North Carolina-born chef Sam Talbot first came to national attention when he placed third in the Season 2 run of Bravo’s Top Chef TV competition. Sam, who has type 1 diabetes and wears an insulin pump, held the executive chef position at several New York City restaurants, including Black Duck, Williamsburgh Cafe, and Punch, before opening his current restaurant, the acclaimed Surf Lodge, in Montauk on Long Island.
Sam has been active in helping search for a cure to diabetes. In 2011, in conjunction with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, he helped plan and co-host “The Sweet Life Kitchen,” an annual fundraiser featuring his diabetes-friendly dinner course. He is also author of “The Sweet Life: Diabetes without Boundaries,” a 75-recipe volume that includes tips for living with diabetes, both from himself and such celebrities as Halle Berry and Tommy Lee. (Sam’s website is located at www.samtalbot.com/.)
Diabetes Health publisher and editor-in-chief Nadia Al-Samarrie recently sat down and spoke to Sam-catching him, at long last, during a break in his busy schedule.
Nadia: When you came to the public’s attention as a semi-finalist on Bravo’s “Top Chef,” how did you manage your diabetes while competing in such a highly stressful situation?
Sam: When I was on “Top Chef,” it was really stressful, with a new environment, new people, and no diet-actually, a complete lack thereof. No sleep, either. The one thing I relied on, literally the whole time, was my meter. I checked my blood sugar at, jeez, three times the rate I normally do. I was obsessed with it and checking on it as frequently as possible. I’d learned that habit at a much younger age. Not that a 13-year-old can be under that much stress, but whatever situation you’re in, whether it’s playing sports or competing on a TV show, stress can get to you.
Nadia: Did you find that your blood sugars were really high and that you had to make some adjustments? What were some of your observations from testing so frequently?
Sam: I was doing a lot of correcting. I was doing a lot of chasing, like in a Tom and Jerry cartoon-chasing my blood sugars. At 3 o’clock in the morning when I’d have to wake up for the Fish Market at 5:30, my blood sugar would be 330. It’s really hard to start your day at the crack of dawn on national TV with a blood sugar of 330.
But I did what I knew to do. I checked and monitored as much as possible to stay on top of what was happening to me. The first few days were really stressful and intense, but by the end of the week I had the hang of it somewhat. I could partially make up for high readings in off times when I’d grab a healthy snack.
Nadia: How did you manage to get healthy snacks?
Sam: The producers would go to the grocery store for us, and we would cook in the house. So I was able to eat fresh salads and whole grains.
Nadia: In your book you make the statement, “I am not going to live my life with the idea that I can’t eat certain foods.” Did that apply when you were young, before you became a chef? How did you work around the restrictions on your diet?
Sam: I remember my mother helping me search out alternatives to things I couldn’t eat. One of my favorite things was a crumb cake with apples in it, so we found this really cool bakery in Charlotte that made a sugar-free version when I was 14 or 15. My mother was instilling in me at that age that there’s never a final no. You just have to keep searching.
And the search continues-I like going to different markets and learning about alternatives. That’s why I get so stoked when I go to certain events, whether it’s one for LifeScan or an event with OneTouch, and parents come up and say, “It’s so great that you guys are bringing these alternatives to light and putting them into a book.”
When I say there’s no food that’s off limits, there really isn’t. You just have to have that desire to go out and find alternatives. The list of things that you can find alternatives to is long-it goes from sugar to fat to refined flours to sodium. Whatever it is you’re talking about, there’s an alternative out there for it. It’s really cool when you start to get into these products and learn just how accessible they are to everyone, anywhere, who has access to a computer.
Nadia: Your grandmother also influenced you to look at food differently and make some changes?
Sam: Yes, my grandmother, Beatrice Nato. She lived in Cleveland. When I visited my grandparents, we would wake up some Saturdays or Sundays and go to the little farmer’s market nearby. Back then, the offerings were just eggs, milk, cheese, and yogurt. It was great to go to the market at age eight with my grandmother and come back and take some eggs and whisk in some fresh milk. We’d talk about why we were whisking the milk in, why we were cooking the eggs on low, what kind of cheese we were going to put in, and how we were going to cook the sausage. These were all cool things to an eight-year-old.
Nadia: After learning these things from your grandmother, did you take some of her recipes and make them even healthier?
Sam: Exactly. That’s all I did. I would take recipes of the stuff that my best friends and I had eaten growing up in the South. Comfort dishes for days like today, when it’s cold and wet and rainy. There’s nothing more in the world I would love right now than to sit down over a big bowl of mac ‘n’ cheese. But I don’t want to have to worry about what it’s going to do to my blood sugar. I know what I’m going to have to sacrifice if I want to sit down and have a giant bowl of macaroni and cheese. So, what do I do? I kick in those alternatives. I’m going to have my mac ‘n’ cheese, but I’m going to make it with shiitake noodles and hemp seed milk instead of heavy cream. I’m going to switch out those worthless, fat-ridden calories.
