What’s it like being a chef with Type 1 diabetes, grappling with a disease whose management is so intimately defined by food choices?
Since my diagnosis with Type 1 diabetes, my career has been a mixed blessing. I was diagnosed last year, after over a decade in the food industry. While my culinary experience has allowed me to tackle a new diet with delicious aplomb, diabetes has also been the cause of some professional discontent and uncertainty.
The bulk of my career has been spent in restaurants, and a restaurant kitchen is a particularly challenging environment in which to tightly manage one’s blood sugar. Scratch cooking requires lots of tasting, and a restaurant is a minefield of starchy temptations, unknown carb counts, and wildly inconsistent eating patterns. It is also stressful and hectic, and there can be little opportunity to pre-bolus or take fingersticks, to say nothing of sitting down and calmly waiting for a glucose tab to pull you out of a hypo.
Being a chef is not an impossible career for a person with diabetes by any means; many before me have successfully negotiated these challenges, and far greater ones. But for me they have conspired to make professional cooking a more anxious act than it ever had been before.
My apprehension has only been heightened by my decision to significantly restrict my carbohydrate consumption. It was obvious from the beginning that sweets and starches would be fraught dining choices for the rest of my life. Initially I didn’t realize how far I would go with carb restriction, but within only a month of my diagnosis I embarked on a very low-carb diet, à la mode de Bernstein. I am fully convinced that is the best chance I now have of living a long, healthy and complication-free life.
As a result, I’ve largely lost interest in the carby dishes that used to excite me. Pastries and pasta and breads now hold little attraction, and preparing them is a ritual that has lost its magic. As I become more and more comfortable with my new diet, it is increasingly difficult for me to imagine loving a job that would entail preparing a mainstream, high-carb menu. Old dreams – owning a burger shop, a pizzeria, a fried seafood shack – have dissipated.
You might think, then, that I’d look back on my diagnosis with resentment. To the contrary, when I reflect on this life-altering twist of fate, I usually find myself beaming with gratitude. Gratitude for the support of my family and friends and for their own good health; for the medical advances that have already saved my life; for the wisdom of the more experienced people with diabetes who have taught me how to thrive with this disease.
I am also grateful for salami and cheese, old friends that have helped me through this trying year.
My very first job in the food industry was as an apprentice cheesemaker. I was paid very little but had free access to the bounty of a small organic family farm: a chest freezer full of meat, a vegetable garden, and the cheese cave itself. I had a few cookbooks and tried cooking on my days off, naturally gravitating towards the starchless and sugar-free recipes that best featured the hyperlocal ingredients at hand.
Next I focused on meat at an Italian restaurant renowned for its whole animal butchery and house-cured salumi. I learned how to cook every part of a cow and pig, how to salt and dry and ferment to preserve meat and enhance its flavor. As I progressed I worked at butcher shops, and ran restaurants with highly meat-centric menus, which became known among paleo and keto diners for our devotion to the centrality of protein on the plate.
I’ve realized that I was almost always something of a specialist in low carb foods. Not that I would have ever thought of it that way. I began on this path many years before I ever had a medical inducement to skip carbs. I just happened to think that these were the most delicious foods in the world. And now I find myself with a lifelong disease that appears to reward me for eating my favorite foods.
Having diabetes means cooking and eating will never be the same as they were in my previous life, and my new diet has entailed many sacrifices, but I feel blessed when I consider that some of the foods that first sparked my passion have now become more important to me than ever. I haven’t quite figured out what my future in the cooking world will look like, but I am excited to see that there is an endless landscape of amazing low carb food, both familiar and new, stretching out in front of me, just waiting to be explored.