Tom Valenti is on the warpath. The New York chef and cookbook author is determined to convince parents — anyone who will listen, actually — that if they want to be healthier they should spend more time in the kitchen.
“People need to make time to cook,” said Valenti, who was in Houston recently to promote his new book, You Don’t Have to Be Diabetic to Love This Cookbook, and teach cooking classes at Central Market. “I’ve been absolutely on the warpath lately, trying to convince people they have to make time to cook. What they’re feeding their kids is killing them.”
Once he gets people in the kitchen, Valenti wants them to cook healthier foods, getting flavor from seasonings and fresh foods rather than fat, salt and sugar. That goes for everyone — diabetics or not.
Valenti, 50, and chef/owner of both Ouest and the West Branch in New York, was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes 14 years ago but initially ignored it. He said he got little direction from his doctor but understood diabetes because his father suffered from the disease.
“I was young and single and a chef in New York,” said Valenti. “My father had always warned me to watch my sugar, but I ignored it.”
His friends Mario Batali and Bobby Flay owned restaurants not far from his own. After work — which might be 11:30 p.m. or so — the three men would go out for their own dinners.
They’d eat and drink and eat and drink, and the next day Valenti almost always felt bad. He chalked it up to “a little too much hooch.”
“I went through five stages of denial and eventually started placing more value on having a longer life,” he said.
He hopes his cookbook can help others navigate diabetes, a disease now at epidemic levels. Some 9 percent of Americans have been diagnosed with diabetes; 10 percent of Texans over age 18 have the disease.
Breakfast recipes offer ideas for smoothies but also omelets, flourless savory crêpes and whole wheat pancakes. There are salads and starters, soups, sandwiches, entrees and desserts. Low-carb wraps or lettuce leaves take the dietary danger out of sandwiches.
Other foods come with warnings: You can eat pasta, but in moderation; think of pizza as an appetizer, not as your entree.
While Valenti’s cookbook is filled with 250 recipes which sound more like decadence than deprivation — think lobster salad, duck breast and bananas foster — the pages aren’t all dedicated to your three squares a day.
Several pages are dedicated to defining the disease and how to live, shop and eat on a diabetic food exchange program. And his message on salt is that however much you eat, it’s likely too much.
Valenti acknowledges he’s not letter-perfect in his own diet, but that’s what living with diabetes realistically is about, he says. If he’s planning dinner with his wife, he is “good” during the day so he can allow himself bread or a glass of wine later.
In fact, handling carbohydrates has been the hardest change for Valenti to accept. “Bread and pasta,” he said with a sigh. “Bread is the staff of life, and I can’t eat it. Pasta, I was born into it, and I can’t eat it. When I was a kid my family ate pasta three to four times a week, happily. Now I just can’t eat as much as I’d like.”
While not everyone can afford a diet rich with fresh produce, he believes anyone can learn to eat healthier and read labels. Americans, he said, have learned to understand trans fats and whole grains, now they need to learn to read ingredient labels and make better choices.
“Most people just need to learn to push themselves away from the table,” said Valenti. “We love to eat, but there’s so much hidden in food that you don’t know what you’re eating.”
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