During most of my 37 years as a professional chef, I looked at life as an all-you-can-eat buffet. As ambassadors of gastronomy, chefs see it as our duty to produce wonders for the palate and to partake liberally of our own food and the creations of others. Chefs eat dozens of mini-meals per day—a taste of this, a smidgen of that.
But when those meals consist of a steady stream of foie gras, spoonfuls of butter-laden sauces, and fried this-and-that, the caloric intake can soar and the pounds can add up. My repertoire has ranged from rich daubes (French meat stews), salmon with butter-based sorrel sauce, and cassoulet to the artisan Jewish classics we prepare at the restaurant I now own and run in Portland: pastrami Reubens, chopped liver, and potato latkes—all delicious; none known to be slimming.
Then about two years ago, my food obsession collided with medical reality.
I hadn’t been to a doctor in seven years. I thought I was reasonably healthy—though a little overweight. Then my wife got me to visit her naturopath. He informed me that I had type-2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome—obesity, high blood pressure, and elevated cholesterol and triglycerides—all of which put me at high risk for heart disease and stroke. An “uh-oh” moment, to put it mildly.
After half a day of feeling sorry for myself, I resolved that I would take immediate action: I would craft a diet that was satisfying and tasty, and would put me on the road to health. That evening, I went to the local Asian market and gathered the ingredients to make my first post-diagnosis meal: a Vietnamese pho (beef noodle soup). My version, which was just as delicious as the traditional recipe, included whole-grain noodles and leaner beef.
Many of the attributes that made me a successful chef—discipline, a strong work ethic, and practical knowledge of food and nutrition—helped tremendously in my recovery. From the first day of my diagnosis, I dramatically reduced my intake of refined carbohydrates and sugars and increased my consumption of vegetables, fruits, and lean proteins. I sought balance in what I ate, offsetting higher-calorie lunches with lighter dinners. I replaced snacks of chili dogs and ice cream with small amounts of dark chocolate and frozen cherries. I also started walking three to four miles per day, every day, rain or shine.
Within five months I had reversed my diabetes and lost 35 pounds. My cholesterol and blood pressure dropped into normal range. I chronicled these changes in a regular weekly column for The Oregonian newspaper called “Diary of a Diabetic Chef.” My health became a matter of public discussion, which added to my incentive to stay on course.
The path I took was not based on a restrictive diet. For someone with my background, that would have been a recipe for failure. I continued my love affair with food while seeking balance and good health. I believed I could have my cake and eat it too—just a smaller piece.
Life post-diagnosis is more like a tasting menu. It’s been surprising how much I enjoy this way of eating. Before my health scare, my palate was, in many ways, jaded and overstimulated. I ate tasty food when it was in front of me, whether I was hungry or not.
Now I eat more mindfully. I still love bacon, but it’s two pieces a week, not 12. My burgers are quarter-pounders with lean meat on a whole-grain bun, hold the bacon and cheese. My pastrami sandwiches have shrunk from 8 ounces to 3 on whole-grain rye, with mustard instead of Russian dressing.
As a chef, I still cook for flavor. But I think about how I can make some dishes healthier. That hasn’t traditionally been a big concern for most chefs. Our job has always been to tempt. But as our society deals with ailments such as diabetes, obesity-related diseases, food allergies, and intolerances, chefs are learning to accommodate all sorts of health needs in their cooking.
We can produce amazing results if we focus on what is both healthy and flavorful. I’m living proof of that.