This story originally ran April 8, 2012:
Even when he sits still, Sam Talbot doesn't sit still.
His eyes roam the room and he sometimes talks in circles. He fidgets in his chair. Under the table, his foot jiggles faster than an electric guitar riff.
Maybe his edginess is understandable. That energy has gotten Talbot a long way from his youth in Charlotte.
It got him past a devastating diagnosis of juvenile diabetes at age 12 and into the restaurant business at 14. It got him a star turn on “Top Chef” that made him a national heartthrob and landed him in the kitchen of two high-profile New York restaurants.
Now it’s gotten him a book, “The Sweet Life: Diabetes Without Boundaries.” It's a cookbook, but it’s also a lifestyle book and a biography – the story of how Talbot reached that high-intensity life and how he lives it while managing insulin-dependent, Type 1 diabetes.
He's a chef, not a doctor, but Talbot sees his message as a personal mission, nothing less than an attempt to change the world for every kid who ever heard the phrase, “You have diabetes.”
Talbot has a lot of energy. Harnessing it got him a long way from Charlotte.
Life in Charlotte
Trying to bring Talbot, 34, into focus is like trying to freeze a kaleidoscope. Even if you hold the tube still, the bits of glass keep shifting. Talbot’s life story has regularly shifted and changed directions, too.
“I’ve done everything the wrong way once,” he says. “I've never been about following the rules.”
He was such a serious kid, he started working at 14, first as a busboy at Village Tavern in SouthPark, then in the kitchen at Luisa’s Pizza and Dean & Deluca.
His mother was a regional marketing director for Estee Lauder, so it wasn’t like the money was tight. Why did he work so hard?
“My mother did well and was successful,” he says. “She wanted me to have a work ethic.”
He's proud of his family background: He was born in Cleveland, to a Sicilian family. His grandfather was a firefighter. His mother, Diane Abraham, started out at a department store cosmetics counter and worked her way up to executive. Talbot’s stepfather, Joe Abraham, was a restaurant consultant who died in 2004.
They moved several times as Talbot’s mother climbed the ladder, landing in Charlotte when he was 10 or 11. Diane Abraham lived in Charlotte until last fall, when she got an apartment in New York to be closer to Talbot.
He went to Providence High and Charlotte Catholic, and spent six months at Camden Military Academy in South Carolina, where he was recruited to play basketball – he eventually hit 6-foot-5.
Growing up in Charlotte, he describes himself as “a hellion.” Talbot’s best friend, Matthew Young, met him when they were teenagers on a youth trip. Talbot was at Charlotte Catholic and Young was at Providence Day, so Young remembers that they should have been rivals. But he couldn't resist Talbot’s friendly nature.
Talbot was “the cool kid,” Young says, the big guy who was friends with everybody, from nerds to athletes.
Today, Young lives in New York and works with Talbot as culinary director.
“My friends have been my family, since I'm an only child,” Talbot says. He thinks his loyalty comes out of learning to live with diabetes.
“When you're diabetic, that’s instilled in you: You don't do things for one stage. Everything is for life.”
Diagnosis puts focus on food
A diagnosis with Type 1 diabetes at age 12 becomes something that defines your life. For Talbot, it was a tough change from his food-loving Sicilian family to a lifetime of discipline.
“I went through a rebellion stage,” he says. He wanted to hang out with his friends, eat junk food, goof around. He didn't want to check his blood sugar, give himself shots and watch his diet.
So he’d try to bend the rules. “Slamming OJ and eating peanut butter crackers. Nobody gets it when you're that young.”
But having to repeatedly explain his condition to his friends finally brought his situation home:
“This conversation – I'm going to have it as many times as the day is long. I might as well make the best of it.”
Working in restaurants and paying close attention to everything he ate also showed Talbot he had a future in food. So he went to Johnson & Wales University in Charleston in the late 1990s, years before the Charlotte campus opened in 2004.
And then he screwed up. He broke his foot in the mosh pit at a Beastie Boys concert and couldn’t go to kitchen classes on crutches. So he left school and went to work for a restaurant around 1998. That's when an older chef said something that he says woke him up:
“ ‘You're good and you should take this seriously.’ Something clicked. It was like, ‘Don't be such an a-hole.’ ”
‘'Top Chef’ brings attention
In his 20s, Talbot headed to New York, working in small but respectable restaurants. He was co-owner of the Williamsburgh Café in Brooklyn, and executive chef at Punch in Manhattan. Then Bravo TV started this crazy competition show, “Top Chef.” He says the cooks he worked with talked him into trying out.
