Blood Sugar Skillet Magic

  • Share
  • Read Later
Gary Landsman

Mussel hot pot

With his 195-cm frame and good looks, 33-year-old celebrity chef and passionate surfer Sam Talbot appears every bit an ambassador for good living. But he also has diabetes — one of 285 million people worldwide with the disease, according to the World Health Organization.

It's a disease Talbot has successfully managed through diet and exercise for more than two decades. "I learned early on that what I put in my mouth directly affects how I feel," says the executive chef of the hip Surf Lodge in Montauk, N.Y., and a veteran of the U.S. television series Top Chef. Now Talbot has put this straightforward philosophy to paper with the arrival of The Sweet Life: Diabetes Without Boundaries. Part cookbook, part memoir on life with Type 1 diabetes, the volume is packed with recipes and tips to help keep energy levels high and blood sugar low.

With the number of people with diabetes expected to approach 440 million by 2030, diabetic chefs will grow in prominence. Compared with medical professionals, they're more approachable sources of nutritional advice, able to impart much needed creativity to the topic of healthy eating. "People often say that healthy food is boring and tasteless," says Marion Nestle, professor of food studies, nutrition and public health at New York University. "But as chefs can prove, this is not the case."

Written over the past year, Talbot's book balances kitchen creativity with common sense — while steering clear of preachiness. Snacking on almonds and keeping his total carbohydrate intake to roughly 90 g per day are two of Talbot's diabetes maintenance tricks. But he also reveals the disease's unexpected "bonuses," such as eating candy bars in school to balance his blood sugar or cutting to the front of lengthy airport lines because he "had to get to some juice fast."

In keeping with Talbot's laid-back TV persona, The Sweet Life makes "diabetes less medical" and "less of a black-cloud diagnosis." North Carolina — born Talbot presents 75 diabetic-friendly dishes that are tasty, healthful and tested both in his professional kitchens and everyday life. Recipes range from simple (lemon-basil roast chicken or chickpea-and-cherry frittata) to surprisingly opulent (Key lime pie, coconut-acai granola crumble). "I don't let diabetes rule my cooking," says Talbot, "but if everyone ate like a diabetic should eat, the world would be a much healthier place."

Talbot is just one of a growing number of diabetic chef-crusaders — professionals who have realized that the dietary discipline they've been forced to acquire dovetails perfectly with the vogue for healthy eating. Franklin Becker, the executive chef at Abe & Arthur's steak house in Manhattan's Meatpacking District, has lived with Type 2 diabetes since the beginning of his culinary career nearly 15 years ago. Overweight and addicted to soft drinks when diagnosed, Becker, 42, quickly traded sugary foods — and those extra kilograms — for fresh vegetables and natural sweeteners. "Diabetes has absolutely impacted every aspect of my life," says Becker, who wrote his own healthy-living tome last year, Eat & Beat Diabetes. "It's challenged me to use my skills as a chef to make better food and help others do the same." The delicious results can be found in dishes like steamed-mussel hot pot and black sea bass with Mediterranean cucumber-tomato salad.

For 45-year-old chef Chris Smith, the shock of a Type 1 diabetes diagnosis at the age of 27 caused him to seriously doubt his chosen career. "When I was first diagnosed, I was still in culinary school and thought I would have to give up cooking," he says. "But I realized I could merge my personal experience with diabetes with my professional experience as a chef." The former executive chef at North Carolina's Wake Forest University Medical, Smith is the author of The Diabetic Chef's Year-Round Cookbook and Cooking with the Diabetic Chef, both published by the American Diabetes Association.

One of the youngest members of the fraternity is 21-year-old Canadian Luke Hayes-Alexander, who credits his Type 1 diabetes diagnosis at age 7 with his decision to become a chef. "Food quickly became the most important thing in my life," he says. "By the time I was 11, I was committed to only eating what I prepared myself." At the tender age of 15, he became chef of Luke's Gastronomy, his own restaurant in Kingston, Ontario. It's famous today for its superb charcuterie and its winery.

With obesity a serious health issue worldwide, the insights of diabetic chefs have never felt more relevant. Cooking schools like the prestigious Culinary Institute of America now include lessons on diabetic cooking in the curriculum. Still, the real goal is not just to educate but to create dishes that leave diners feeling as good as they taste. "Dessert is always the toughest challenge," admits Becker, who recently introduced a vegan, gluten-free chocolate on Abe & Arthur's menu. "But you can sweeten dishes with almond cream and agave nectar — most people will never taste the difference!"