Have you ever watched reality cooking shows? I often marvel at what the chefs whip up with limited ingredients, budget and time. They’re so creative and inspire me to try new things (though I admit my husband does most of the cooking). Today I’d like to introduce you to professional chef Dennis Sheehan, who is putting his culinary skills to use in a unique way.
When Dennis was 16, he got a job as a dishwasher, which propelled him into a career in the food industry. “I just loved the business, loved the energy in it,” he said. “The owner where I worked actually got me into the Culinary Institute of America® (CIA). Upon graduating from CIA in 1990, I worked in Florida, Puerto Rico, Captiva Island and in some of the finer restaurants in New York. I’ve cooked under Chef Michel Bordeaux at the James Beard Foundation®, and all over the world.”
When Dennis was at the hospital following a mild heart attack in 2007, a blood test revealed his blood sugar level was 555 and the doctor informed him he lives with type 2 diabetes. “Needless to say, I was very scared,” he said. “I didn’t have any insurance, so I felt like the doctors couldn’t wait to get rid of me. I wasn’t offered consultation. When the nurse found out I didn’t have insurance, she actually said to me, ‘Well, you’re in trouble. You have to buy a glucose meter and test strips. All that’s expensive. I don’t know how you’re going to get by.’”
Managing his diagnosis was a challenge for Dennis those first few months. “I don’t think I went to work for a week,” he recalled. “I would just go on the computer and research the statistics of complications associated with diabetes. I questioned life and wondered, ‘Why me? Why did I do this to myself?’ I thought my son, who was 11 at the time, was going to grow up without a father. I thought I wasn’t going to see him get married. It was an emotional roller coaster. Every day I would wake up wondering if today might be a day that something really bad might happen. Am I going to have a heart attack or stroke? When’s the next shoe going to fall? That was probably the hardest part, waiting for something bad to potentially happen.”
Minister Joel Osteen and Dennis’ girlfriend, Reverie, helped change his perspective. “I was watching Joel Osteen on TV,” said Dennis, “and he said something like, ‘If you’re worried something is going to happen and it never happens, you just wasted so much of your life.’ About the same time, my girlfriend said, ‘You’ve got to do something. You’re a chef. Put it to use.’ Reverie was pretty much the only person who had the guts to set me straight. I needed to be told the truth. I decided if I just started doing something, maybe I’d feel better.”
At 285 pounds, Dennis knew something had to change. He joined a gym near his home and began exercising. “At first, I felt really bad because here I was, wearing this oversized t-shirt and I could barely walk without gasping for breath,” he said. “The dude next to me was running at about 10 miles an hour at an incline without breaking a sweat. I just felt so inadequate. But finally, I thought about other things I have attempted and done well, so why not this? Why not me? Why can’t I do it? The more I educated myself on exercise and eating and diabetes, it made me want to do it more.”
Taking Reverie’s advice, Dennis also put his culinary skills to work. “I started cooking my favorite meals, but putting a healthier twist to them,” he said. “Cooking gave me a sense of control. I was forced to be creative. It made me look at food in a different light. I actually started to look at the colors of all the vegetables more. I started to get into gardening more. I made jambalaya with quinoa. I hated kale, but now I make a pesto with it and it’s like my favorite food. I made vegetable lasagna and instead of the ricotta, I used tofu. Instead of pasta, I used layers of grilled zucchini, red pepper and portabella mushrooms. When you’re passionate about something and if you want something, you’ll make it happen.”
With these lifestyle changes, Dennis saw positive results for his diabetes management. “I lost 65 pounds and was able to control my blood sugar with diet and exercise,” he said. “I started feeling good about myself. I started making lunch for both Reverie and myself, and she started dropping weight too. It was like a win-win. After making a transformation in myself, I felt like I was capable of anything in this world because I did it for myself. It’s a very empowering feeling, making a change in yourself for the better, for yourself.”
Friends and co-workers noticed Dennis’ results and asked for help. “I started cooking for people at work. I would tell them to give me a meal they wanted ‘diatized,’ or made more diabetes-friendly. And I would cook what they wanted with a spin on it, to make a healthier version of it. And it had to be cost-effective. A lot of people I work with, they’re lower to middle-class, so they can’t afford 10 dollar lunches. And guess what? They started losing weight, too. They seemed to start feeling good about themselves.”
With Reverie’s encouragement and support, Dennis is now in the process of forming Diatize®, an affordable, diabetes-friendly alternative to fast food. “We’re going to start up in Harlem where people will be able to order online, and we’ll deliver to their house,” he said. “I think it’s high time that something is made affordable that is tasty and good for you. We want to offer off- and on-premise catering, take-out and eventually eating in a full-scale restaurant, as well. We’re waiting to get our 501(c)(3) non-profit status to get going on it. Reverie has helped with everything. Every step of the way is done with her. She’s working on getting acceptance for food stamps. She’s involved in it as much as I am.”
I’m so impressed with the complete turnaround in attitude Dennis has made, from diabetes diagnosis and despair to a healthy lifestyle and wanting to help others. His passion for cooking and a vision for healthier eating options is obvious – my mouth was watering from hearing about all his different culinary creations! Has a diabetes diagnosis inspired you to try new dishes or cooking techniques? I’d love to hear about them in the comment section below. My thanks to Dennis for sharing his story.
All the best,
Disclosure: Dennis Sheehan received no compensation for this post. All opinions contained in this post reflect those of the interviewee, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies or affiliates.
The Culinary Institute of America is a registered service mark of The Culinary Institute of America.
The James Beard Foundation is a registered service mark of the The James Beard Foundation, Inc.
Diatize is a registered service mark of Reverie Santos.