsin

"It wasn't until about six months later that it really sunk in," Dan exclusively tells Parade. "I go for a six-month check-up assuming that, in this check-up, they're gonna prescribe me some pill or we're gonna have surgery or something's gonna happen, everything's gonna be fine. And that's when I kind of came to the realization that this wasn't going to be fine. This was something I was going to have to just deal with. There was no treatment. There was no cure. There was nothing."

Such a life-changing diagnosis suddenly put things into perspective for Dan. But he eventually came around to see it not as an end to his story, but perhaps a beginning to another one. He realized he needed to invest more in the people around him and have the capacity to delegate, whether it be his partner (also named Dan, hence the hilarious "DanDan" title of their restaurant), his staff, or his wife. Realizing how little information about Kennedy's Disease there is, he also started the annual fundraiser "Dim Sum Give Some," which has so far raised over $100,000 for research.

"This is what I can do," Dan remembers thinking. "And so I was like, 'Look, I'm not a scientist, I'm not a doctor, I'm not going to solve this problem. But you know what? Maybe I can raise some money, and maybe somebody else can."

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Despite his status, when Top Chef came calling, he couldn't say no. Any chance to highlight his cooking, restaurant, and life to millions of people had to be taken. However, considering the marathon-like quality of a typical Top Chef season, it meant proper preparation for Dan to accommodate his deteriorating physical state. As Dan told us, in every episode he participated in, he wore two knee braces, a compression shirt, and braces on his legs that he uses for walking daily. He also used a cane during "rest periods" outside of the challenges. Unfortunately, that meant Dan couldn't participate in the Top Chef trademark sprints that would occasionally begin challenges.

"It's different for everybody," he explains, admitting that, despite the care he took, he did still trip a number of times this season. "My younger brother has Kennedy's too. But he actually ran a marathon the last two years. I can't run. I can't run at all. I mean, if you told me to run, I'd be like, 'Go [expletive] yourself.'"

Interestingly, as we discover in the above clip, Dan made a choice early in the competition not to tell the other "cheftestants" about his Kennedy's Disease. Though he surmises that people may have picked up on some things from observing him wearing his braces all day, there was a simple reason why he chose not to open up about his life-changing diagnosis to everyone.

Related: Top Chef: World All-Stars Winner Buddha Lo Breaks Down His Historic Victory

"I didn't want to be looked at differently," he says. "I wanted to compete on my own merits, not on merits based on somebody's feeling sorry for me. Because I don't feel sorry for myself. And I can beat the [expletive] out of these guys, even with these things."

When talking with Dan, one thing is clear: No matter how many episodes he makes it, and no matter how much his body may be working against the arduous conditions and stress of the "Olympics of cooking," his goal for putting his body, heart, and career on the line goes beyond just one person.

"I wanted to do Top Chef because I wanted to show that no matter what, you could still excel at a high level, even though you even though you have a disability," he says. "I'm hoping that my story inspires somebody else to do something, whether it's run a marathon, be part of Special Olympics, or play basketball every Saturday. Whatever it is, I hope that what I'm doing right now kind of inspires them to push a little bit harder, do a little bit more."

Next, here's what to know about Top Chef winner and new host Kristen Kish.