Talbot made the cast for the second season in fall 2006, just as the show was taking off. He was the tall, earnest guy whose good looks quickly attracted fans. He made it to the finale in Hawaii, but didn't win.
It didn't matter. “Top Chef” brings so much attention that even chefs who don't win often go on to stardom. Talbot took several months off after the show and traveled across the country by himself in a SUV. His plan, he told the Observer in 2007, was to find investors and open “something small and cozy in Manhattan.”
That's not quite what happened. First, he became chef of Surf Lodge on Montauk, Long Island, a seasonal summer restaurant that’s popular with the city’s young and rich. He married (and quickly divorced) a Brazilian model. And his looks and his cooking kept getting attention.
Last May, he was hired as executive chef at Imperial No. 9, a see-and-be-seen food palace at the new Mondrian Hotel in SoHo.
It was his bid for serious chefitude: The seafood-inspired menu was ambitious and sustainable, with raw tuna with wasabi and pink grapefruit, and soft-cooked pork belly topped with sea urchin.
He got profiled in The New York Times, and was landing on Page 6 for his celebrity life.
Then, in a familiar Talbot pattern, everything shifted. In June, Sam Sifton of The New York Times gave Imperial a disappointing review. Although Sifton praised several dishes, including the raw tuna, he criticized the restaurant for inconsistent quality and gave it no stars.
Although Talbot also got a more positive, two-star review (“very good”) in New York magazine, by November, he left the restaurant, citing differences with the direction.
Then a friend died suddenly, and Talbot says he was thrown.
He retreated to the New York mountains for the winter. He spent his time painting, chopping wood and hanging out with his dogs. He tweeted about tapping maple trees.
“I spent a long time really focusing on honing my career. The limelight and all those things really started to magnify (the pressure).
“It wasn't dropping out, it was, ‘I can only do what I do best when I feel my best.’ ”
After three months, he charged back. He’s been on Rachael Ray, Dr. Oz and Sanjay Gupta, promoting the book. He’s taped a pilot for a food show, and he turns up on the food websites almost weekly. And his book, released in late winter, is getting attention.
The preface was written by New York chef Eric Ripert, who has known Talbot since Ripert was a judge on “Top Chef.”
He calls Talbot's cooking “playful and respectful of the ingredients.”
“I think Sam is an adventurer,” he says. “He likes to create projects. It’s why we see him somewhere and (then) he takes his time and creates something else.”
That creativity and need to constantly make something new is typical Sam, his friends say.
“He's always been incredibly driven,” says Matt Young. “Sometimes, he doesn’t know what he’s driving toward. But by the time he gets there, he's figured it out. He goes up in the clouds and comes down with a cool idea.”
Talbot says he’s trying to harness the attention to focus on his ultimate mission: Helping anyone learn to live with diabetes.
“It really goes into matters that affect 26 million people on a daily basis. If God gave me an ability (to help people with that), you have to be passionate about it and you have to take it seriously.”
The attention, he says, serves that goal.
“It used to be, ‘Oh, you're that dude from ‘Top Chef.’ ’ Now people are like, ‘Oh wait, your book – I bought it for my husband. You're that guy that's goofy but you're changing the way someone in my family is eating.’ ”
In the end, all that energy helps him focus on what he really believes is important.
“We're going to try to make diabetes a little cooler,” he says. “That's the underlying message (for kids): 'You can do anything anybody else can do. Hell – better.’ ”
Words from a young celebrity chef
“The Sweet Life: Diabetes Without Boundaries” is part cookbook and part lifestyle book. It’s really the story of how Charlottean Sam Talbot grew up to be chef Sam Talbot, while learning to live with diabetes.
Here's an excerpt:
“Once in Rome, down some side street I'll never find again, I stumbled into a place that was half living room, half kitchen. In the kitchen area were three women – sisters, I think, and all in their 70s – and they were cooking and washing dishes as if they were in their own home, which they were. They served me a grilled pork chop and peas, and I actually laughed out loud as I ate it because it was the best damned pork chop and peas I had ever eaten. I’ve carried the memory of it for years, and it has influenced countless recipes I've created as a chef.”