Tom Valenti on Paula Deen, Diabetes, and the Economics of Healthful Eating
As readers of this website know, I’ve been far removed from everyday cares up in Yosemite National Park this week. So I barely got to focus on the Paula Deen announcement that she has Type 2 diabetes (lucky me). But before the weekend descends, I wanted to touch base with Tom Valenti, chef of Ouest restaurant in New York City, a man with Type 2 diabetes, and the coauthor (full disclosure: with me) of You Don’t Have to Be Diabetic to Love This Cookbook, a recipe tome for people with diabetes.
I asked Tom to share a few thoughts on this week’s news and on diabetes in general:
TOQUELAND: What was first thing you thought when you heard the news?
VALENTI: I wasn’t surprised because I think that the style of cooking speaks for itself. Diabetes is an epidemic. Heredity has a big role in it for sure, but if you look at how she cooks it’s not surprising.
TOQUELAND: How did you feel about the fact that she waited three years to share the news?
VALENTI: I think it’s a complicated question. On the one hand, health is a private matter. On the other, if moms are trying to emulate her in the kitchen, or if children are asking their moms (or dads) to cook for them based on her show, with no boundaries, then I think they were entitled to that information. Otherwise, it’s a bit of a fantasy.
TOQUELAND: To what extent do you think chefs or food personalities are responsible for what they cook, serve, or show to their public?
VALENTI: It’s all relative to your audience. I feel like my audience is very small and fine dining is the exception rather than the rule to eating and we should be paying attention to what we eat all the other times.
As for Paula Deen, I don’t think we should be judging her, notwithstanding the fact that she waited three years to tell the public. Should she have taken some responsibility over three years with what she was pushing? I don’t think so, actually.
If you’re going to go after Paula Deen, it’s a slippery slope. What about soft drink companies? What about the bottomless pasta bowl at a chain restaurant? What about anyplace or anybody who doesn’t serve utopian cuisine? I don’t want to go there.
TOQUELAND: How old were you when you were diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes?
TOQUELAND: What was your reaction?
VALENTI: At first, it was denial, but we have it in our family so I wasn’t totally surprised. I didn’t really change my eating habits initially, but then I started noticing that they had a physical effect on me, most particularly on energy levels. It was happening before I was diagnosed but I never attributed it to anything specific.
TOQUELAND: What’s been the biggest revelation of living with diabetes?
VALENTI: That it’s manageable, for those who are able to do something about it. I’m very fortunate in that within the context of my profession, I have great quality food surrounding me. I have the knowledge necessary to prepare it according to my restrictions. So I’m at an advantage. Is it an occupational hazard? Well it can be, but it’s not as bad as it is for most of the American public in that a lot of people can’t afford to buy the greatest quality ingredients nor do they have the luxury of time in their schedule to shop and prepare them. So they’re at the mercy of mass-produced food. That’s why the commerce of prepared food has exploded in America and that’s partially why diabetes is an epidemic and why our children are obese.
Look at a simple calculation: In a lot of cases, you can buy two or three boxes of macaroni and cheese for less than it costs for a head of broccoli. That’s a problem.
TOQUELAND: In our book, we made a point of not using any of the fake or substitute products that are marketed to people with diabetes and other diseases.
VALENTI: I think that was very important. A lot of these alternate things masquerade as healthy when in fact they’re not; they just have less sugar. I was doing an interview yesterday and the same subject came up and I mentioned our approach to those nasty specimens. [Note: We tasted a number of popular artificial products before we began testing recipes for the book, and dismissed the entire category immediately.] I mentioned that rather than agave nectar or Stevia, we elected to use granulated sugar because it’s what people have in their cupboards. Getting back to the macaroni thing, agave nectar is very expensive. People who use sugar and white flour as an economic measure, should be allowed to continue using them. We tried to show them how to use less.
TOQUELAND: Our publisher, Workman, hired a diabetes educator to help us on the book by advising us and doing the nutritional analyses of the recipes. What did you learn from her that you didn’t know already about the disease?
VALENTI: Well, we all know that you have to watch your intake of salt, but I didn’t realize how modest a portion of salt the USDA recommended on a daily basis. [Note: This is because people with diabetes are at increased risk for heart disease and other maladies.] What was alarming to us during the recipe-testing process was how high the salt content was in many canned and jarred things, even unadorned products like canned tomatoes, which have a lot of naturally occurring salt. That was a real wake-up call.
Animal fat was another revelation. Just the amount of fat in what we in this country consider a standard serving of protein is astounding. I was really enlightened in terms of portion sizes, so the recipes in the book include, say, a 3- or 4-ounce piece of steak instead of a 7- or 8-ounce piece. When you mention steak to an American, an image pops to mind of a big sizzling love fest, when in fact, a piece half that size, with veggies alongside, is plenty for a meal.
TOQUELAND: What kind of feedback have you gotten on the book?
VALENTI: People love that the recipes aren’t just watered down versions of pre-existing things. I look at our fettuccine with asparagus, where shaved asparagus stands in for half the pasta. So you get an allowable amount of carbs plus a vegetable that bulks up the serving size and makes it very healthful at the same time. A lot of our recipes were specifically engineered to work on their own terms, not a watered down version of something else.