Cooking Up Volunteerism

Today is the first day of the 2011 American Diabetes Association’s Community Volunteer Leadership Conference (CVLC), when some of the Association’s top volunteers and staff gather to share their passion, perspective and experience in the Stop Diabetes® movement. Although CVLC takes place in the same city and around the same time as the upcoming Scientific Sessions, it’s a completely different event that necessitates its own intricate planning. One of the most essential parts of the planning? The food!

“Planning meals for this diabetes-focused meeting gives us an opportunity to showcase some of the healthy recipes in our cookbooks,” says Bobbie Alexander, Director, Governance & Meetings. “What many people don’t realize is that the meals aren’t different for people who have diabetes and people who don’t have diabetes, but instead the meals are filled with healthy choices for everyone.” So a lot of pressure is placed on the event venue’s chef. Steve Black, Executive chef at the Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina stepped up to the task this year and brought something special and unexpected: his own experience with diabetes.

I got to ask Chef Black a few questions as he was preparing for CVLC. Here’s how our conversation went:


What’s your personal connection to diabetes?

I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of 38. I am now 49 and have been working with this for 11 years. Fortunately my line of work in a large hotel always keeps me busy and walking at a fast pace, which I find helps keep me fit. My doctor always emphasizes that exercise is better than any medicine and while I don’t always get on my elliptical trainer, I do like to get out fishing on the ocean, which can be a solid workout depending on the weather and action.

I heard that you and your team spent some time with the American Diabetes Association’s cookbooks, with heart-healthy recipes for people with diabetes or anyone following a healthy diet. Do you have any cooking tips for people who are trying to eat healthier?

For the upcoming Community Volunteer Leadership Conference, we had to create a week’s worth of breakfast, lunch, dinner and break menus along with their nutritional information. Fortunately there are a lot of good cookbooks that we pulled the recipes from to keep everything clear and accurate.

As far as eating healthy, I personally like to cook with all kinds of proteins, vegetables and salads and I try to keep my carbohydrate intake as low as possible.  Grilled fish, beef, chicken and pork are favorites with a light vinaigrette or a simple pan jus with a crisp mixed salad fills you up and helps you avoid spikes in blood glucose. Another nice summer tradition is a grilled chicken breast with grilled radicchio & a sherry-fig dressing.

Otherwise I follow basic guidelines to eat whole grains and foods that are closer to their raw/unprocessed states, instead of foods that have been fully refined (like white bread), understanding that whole foods  take longer for your digestive system to break the carbs down. I’m not a doctor, but this is my basic understanding.

I know you and your team have been working with Association staff to ensure there is proper menu labeling, so attendees with diabetes will have the nutritional info for each dish. Do you have much experience with this?

I have already seen a trend develop of groups wanting to have food items listed and some with nutritional analysis which is now easier to find with some of the websites on the Internet. Starwood (the company that owns Sheraton and other hotels and resorts) has a recipe costing program that also has the capacity to figure out several other details, one of which is nutritional analysis and breakdown.

The American Diabetes Association has a similar tool, MyFoodAdvisor, where you can enter the recipe and it will calculate the nutritional information for you – or even suggest healthier alternative ingredients! Now, tell me, what kitchen item/gadget can you absolutely not live without? Why?

My favorite kitchen gadget of all our equipment are the 40 gallon gas powered Tilt Skillets. I like these the most simply because they are the most versatile tool in the kitchen. They can be used as a fryer, which we do when we prepare our Whole Fried Alaskan Halibut, which weigh up to 30 pounds!  It can also boil water if our steam kettles go down. It can be used as a griddle to sear and brown foods and it cooks quickly with some serious BTUs (“BTU” stands for British Thermal Units – a measurement of the energy it takes to heat an item). The other gadget I find very helpful is an electric thermometer so you don’t have to really prod into a steak or fish to see if it is ready. It tells you what’s going on inside.

There are a lot of misconceptions about diabetes and food – how do you think we can overcome common myths like “people with diabetes can’t have sugar”?

I don’t know how to clarify diabetes to people who don’t understand it, but I simply explain it to others as a motor that has a bad carburetor or fuel injection and does not burn the fuel effectively. In order for our bodies to burn our “fuel” (or glucose), we need insulin or oral medication.  I also explain it tends to take whole foods containing fiber like beans and whole grains longer to break down the carbohydrates in order to produce glucose that the body will turn into energy.

If you could tell the world one thing about diabetes, what would it be?

My message to the world regarding diabetes is that I wish stem cell research was more advanced than it is. It would be a dream to have the ability to have some fresh beta cells placed back in my pancreas that could help my body perform as “normal” as possible.


Thanks to Chef Black for taking the time to share his thoughts with us. Learn how you can get involved in the virutal side of CVLC by reading our first post about the conference, here: http://diabetesstopshere.org/2011/06/21/community-volunteer-leadership-conference/.

Chef Black has received multiple awards through his culinary career and has been recognized as one of the leading chefs in San Diego. In addition, he has brought his culinary skills to philanthropic efforts, participating in fundraisers and donating food to the many people who were displaced from their homes by the 2007 fires in California. He loves fishing – and making recipes from the fish he’s caught!

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