Chef Sam says not winning "Top Chef" was
INTO THE FIRE
by Jessica Stolzberg
Whether standing over a hot flame or competing on reality TV, Chef Sam Talbot keeps his cool--and his diabetes in check.
By the time he was 16, Sam Talbot was all about food. Working at an eatery in high school, he was introduced to the "bible" of French cooking, Larousse Gastromique, and his fate was sealed. Sam worked his way through culinary school in restaurants--from dishwasher to busboy to cook--and moved to New York City when he was 24, essentially to seek his fortune as a chef. Two years later, he had been recognized by Forbes magazine as one of New York's up-and-coming culinary talents, had opened a restaurant in Brooklyn, and had left it to become executive chef at a downtown New York restaurant called Punch.
But there's more. On a whim, Sam tried out to become a "cheftestant" on Bravo's Top Chef, a reality show where 15 chefs compete for $100,000. He was selected and last summer, Sam spent 38 days filming in Los Angeles, slicing and dicing through challenges that ranged from creating an original ice cream flavor (Sam made ginger snap and citrus crumble) to cooking a dish using only one color (Sam chose yellow and made lemon corn muffins). He won five challenges and made it to the Final Four, which took place in Hawaii. Top Chef aired in the fall of 2006, and Sam won $10,000 for being the "fan favorite."
Sam, who has had diabetes since he was 13 and started wearing an insulin pump a year ago, admits that it was difficult to keep his blood sugar stable during the filming of Top Chef. "Lack of sleep and exercise and constant pressure really makes for your worst nightmare. But again, keeping focused and being vocal about certain needs made for a much smoother experience."
Since the show, Sam hasn't stopped moving--or cooking. He's traveled the country to seek out regional dishes, is pursuing restaurant possibilities, and is collaborating on a new fundraiser with JDRF called Chefs for a Cure. Look for more about it in future stories!
Q. Can you describe your diagnosis experience?
A. I was constantly thirsty and parched all of the time. My uncle had type 1 so my mother was pretty sure I had diabetes. She took me to the doctor and my blood sugar was over 700. We were really scared. But my mother is my best friend and she made the normally terrifying situation very calming. She was great, and I will never forget that night. They wanted to keep me overnight at the hospital but instead my mom convinced them to let me leave. Once my blood sugar was going down, she took me across the street and we had milkshakes and sundaes. She said, "Enjoy, because this is the last time you can do this!"
Q. How did you react to learning you had diabetes?
A. It was hard to find out the alarming news. Especially being so young and on my way to high school. But my friends were supportive and my parents and doctor were great. So I did what I always do: Keep my head high and keep on barreling through. You know the saying, "If God gives you lemons, make sugar-free lemonade!"
Q. How old were you when you knew cooking was going to be your life's passion and work? What inspired you to pursue this path?
A. I started cooking at home at around age 13. But I truly found it as a craft I could pursue around age 17. It came naturally to me. You are born with certain attributes. It's how you utilize them, that's what makes you who you are. It could be snowboarding, financing, or being a cook. Whatever it is, you have to truly find your niche and keep with it no matter what it takes.
Q. Does having diabetes in any way affect your experience as a chef? Do you ever prepare dishes that you are not able to eat?
A. Of course there are certain things I don't or can't eat. But as a chef I have to try everything. It's my duty to know how everything tastes before it hits my customers' tables. I just have to be aware of everything that goes into my body. Actually, being a professional chef gives me a better insight into food. You have to look at food in a certain way. Not as a means of survival, but as a way you would like to survive. Food can alter your mood, your appearance, and your mental being. The more you know about the products you consume, the better off you are.
Q. What do you do to best take care of yourself?
A. I exercise daily. I drink water often. For the most part, I try to stay away from artificial sweeteners. As for cooking with them, I just don't do it. It's better to keep it natural, fresh, and clean. If you eat natural, you feel natural.
Q. A night "on the line" in a restaurant's kitchen is extremely physically demanding. Is there anything you do to best control your blood sugar levels when you are working?
A. I always have some juice nearby just in case of those super stressful situations. But with years of practice and preparing ahead, I usually have no problems on the line. Unless an unexpected food critic shows up, then diabetes or not, you are on edge!
Q. What was it like to see yourself on television when Top Chef aired?
A. Wow! Watching yourself on TV is completely surreal. I would get stomach cramps before the show would air on Wednesdays. It's hard to remember what you said or how you reacted to people or challenges. But now I'm a natural "ham"! Practice makes perfect, or so they say!
Q. With the intense challenges on the show, in and out of the kitchen, were you able to maintain your blood sugar levels?
A. With diabetes, your regimen is pretty solidified. So when you are thrown into an unfamiliar situation with 14 strangers cooking for $100,000, things get a bit out of hand! The production staff was very accomodating to my needs. There definitely were times though when we would have ten minutes to cook something and my blood sugar would be 50. I would have to stop what I was doing and drink some juice. Some of those times I would still overcome and win the challenge, and that was the best feeling ever.
Q. What is your favorite dish to prepare?
A. I would have to say all things seafood. I love eating and preparing the freshest seafood available. I also have a weakness for duck confit. It's not the healthiest thing you can eat, but, hey, I'm a chef, right?!
Q. If you could share anything with a child who has just been diagnosed with diabetes, what would it be?
A. Just remember, there are a lot of worse things that can happen. Plus, now you have a great excuse to stay in shape, exercise often, and always be in the know. So when you ask yourself, "Why me? How come I have to check my blood sugar? Why do I have to carry syringes? How come I have to count my carbohydrates?" just remember diabetes is a part of your life, try to embrace it the best you can. Checking your blood sugar and monitoring what you eat is a part of your daily routine. Just like brusing your teeth, you do it daily and you know it's good for you!
Q. Please tell us what life has been like since being on the show and how you are now spending your time.
A. Life after the show? That's a great question. A lot of traveling, shaking hands, and hearing, "Aw, man, you totally should've won." Not winning Top Chef was a blessing in disguise. It took me a while to realize that, but once I did it makes all the sense in the world. Life has always come full circle for me, and it's about to come around! "
This article appeared in the Summer 2007 issue of Countdown for Kids.