Among the many career paths in the world, being a caterer might appear to be somewhat challenging for a person living with diabetes to pursue and enjoy. But Thomas Vest, chef and owner of southern Maryland-based Catering By Vest, is an exception – a person living with type 2 diabetes who genuinely enjoys spending his workday surrounded by food.
Vest was raised on a diet full of traditional Southern dishes like mac and cheese, chicken and dumplings, and chicken livers smothered in gravy – “all the fattening foods,” he says. But Vest also had an aunt who worked as a professional cook; it was she who taught him how to prepare the lighter, healthier foods that she made for her clients. As a young man, Vest was hooked. Though he started out in veterinary medicine, he eventually switched to a career in food, first working for the Washington, DC, public school system, trying to figure out ways to sneak healthier ingredients into the students’ favorite foods. “I always took an interest in cooking,” he explains. “I really love it because it’s an art – you become creative.”
But while working for the DC public school system, Vest began noticing changes in his health. “I couldn’t see the letters S-T-O-P on the stop sign,” he says. “I couldn’t stop running to the bathroom.” When Vest went to his doctor, his blood glucose level was in the range of 600 mg/dl. He was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.
Many people might have reacted by switching careers, but instead, Vest stuck with food. He re-evaluated his own reasons for eating comfort foods, and developed tools to deal with stress other than his fork. Professionally, he continued to learn as much as he could about different styles of cooking, and eventually launched his own catering business. Today, more than twenty-five years later, he caters more than 200 events a year.
If you ask Vest his age, he’ll laugh and tell you that he’s “twenty-two and keeping it fresh.” (My guess is he’s a bit past the first blush of youth!) But if you ask him what his philosophy is toward food and cooking, he is unflinchingly direct: it should be as fresh and flavorful as possible. “I don’t mean this as a put-down, but in my view, a lot of Southern chefs kill the food twice,” he says. “They cook the vegetables till everything is out of them. My attitude is to keep it as pretty and green as possible.”
Vest, who himself loves snacking on crunchy things like carrots and celery, tries to bring foods to life in healthier ways. “My title in the kitchen is ‘King Flavor,’” he says, “because I love to use spices and herbs.” Garlic, rosemary, fennel, thyme, ginger – they all find a way into his cooking. “I can take a roasted potato,” says Vest, “and make that thing holler.”
Vest copes with his own diabetes by making a point to eat three regular, healthy meals a day and trusting his staff when they sit him down and insist he get something to eat. He’s also found that living with diabetes himself has influenced his overall philosophy of how people should eat – including the importance of cooking. “I think people feel challenged by the idea of taking the time to prepare their own meal,” he says. “But cooking your own food, it slows you down. When you sit down to eat, you can actually enjoy it, instead of just gobbling.” Having struggled with his own weight, he also relies on some old tricks – like thorough chewing. “If you work those jaws, you’re not going to eat as much,” he explains.
All of this personal experience also helps him design meals for his clientele, many of whom have type 2 diabetes. It requires balancing what he knows his customers like to eat with healthier touches, such as using fruit purees instead of sugar, or playing up the herbs and spices. And at the end of the day, Vest also recognizes that sometimes, true deliciousness requires some balance. “I make an amazing sugar-free banana pudding – people don’t believe me when I say it doesn’t have sugar.” He laughs. “But then I tell them, I didn’t say it was fat-free. I use real cream in there.”
Catherine Price is a freelance journalist and type 1 diabetic who has written for The New York Times, Slate, Popular Science, and O Magazine, among others. She blogs about diabetes at asweetlife.org. Catherine is currently working on a book about the history and science of vitamins, to be published by the Penguin Press. Price is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor and interviewee, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.
© 2013 The DX: The Diabetes Experience