A Diabetic Top Chef Shares His Wisdom

If you're a diabetic, you know what a predicament food can put you in.  For most, finding meals that are diabetes-friendly is difficult enough-let alone finding meals that are both diabetes-friendly and delicious.

Well, tell that to Sam Talbot, Top Chef Season 2 Finalist and Executive Chef of the Surf Lodge in the Hamptons, and the soon-to-be Mondrian in New York City's Soho. Diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 12, Talbot has not only lived with the condition but has thrived in a career in which flavor and decadence takes precedent over carb-counting and portion-monitoring.

How has he flourished in the culinary arts with diabetes? How does he manage his condition on a personal level? Was competing on Top Chef difficult, given his health issues? I sat down with Sam to ask him these questions and more.

SC: So, you are writing a book on food and diabetes?

Chef Sam: Yes, the book will focus on diabetes-the lifestyle and cooking that's associated with it. Aside from recipes, I want to concentrate  on the day-to-day of the diabetic: How to travel, how to eat on the road, things like that. Pretty much the do's and don'ts associated with the disease.

SC: So, what's your personal approach to your cuisine and managing your diabetes?

Chef Sam: As far as the restaurants are concerned, I need to cater to what the masses like; but there are dishes that I've created that are a direct result of the way I eat at home. Basically, my philosophy is that everything needs to come in moderation. You can eat pretty much anything, even as a diabetic, you just need to know exactly what you're putting in your body and when.

SC: When did you find out that you had diabetes?

Chef Sam: I was diagnosed when I was about 12 years old.

SC: How did that play into, or maybe even deter you, from getting into cooking?

Chef Sam: You know, I think everyone is born with a certain natural talent, and I feel cooking is mine. I think being a chef has opened up a world for me. When you're 12 years old, you're not thinking about your blood sugar or your health, or any of those things. You're thinking of baseball cards and TV shows. I think it took a little while for me to understand the connection between being diabetic and cooking, but  it was around the time I was 16 or 17,  when I started my first cooking job at Dean and DeLuca's as a production chef, and  my mother was always telling me to check my blood sugar.  That was an eye opening experience. I realized,  "I have this condition, and it's not going away," and "I'm kind of good at cooking," so let me work to put these things together.

SC: What do you think is the most important aspect of cooking as a diabetic?

Chef Sam: I try to keep my cooking as natural as possible, as fresh as possible, and seasonal. Not a lot of milk, not a lot of processed flours or sugars. I try to stay away from anything white.

SC: What would be your advice to any diabetic who absolutely loves food?

Chef Sam: Again, it's really about moderation. I truly believe it. You can have the certain foods that you crave, whether it's chicken fingers or French fries, as long as it's in moderation. And you need to plan your day around that. If you know you're going to a birthday party where you can just relax and cut loose, where there may be some comfort foods you might eat, you have to plan your breakfast around that. You have to know that at 4 o'clock you might be eating hamburgers with white bread; it's about being in the know and managing it.

SC: So tell me a little bit about Top Chef. A big question that pops up is with such a time crunch and limitations, how do you find inspiration?

Chef Sam: On the show, I don't know if you have time to find inspiration, you just go. You pull out any tricks you might have. There's not a lot of time to think, and the inspiration comes from, "Oh man, I hope this is going to work." Once you start, there's no time to stop the thought process and start a new dish.

SC: How did that whole process shape you both personally and professionally?

Chef Sam: It definitely taught me to take criticism a lot better than I would have or as much as I'm normally used to. You have the judges criticizing you; you're on national TV, so it's very humbling.

SC: That's interesting because many people would think your fame after the show would maybe work the opposite way.

Chef Sam: No, definitely not. I know where I come from.

SC: Finally, your new restaurant. Tell me what a customer can expect when they enter the restaurant at the Mondrain.

Chef Sam: Well, I'm from the ocean, I've lived most of my life near the ocean so most of the dishes I cook are from the sea. Also, I try to be as sustainable as possible. You know, I'd really like to run the bottom line of using a lot sustainable seafood products, sourcing them from all over to give the most eco-friendly and freshest product possible.

SC: Finally, what comprises the perfect meal?

Chef Sam: The perfect meal, for me, comes from being outside, on the grill, close to the water. Simply put.


You can find out more about Sam's healthy recipes, his new restaurant, and how he copes with diabetes at http://samtalbot.com/.