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The Brilliant Young Chef with Diabetes

Diabetes helped inspire Luke Hayes-Alexander to cook

Luke Hayes-Alexander’s parents always suspected there was something special about their son. Tall and eloquent, Luke read War and Peace when he was seven, and, at eleven, he announced his intention to devote his life to food. When he was twelve, he butchered his first suckling pig; he became the executive chef of his family’s 22-seat restaurant in Kingston, Ontario shortly after his 15th birthday.

Now 21, Luke has wowed diners – and food writers – around the world with his elegant and unusual creations, which range from his signature homemade charcuterie to culinary tributes to ancient Rome. Luke has been called precocious, brilliant, and one of Canada’s most intriguing and inventive chefs.  But there’s one fact about Luke that most articles about him rarely discuss: he has type 1 diabetes. We asked Luke, who was diagnosed when he was seven, to tell us about how he balances his life with diabetes and his passion for food.

How did you and your family react to your diagnosis?

As is true with most children, I was fearful and nervous and confused. But I think once the initial shock wore off, it changed the way my family and I thought about food. In a way it encouraged us to look at food with new eyes. Sure, we had to understand the proteins and the carbohydrates and the fats and all the scientific stuff, but we also wanted to understand food from the perspective of general nutrition and taste, and to only bring food onto our plates that we had made ourselves. That was probably my first real education about food. I didn’t announce I wanted to be a chef until I was 11, but I think that my diagnosis may have helped push me toward food a little bit.

How do you yourself eat?

I eat the same way I did when I was younger: homemade food, local food, good meats, and food from a lot of different cultures. I don’t generally eat sweets or anything like that, but because of my insulin pump, I do eat carbohydrates. I weigh them on my scale and know exactly what I need to take. If I had to pick one standby snack, it would be really good bread and really good peanut butter, but in general I really like to make my meals as interesting as possible.

When you look at and evaluate food – say, when you’re shopping at the farmer’s market – which comes first: Luke the diabetic or Luke the chef?

My first reaction is to look at the beautiful stuff at the market and think about the fabulous food I can cook with it, and how great it will taste and how lovely the textures will be. If I’m cooking for myself, then by the time I’m home, I’m thinking about the diabetes aspect if I’m eating these carbohydrates I need to balance them with protein, things like that. But while diabetes affects what I eat, it doesn’t at all affect what I prepare for the restaurant. The first part of me that shines through is the chef.

What would you say to someone who’s just been diagnosed with diabetes and is worried they’ll never be able to enjoy food again?

The first thing to do is to learn as much as you can about diabetes, to understand it so that you can help manage it. That needs to be done regardless of what you think about food. But then you can embrace food. If you’re responsible with your diabetes and you understand your food, you can enjoy the food and still take good care of yourself.

What do you find most challenging about having type 1 diabetes?

I guess the most frustrating part is when I have a blood sugar reading that’s higher or lower than I want, and I don’t really know why. I think about it and think about it, and it just doesn’t make sense. It’s frustrating because there’s no way to prevent it next time if you don’t know why it happened this time.

What’s the best part about having diabetes?

Probably how it got me into the kitchen and got me to think about food. There are a lot of negatives about diabetes, but that is one good element that I’ll always be grateful for.

Do you ever get sick of thinking about food?

Surprisingly, no – I’m grateful to say that I truly enjoy it. Food is my life.

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. Find out more about Luke Hayes-Alexander at Lukesgastronomy.com. All opinions contained in this post reflect those of the interviewee, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies or affiliates.

© 2012 The DX: The Diabetes Experience

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