The Diabetic Chef
How Chris Smith dealt with the shock of his T1D diagnosis to inspire others with diabetes to cook good, and healthy, food.
The following edited excerpt comes from Dr. Beverly Adler’s book, My Sweet Life with Diabetes: Successful Men with Diabetes.
Chris Smith is a Certified Executive Chef and author of Cooking with the Diabetic Chef and The Diabetic Chef’s Year Round Cookbook. While training at the Culinary Institute of America, he endured months of unquenchable thirst, frequent urination, cramps, and fatigue. Rapid weight loss sent him to his doctor, who quickly diagnosed diabetes and recommended that he leave the career of his dreams. Then he went to visit a certified diabetes educator (CDE) and things changed.
As the CDE helped me to understand diabetes, she said something that would forever stay with me: Diabetes is one of the few diseases you can control.
That statement was so powerful to me. I have control? I have the ability to manage my disease and ultimately avoid complications that can occur with poor management? I can control my diabetes and not have diabetes control me? That was all I needed to hear.
My career? Not a problem, just manage my diabetes. What about running or biking? Not a problem. What about food – what can I eat? Not a problem, but I needed to keep aware of how my body processed food and how it would relate to my diabetes management.
I walked out of that office determined not only to manage my diabetes but to continue my pursuit of becoming a professional chef. The opportunity that resulted in my diagnosis was actually a message from which we all can benefit: be proactive and incorporate a healthy lifestyle by eating properly, exercising, managing stress, and continuing to work together with your healthcare team to best manage your personal health. That’s how my life with diabetes began.
On one of my visits to my endocrinologist, he suggested I could teach a cooking class and demonstrate a simple recipe or two for his diabetes group. It sounded like a lot of fun, so I agreed.
It was held at the doctor’s office, and the 40 chairs set out filled quickly. Just before being introduced, I noticed that the back door was wide open. There were three heads, one on top of another, looking in because there was no more space.
There was a seriousness in the audience that I was not expecting. People were attentive and taking notes throughout the demonstration. I asked the audience members how they would best describe the diabetic foods they currently ate and prepared. Dry, tasteless, no flavor, no variety. They asked about portion size, carbohydrates, and salt intake. I was comfortable discussing the food and ingredients that supported a healthy lifestyle, but I was surprised by the group’s interest in their well-being and in how all things affected their glucose levels.
By then, I had graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, got married, and was working full-time at a four-star hotel. Wanting to start a family and move off Long Island, I accepted an Executive Chef position in North Carolina with Marriott in its health care food services operation. Working long hours, starting a family, and managing my diabetes became the daily juggle.
After settling into his role as executive chef, Chris called the editor of the American Diabetes Association’s Diabetes Forecast “just on a whim” to offer recipes for people with diabetes. That phone call quickly led to a cover profile article and an offer of a position as associate editor.
Within a very short time I was invited to speak at medical facilities and to health care professionals. More and more requests poured in. In time I saw that I would have to decide either to stay in the corporate world or take the riskier path – following my newfound passion as The Diabetic Chef. The answer came to me one night as I spoke to an audience in Kansas City.
At the end of that night’s program, I stayed as usual to answer questions. The crowd slowly dispersed, and a person came up to me, saying, “Thank you, Chef Chris; you saved my son’s life tonight.” I smiled, feeling slightly awkward about how to respond to such a profound statement.
As she shook my hand she said, “I am not sure you understand. She pointed to a man sitting a few rows back. “My son was diagnosed at a very young age and, after many years of not being in control, he’s developing complications. He’s frustrated and losing hope. It was a chore to convince him to come with me tonight, but he listened to you share your story…so thank you, Chef Chris.’”
Experiences like that over the years have confirmed my belief that I am doing the work I was meant to do. Some might see my diabetes diagnosis as a blessing in disguise; I believe that it’s a blessing in plain sight.
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