When Chris Smith was 27, he got bad news in the form of a type 1 diabetes diagnosis. Now known as the Diabetic Chef, Smith is making the most of having diabetes by “re-teaching America to cook.”
Smith calls his culinary style “reality cooking.” He authored “Cooking With the Diabetic Chef,” a 150- recipe paperback cookbook filled with simple, basic everyday recipes, from blueberry muffins to banana pancakes and many more.
“One of the components of reality cooking is nutritional MVP-MVP for moderation, varietyand portion control,” Smith explains. “I teach my audiences that the key is quality foods that are quick, home-style foods and comfort foods that they can realistically make for everyone at the dinner table. Even my children and my wife enjoy them.”
Back in 1993, Smith was a college student at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, when he started feeling sick with severe stomach cramps, excessive thirst and trips to the bathroom.
“I was being treated for an ulcer that did not exist,” Smith says. “I was drinking 3 to 4 gallons of liquid a day.”
In just six months, the 5-foot-10-inch chef lost 35 pounds, withering to just 105 pounds. Help came in a last-ditch visit to a new physician and a 45-second test that diagnosed Smith with type 1.
Smith’s new doctor was concerned about the compatibility of diabetes with his culinary career.
“He gave me a choice of leaving the culinary industry, as I was working 18 hours a day, six days a week, which wasn’t conducive to a healthy lifestyle at that age,” Smith says. “But I had chosen my career. This was something I was committed to for the rest of my life.”
Making the Best of the Situation
Smith didn’t realize what he had to share, and he didn’t start thinking about combining the two things with the greatest impact on his life-cooking and diabetes-until he was asked to give a talk before a New York University endocrinologist’s diabetes group.
“People kept coming in the door until therewere no more seats left,” Smith says. “Just before I spoke, I looked at the door and I saw a totem pole of heads looking in the window, just to see me. It was a feeling of disbelief that really shook me to the core-that the room was full of people to see me.”
Smith, who is the fifth child of six in his family, wasn’t used to that kind of attention.
“At that moment I had an epiphany: that Icould take my years of experience of having diabetes and merge it with my professional experience of being a chef,” he says. “I started going around to different local communities and providing recipes. I started going out and looking at the audiences, and I found there was a dire need for really good, flavorful food.”
A Focus on Lowering Fat and Sodium
Smith says he eats and cooks everything he wants. “I do nothing different just because I have diabetes. I cook what I’d cook for anyone,” he says. “I focus on lowering fat and sodium, looking at classic dishes like a simple roast chicken or turkey.”
Although he is the executive chef at WakeForest University Baptist Medical Center and is an author and public speaker as well, Smith says he still enjoys cooking at home.
“It’s instinctual,” he says.
“I have diabetes and I focus on eating healthy,” Smith says. “But it’s also true for my children. I’m teaching them about their palates, about the taste of sodium and fat, but not overdoing it. So they have a greater awareness and also a palate trained not to want the extra sodium and fat. People with diabetes, cardiac patients and everyone should be aware of sodium and fats.”
Foods that are always found in Smith’s kitchen include chicken stock, fresh herbs and fresh garlic, extra-virgin olive oil, fat-free half and half and a variety of fresh seasonal vegetables.
“I like using different-colored potatoes andtomatoes, which can complement just about any other dish,” he says. “They’re the makings of very healthy, flavorful meals. Conceptually, you use a protein, such as lean beef or chicken, and you can create hundreds of different flavors. When you start, you want to have an idea of the finished product’s taste and work toward that taste.”
Mix in Some Exercise and Regular BG Monitoring
While all of this time in the kitchen may be a hazard for someone counting carbs and using an insulin pump to treat diabetes, Smith says his weight isn’t a big problem.
“I’ve always been extremely active,” says Smith, who is training to run a marathon. “My exercise regimen also includes visits to the gym twice weekly.
” Smith also monitors his blood glucose regularly and eats four to fivesmall meals a day. Consuming smallermeals throughout the day and eatinguntil you’re just 80 percent full decreasesyour chances of overeating, he says.
“Personally, I like to test my bloodsugar about eight or 10 times a day,” hesays.
While cooking and monitoring hisdiabetes come easier to Smith, he sayshe is convinced that most people of hisgeneration have forgotten how to cookhealthful and tasty foods, the way ourgrandparents did.
“My goal is to teach America how tocook healthy. Everyone I ask wouldagree that their grandparents’ style ofcooking is what they really enjoy. And,when you look at that, it really is theclassical cooking that I learned inschool,” he says.
We have become a convenience-orientedand super-sized nation. Unfortunately,the direct result is obesity inall age groups and people acquiringdiabetes at epidemic levels.
“I want to re-teach America to cook,”Smith says. “I want to empower peopleto enjoy food again. Because we are diagnosed with diabetes, it is assumed thatour food has to be bland. I’m here todraw the line and say, no, it does not.”
What do you cook for your family?
Everything. Nothing different just because I have diabetes. I cook what I’d cook for anyone. One of my focuses is lowering fat and sodium, looking at and working with classic foods-dishes that are as simple as roast chicken or turkey.
What foods do you always have in the fridge?
Basic foods like chicken stock, fresh herbs, fresh garlic, extra-virgin olive oil, fat-free half and half. I always try to get fresh vegetables and some different vegetables in season like different-colored potatoes and tomatoes. From these foods you can complement just about any other dish. They’re the makings of very healthy, flavorful meals. Conceptually, in good cooking, you have a protein, such as lean beef or chicken. You can create hundreds of different flavors. You want to have an idea of what the finished product will taste like and work toward that.
As a chef, you’re always in the kitchen and around food. Is weight an issue for you?
No. I’m beginning training for a marathon. I have always been extremely active, under the scale in weight. As a chef I run around a lot, and I’m active with my wife and children. I have a rigorous exercise regimen that involves going to the gym twice a week.
What surprises you most in your travels and meetings with folks with diabetes?
People don’t know how to cook. I feel very strongly that my generation has lost the ability to cook, and my goal is to teach America how to cook healthy meals.
How is your approach to diabetes different in terms of what to cook and what to eat?
From a chef’s perspective, I know whatsomething tastes like. I like to teach peopleto combine ingredients, to improvise, tothink about how the flavors meld andcomplement each other. The techniquesand methods of cooking are the templatesfor excitement and flavor.
What tips can you share about types of foods, recipes or food preparation for peoplewith diabetes?
Write notes in your cookbooks.Take a look at recipes and redefinethem. We can look at recipes andsubstitute items, provide alternatives,use fresh herbs and spices.