You can hardly blame chef Tom Valenti for loving pasta. Growing up in Ithaca, N.Y., the budding gourmet would help his Italian grandparents tend their herb garden, cook giant pots of noodles and perfect their “Sunday sauce.” At 14, Valenti took over at the stove himself, cooking the same dishes for his friends and relatives. The culinary adventures that followed—as a French pastry chef, sought-after sous-chef in New York and Paris and eventually executive chef and co-owner of high-profile Manhattan restaurant Ouest—were varied, but no less carb-friendly than those early days eating spaghetti around his family’s dinner table.
So when Valenti was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2007, his first thought was predictable: “You mean I can’t eat pasta anymore?” But, as he would learn through trial and error, he could enjoy and create delicious food—including the occasional small noodle dish—that was good for his body too. “As a chef, I’ve always been a proponent of flavorful broths instead of adding fat, so that hasn’t changed,” Valenti says. “But how I cook for myself has changed dramatically.” Instead of a big plate of pasta with braised pork—one of Valenti’s pre-diabetes go-to meals—he’ll have a grilled piece of meat or fish with vegetables. Snacks throughout the day consist of a bit of cheese here, veggies or a slice of prosciutto there. “I have the advantage of being at the restaurant and surrounded by beautiful raw vegetables and natural products,” Valenti says. And his body has benefitted—he has lost 30 pounds in the last 18 months, and his blood sugar is under control.
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Diners at Ouest or Valenti’s now-closed New York restaurant, The West Branch, can take advantage of the chef’s sensitivity to the health-conscious set—a sentiment that increased after Valenti found out he had diabetes. “I’ve become much more willing to modify dishes to accommodate dietary restrictions,” he says. Ouest’s everyday menu also features “simply grilled” items that are just that—chicken, steak or fish grilled with olive oil, salt and pepper. “People don’t always want to eat heavy,” Valenti says.
Luckily, you don’t have to live in or travel to the Big Apple to benefit from Valenti’s expertise. His cookbook, You Don’t Have to Be Diabetic to Love this Cookbook, features more than 200 diabetic-friendly recipes including—you guessed it—pasta and pizza. “There are a lot of emotions tied up in eating—it’s comfort, it’s satisfaction, it’s entertainment,” Valenti says. “If you try to restrict your diet too much, you’ll go crazy. You have to have some balance.”