Some people see the diagnosis of diabetes as a ‘cup half-empty’ situation. No more favorite foods, no fun activities, no expectation of living a long and healthy life.
Nothing could be further from the truth, according to Sam Talbot, executive chef at the Surf Lodge in Montauk and Imperial No. 9 in New York City and a Bravo Top Chef final four contestant. He’s also an avid surfer, world traveler, and, now, author. “You can eat a wonderful variety of great-tasting foods, do everything from jumping into the surf or out of a plane, and really enjoy life,” he says.
Talbot should know. The Charlotte, North Carolina,native was diagnosed with juvenile (insulin-dependent) diabetes at age 13.
“I had all the classic symptoms,” he recalls. “Cotton mouth, thirsty all the time, and up seven or eight times a night to urinate. I tried to keep going,but my mom, whose brother had diabetes, knew something was wrong and recognized the signs.
Talbot rebelled, like any typical teenager, against the need to measure, calculate, and balance every morsel that went into his mouth. That was until a few years later, when he landed a summer job at the upscale grocery store Dean & Deluca. “I saw how passionate people were about the food business,” he says. “Plus, I thought it was cool to be able to cook well not only for myself, but for others too.”
He used his first paycheck to pay a princely sum for the bible of French cooking, Larousse Gastronomique. He read it cover to cover and never again looked beyond the kitchen again for his career path. Talbot worked his way through Johnson & Wales University and climbed the career ladder at the acclaimed J. Bistro in Charleston, South Carolina, first as dishwasher, then busboy, and finally cook. He later moved to New York to seek his fortune as a chef and soon after founded his own restaurant. With it came the fame that results from being named one of the city’s up-and-coming culinary talents.
“My whole philosophy of food is grassroots and back to basics, and this fits in perfectly with the way I need to eat for my diabetes,” says Talbot. “For example, there’s such an abundance of fresh local produce and sustainable seafood that there’s really no need to rely on canned or processed foods. Fresh foods taste so much better and give you so much more nutrition.”
But even with a glass-half-full attitude, Talbot knows firsthand that life with diabetes is full of challenges. He handles potential difficulties by planning ahead.
“When the pastry chef brings me a chocolate torte, I taste it. It’s my duty to know what something tastes like before it goes out to a customer’s table,” he explains. “I can do this because I count carbs. My meals are mostly protein and greens, so I can taste two or three desserts during the course of an evening and not have my blood sugar go through the roof. It’s all about moderation.”
More than a month of 18-hour workdays filming Bravo’s Top Chef TV series and the stress of performing under pressure for a whopping $100,000 prize could have threatened to drop Talbot’s blood sugar dangerously low had he not been thinking ahead. “I always had a pitcher of fresh-squeezed juice waiting just off-camera in case I needed a few sips before filming,” Talbot recalls.
Airline restrictions on fluids prevent him from carrying a bottle of juice in case of hypoglycemia or low blood sugar when traveling, so he pockets hard candies. “I go to Wal-Mart and buy Lifesavers by the case. I have a roll in each pant leg, whether I’m traveling by plane or across the country by car or hiking through the Amazon.”
Talbot was inspired to write his new cookbook, The Sweet Life: Diabetes Without Boundaries, “to open another door and put rumors to rest that you can’t live an awesome lifestyle with diabetes. I know food—at home, in a restaurant, and in general.
My recipes are restaurant-style and at the same time accessible and approachable for those cooking at home.”
A good example is his classic clam chowder. Instead of cream and white flour for thickening, Talbot uses lower-fat rice milk and higher-fiber almond flour. He gives his favorite chicken wings a makeover by marinating them, placing them in a griddle an with a foil-wrapped brick on top, and simmering them until deliciously crispy. And he doesn’t skip desserts. Instead of white sugar, Talbot uses natural sweeteners such as agave syrup, honey, and fruit purees. The latter makes his pickled peach and walnut pancakes so yummy.
“All 75 recipes in my book are for dishes that everyone already knows and loves,” he says. “They’re just prepared in a fresh and all-natural way that anyone—with or without diabetes—can enjoy. That’s what I call a cup half full.”
Peas With Mint and Soft Poached Eggs
I always meet Joel, my agent, at the Noho Star for monthly status meeting breakfasts, and I always get the same thing: scrambled eggs with peas and tomatoes. Here, I have swapped poached eggs for scrambled, and I amped up the flavor by adding in some fresh mint. Feel free to swap out the green peas for snap peas or pea sprouts if you like. When the yolk breaks, the dish goes from great to stellar in seconds.
2 cups shelled fresh green peas
1⁄4 cup distilled white vinegar
1 tablespoon fine sea salt
Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon plus 1 tablespoon lemon juice
8 organic cage-free eggs
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 celery rib, thinly sliced crosswise on the diagonal
1 small yellow onion, finely diced
2 garlic cloves, smashed and finely chopped
1⁄2 cup hand-torn fresh mint leaves
2 heirloom tomatoes or medium vine-ripened tomatoes, coarsely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Bring a large pot of water to a boil over medium high heat. Blanch the peas in the boiling water until they turn bright green, about 25 seconds. Drain in a colander and run them under cold water for 30 seconds to stop the cooking. Set aside.
In a large saucepan, combine 4 cups of water with the vinegar, salt, and 1 tablespoon of the lemon juice. Bring the mixture to a rapid simmer over medium-high heat. Crack the eggs on the side of the pan and gently slip them into the water.
Let the eggs settle into the liquid and cook until coagulated, about 3 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the cooked eggs to a shallow plate. In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the celery, onion, and garlic and cook until translucent, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the mint, tomatoes, and blanched peas. Season to taste with salt and pepper and sprinkle with the lemon zest and juice. Toss well to combine.
Divide the pea mixture among 4 plates and top with 2 poached eggs per serving.
TD&N Nutrient Analysis (based on 4 servings): Calories: 314; Total Fat: 21g; Saturated Fat: 5g; Polyunsaturated Fat: 3g; Monounsaturated Fat: 11g; Cholesterol: 423mg; Sodium: 522mg; Carbohydrates: 17g; Fiber: 5g; Protein: 17g