A Diabetic Chef in the Sweetest Place on Earth: An interview with Charlie Gipe

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Hersheypark’s Certified Executive Chef, Charlie Gipe, knew he would become a chef when he was a child. On a Scouting trip where he ate terrible food, he realized that with the basic cooking skills he’d learned from his father, he could cook better than the troop leaders.  Charlie went on to study at The Culinary Institute of America.  He was hired by Hershey Entertainment & Resorts in 1998 as Executive Chef of Hersheypark. Now, as Executive Chef of Hershey Entertainment Complex, Charlie’s outlets include Hersheypark, Giant Center, Hersheypark Stadium and The Star Pavilion at Hersheypark Stadium.

Charlie has done extensive fundraising work for charities, appeared on Food Network’s The Best Of and earned his way into the Guinness Book of World Records for making the largest pot of chili.  Because he’s so generous, hardworking, and successful, you’d never suspect that Charlie has health problems.  Charlie, however, has type 2 diabetes, and the complications he has suffered have cost him a lot.

 

What does it mean to be executive chef of this huge complex… and a diabetic?

(Laughing…) Nothing like being a fat diabetic in the sweetest place on earth.

My husband and I talked about how difficult it must be for diabetics in a place that’s all about chocolate.

Hershey isn’t only about chocolate.  We’ve changed things in the last 10-15 years.  We’ve always been customer-friendly when it comes to food and we’ve always made sure people have the information about what they’re eating.  We list everything on our website.  We have healthier choices, gluten-free, vegetarian.  There’s a phone number and email address for any questions.  A diabetic can call ahead of time and find out about salads, grilled vegetables, a piece of fish…

Where do you buy the food you serve at Hershey?

We try to buy sustainable agriculture and local food.  We try to do things green and wholesome.

How do you plan menus for such a large place and so many people?

We try to have options for everyone including diabetics, celiacs, or someone who is trying to watch his weight.  We offer healthy options like fresh salad and fruit.

Can we talk about diabetes?

Sure.

When were you diagnosed?

Twelve years ago.  I’d just turned 40.  I was in Hersheypark and I started dragging my leg.  I didn’t notice, but the person I was with said, “You know, you’re dragging your leg.”  I went to the doctor and then went straight back to work.  Then my wife called and said the doctor wanted to know if I’d gone to the hospital.  My blood sugar was 645.

And you were just walking around as if everything was normal?

Oh yeah.  I’d probably been doing that for two or three years.  I was in pretty decent shape then.  I’m a big fellow, but I was about 75 pounds lighter then.  I never missed a day of work- ever.  And then all of a sudden I was a diabetic.

What changed?

I had to stop and take the time to start doing what I’d been teaching.  I had always made my employees drink a lot of water and eat small meals.  I’d been preaching that for 25 years, but I hadn’t been doing it myself.  I had to learn to eat in moderation.  I didn’t drink a lot of alcohol or smoke, so fortunately, I didn’t have to deal with giving up that.

Ten years later, I was probably in the best shape I’d ever been in, close to 100 pounds lighter than I am now.  I’d just come back from a wilderness fishing/camping trip in Canada.  I’d hiked over 85 miles.  Then I went to a chef’s convention in Las Vegas the day after I came back from the wilderness trip.  I had a problem with my foot.

What kind of problem?

At the chef’s convention I went to breakfast and to two seminars.  Then I called my wife and asked her to get a hold of the podiatrist.  I said, “I need to see him when I get back.”  I stayed off my foot, which was swollen.  I couldn’t put my shoe on, so I asked the bellman to go buy me a pair of sneakers so I could rip the tongue out.  Traveling home from Las Vegas (back to Hershey) was miserable.  And then things got worse- I ended up having two toes amputated, due to diabetes.

I had two surgeries.  In the first they thought they’d be able to save the toes, but they couldn’t.  I’m lucky it was the middle toes so I’ve got balance and can walk. I spent 57 days in the hospital after my amputation.  I was in bed for days.  I could have lost the who leg.  Actually, I could have died.  There was a two day period where it was touch and go.  The gangrene had set in.

What’s changed since the surgery?  Is your diabetes care different?

I started using insulin, which keeps my blood sugar numbers awesome.  This morning I was 111.  Last night before bed I was 94.

Perfect.

Right.  Why wasn’t I told to use insulin before?  Everyone said, “You’re a type 2, you don’t need it.”  It’s not true.  Now I take Lantus (50 units) at night and 18 units of Novolog with meals.  That keeps me perfect.

Do you ever feel yourself going low?

I only experienced that in the hospital after the surgery.

So you added insulin to your care regimen.  Is anything else different now?

Not much.  I’m a good diabetic.  I always have been.  My problem now is insulin and the weight gain it causes.  I can’t take the weight off.  I go to the gym 3-5 times a week, but the weight doesn’t come off.  I also have diabetic ulcers.  And I’ve had my eyes lasered.  I get the bleeding in the back of the eyes.  Right now my right eye is a little blurry.  I’d love to eliminate this.  I know I have the willpower to do it.

How often do you check your blood sugar?

Four times a day.

Do you count carbs?

No, but I’m going to a specialist soon to help me get on a better plan and try to lose weight.  I’m tired of being huge, although I’m very comfortable being this way.

So what happens at Hershey?  Do you never eat the chocolate?  Sometimes?

Everything in moderation.  Right now I’m in the process of doing the sweets tasting for the suite menu at the Giant Center.  There are 40 luxury suites and we have a four-and-a-half page menu that goes out to the suite holders and administrators.  Every season we add new items.  Instead of doing the tastings all in one day, we break it down to two a day.  Tastings are just a tablespoon or a teaspoon, depending on what’s in it.

I try not to eat bread.  I think bread is worse than sugar.  I love it, but it’s just terrible for me.  Everybody is different, though.  I could never be a baker because I’d be six times my size.  I can’t be around the pizza stands in the park.

What’s the role of a place like Hershey in our society, which is now battling an obesity and diabetes epidemic?  Can Hershey (or should Hershey) tell visitors that the candy and junk food isn’t really good for them?

The best we can do is to give people options.  We can’t tell people what to do.  And we’re in central Pennsylvania which is meat and potatoes land, farm country.  In Pennsylvania Dutch tradition we serve 7 sweets and 7 sours.  That’s what we put out along with the meat and potatoes.  I’ve always been big.

My father was a farm laborer for the Pennsylvania Dutch, and worked in the mornings.  In the afternoon he worked with the cooks and I learned a lot from him about Pennsylvania Dutch cooking, which is rich.  Sometimes the Amish put sugar in their gravy to give the workers more power.

So can we say, “we recommend a certain way of eating…”?  Not really.  I can say here’s an healthy option, and if you choose to do that, God bless.

But people’s health is in jeopardy.  Our healthcare system is in jeopardy because of the cost of the obesity/diabetes epidemic.

I know.  I’m a poster boy for that.  People need to read labels.  Twelve years ago when I started this process, that was a battle and a pain.  I thought, why do I need to read that? Now I want to read it.

I have to ask about the world’s biggest pot of chili!

287 gallons.  You should see the pot.  We used three fire jets to bring it to a boil.  We did it at a farmer’s market in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  We started at 4 a.m.  The hardest part was weighing it, which took about 20 people  We had local sponsors and we sold cups of the chili and donated the money to charity.

*Photos courtesy of Hershey PR.

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Comments (1)

  1. Charlie is a brave man for being so candid about his diagnosis and complications.  Thank you Charlie!  Keep up the good work in Hershey’s kitchens and with diabetes.
    elizabeth

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