Nadia: You have so many great cooking videos. Which one is your most popular video, and why?
Sam: I think that some of the most popular are the ones where we talk about what we’re eating, why we’re eating it, and what it’s going to do to us later.
Nadia: Would you say that your healthy comfort foods video (http://www.5min.com/Video/How-to-Make-Healthy-Comfort-Foods-517241666) carries out that concept of being aware of what you’re eating and why?
Sam: For me, it’s all comfort food. It’s about taking the foods that I grew up on in the South and finding a way to make them in a different, healthier way. I do the research so everybody else doesn’t have to, and put it in a book. We talk about why we’re eating shiitake noodles instead of macaroni, because they have zero carbohydrates and zero sugar and they adapt to any flavor. We talk about why we should be drinking almond milk instead of regular whole milk, or why we’re messing around with hemp seed. It’s a way of raising the level of awareness about what we put into our bodies. Why would we want to put certain things into our bodies, and how do they fuel us?
Nadia: That’s great. The more we know, the better choices we can make. You use the term “integrated kitchen.” What does that mean?
Sam: That just means taking all the things that I want to be involved with and integrating them into my lifestyle, whether it’s cooking, raising awareness for diabetes, or raising awareness for sustainable fisheries around the world, and using the platform I’ve been given to talk about the things that I’m passionate about.
Nadia: What are your challenges now as a celebrity chef in managing your diabetes?
Sam: I don’t know if I necessarily see them as challenges. Everybody who has diabetes wakes up in the morning, and we all take a shower, we all brush our teeth, and we all do our hair. I think people living with diabetes have a few more beats to our step. We have to do a few more things, but I don’t necessarily think they’re a challenge.
Nadia: Well, say you’re going to travel to a remote area or do some adventure sport: Aren’t there things you have to worry about, such as your insulin or even emergency services?
Sam: Whether I’m going to uptown New York or to some remote area, I’m always thinking ahead. When you live with diabetes, you’re a little bit more cautious and proactive: You do more preplanning. When I have to travel somewhere, I’ll jump online, do a quick study, and find out where local hospitals are.
American Express now has a great medical concierge service where if you’re a member, you can call and say, “I’m traveling to London and then going on to Uruguay,” and they’ll map out hospitals. And I do little things, like packing some natural carbs or heavy snacks that have sugar so that if I get a low blood sugar reading and am in a remote place, I can quickly and calmly take care of things.
Nadia: That’s really good information about American Express.
Sam: Yes, I learned it firsthand. I was traveling with a friend in Denmark and one of us got sick at a restaurant. I said to a waiter, “Oh my gosh, we’re in Denmark, what are we going to do?” The waiter asked, “Are you a member of American Express?” When I said I was, he gave us contact information and said, “Just give them a call.” We did, and they lined everything up for us-where to go for help and who would be there to help us. I thought that was so great.
The next book I write is going to have great bits of information like that, including how to jump online and get important information about emergency services if you’re traveling abroad. It will cover the fun things, too, such as local foods and food markets. Maybe you’ll be in a remote area where there aren’t any cafes for breakfast, but you’ll know where there’s a little local grocery where you can get some fresh fruit and yogurt.
Nadia: Has there ever been a point in your life when you didn’t have medical insurance or had it interrupted or canceled? If so, how did you manage your diabetes?
Sam: There have been times in my life when I didn’t have medical insurance, but I managed my diabetes the same way that I always have: constant checking.
Nadia: What adjustments did you have to make? Did you buy generic strips as opposed to brand-name strips?
Sam: I think I bought generic strips, but I checked just as frequently as before, and I tried to eat as healthily as possible. I wasn’t without coverage for a long time-it was maybe a month or two.
Nadia: Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?
Sam: Well, there’s the partnership between LifeScan and me. We’re working on some really cool things with OneTouch. I’ve been using the OneTouch meter for some 20 odd years, and now we’re partners trying to raise the level of diabetes awareness and education. We’re doing a program, Life First, where I’m working out a bunch of different recipe campaigns.
We have a Facebook page where you can check that out as well. So, there’s lots of things going on, and tons of videos we’ve been working on.
Nadia: I had no idea that you have so much going on.
Sam: Nadia, you’ve just had a good day because you learned something new. My grandfather always used to tell me that if you learned something that day, then you’ve had a good day.
Nadia: I agree with that, Sam. If you can positively influence one person in your life, you’ve done a good deed.