Chef Miro Uskokovic: Coming Out With Crohn’s

“I started writing about food because I have a weird illness and so can’t eat a lot of it.”

That’s how I justify writing stories about stuffed croissants and massive morning buns for a brunch website… and then follow them with a piece about why I hate brunch. My relationship with viewing food as medicine has been a decades-long love/hate affair, and so I’ve made sure my work life doesn’t reflect only the food I eat. Other than when dragged by an editor into a piece like What You Should Know About Eating Out With Allergies, I write about food people at large.

But that hasn’t stop chefs from discovering about my food issues.

Floyd Cardoz of Paowalla has been my constant and most fervent champion, both in the three restaurants of his I’ve eaten at and at home with him and his wife, Barkha. Thiago Silva came from one of his restaurants to the other when I was interviewing his executive chef just to make his gluten-and-dairy-free fried coconut rice pudding for me.

Then came the I have this chronic illness confessions: Gavin Kaysen has Celiac, Eric Korsh is dairy-averse, Kierin Baldwin has diabetes, and Miro Uskokovic has Crohn’s disease.

These were all confided to me in sympathetic camaraderie: How do we work in the food field when food is a physical foe? 

Curious about their diagnoses and subsequent lifestyle changes, I pulled this pack of awesome pros together in a brunch piece for Extra Crispy, questioning how the scene for allergy eaters has developed. As Miro and Kierin’s full “coming out” stories are full of sweetness and strength, I wanted to make sure they were shared in their entirety.

Keep fighting the good fight, eaters.

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Photo Melissa Hom

Chef Miro Uskokovic: I Have Crohn’s Disease

What was your initial thought process after your diagnosis? Where was the greatest fear?

How am I going to keep doing what I’m doing?

That was the first question I had after my diagnosis. But ten minutes later, I shook my head and said, “You find a way”.

I was diagnosed last year with Crohn’s disease. The worst thing about is that it’s so unknown. It’s not just about one specific food; everything is an enemy because it differs from person to person. So it was quite difficult for me to figure out what I cannot have. There are some basics for most people—dairy, high-fat foods, high-fiber foods—and I had to really adjust my diet quite dramatically over the last year and a half.

Eating meat definitely caused my flares, so I stopped eating meat. I’ll cheat and try something at work, but it’s very limited to just a tasting. I’ve eliminated most dairy; milk and cream are out. Yogurt, kefir, and ghee are okay, but if I use them it’s only in very small amounts. My diet now is grains and vegetables, which they say are bad for people with Crohn’s. But in the last year I’ve noticed they’re fine for my health and contain my symptoms.

Did it change the way you went back to work right after?

This definitely has affected the way I think about and approach food. Sweets are my biggest problem, which is quite ironic, me being a pastry chef. You get diagnosed with this disease, and the enemy is what you do!

Of course, I still taste what I make. But I had to take a step back and think about the ingredients I use. Of course I have to use sugar and flour, and cook with dairy. But a big thing in both my personal and professional life is to source the best possible ingredients I can find. When I told [executive chef] Michael Anthony and the whole team at Gramercy Tavern my experience, and laid out my plan of turning towards more organic products with fewer GMOs, I had a huge support.

So now we use all organic, minimally processed sugars like sorghum and coconut nectar, and different kinds of raw sugars like jaggery or Okinawa brown sugar from Japan. We use local, minimally processed flours. And thought I don’t consume it, local dairy.

Is the taste of the product better, or is it just about health?

The taste is better, but more important is the quality we serve our customers. It gives me the peace of mind that I’m not giving people refined sugar, shitty dairy, and refined flour. I’ve done the same thing even more at home, becoming more specific about what I buy and cook.

Being a pastry chef, how do you see food intolerances and health issues come together in the brunch scene?

Breakfast is probably the worst meal for people with food allergies, intolerances, and digestive problems. In America especially, brunch is made out of high-fat, high-sugar, high-carb, exaggerated dishes. It’s eggs, bacon, pancakes, everything together! If there are vegetables, they’re in salads, or the fruit is a topping on the pancake. Plus the cocktails! It’s a splurge. We like to go all out during breakfast, not realizing how it’s tasty but harmful.

At Gramercy, we’re open for lunch (not brunch), with a vegetable tasting that’s a highlight of the menu.

But Untitled at the Whitney is on the top of my list when I go out for brunch. Overall, it’s very vegetable-focused. We have a cornmeal pancake (so a little bit better than a regular one) that comes with apple and almond “salsa” and a little maple yogurt. There are a lot of vegetable dishes, like a pumpkin soup with frikkeh and Swiss chard, a kale and beet salad (which is one of my favorites), and a chicory and apple salad that’s wonderful and seasonal. So you can have a nice balance. Most of the dishes are vegetable focused and light on dairy.

Do you think it’s unrealistic to cater to people with food intolerances or health issues, since there are so many out there to grapple with? Should eaters like me just stay home?

I don’t think it’s unrealistic. It’s unrealistic to cater an entire menu like that, but it’s not to have a couple of options. It’s quite realistic. It’s not hard work to figure it out, make it happen, and make it tasty; you’re not going to put something on the menu that’s not tasty, as just because you have a food intolerance doesn’t mean it can be crap. Ten, fifteen years ago, it wasn’t easy. But today, it’s fairly easy. Now, we have so many wonderful options regarding gluten-free flours.

It challenges chefs, and not everyone is willing to do that. I wasn’t fully willing to do it myself until I got struck with what I got struck with. We all learn the hard way. It pushed me to think about and have a different approach.

So what options are there on your menus?

We put another dessert that’s gluten and dairy free on Untitled–a devil’s food cake–that you’d never know is gluten free. At Gramercy we always have a gluten-free and dairy-free bread option. We have a pumpkin loaf that’s gluten and dairy free. When someone orders cheese but can’t have gluten, we have gluten-free crackers for them.

When we craft a dish, I think about what intolerances it can feed: can it be made gluten free, nut free, seed free? Can it be good for me, having Crohn’s disease? And then, what are the ingredients I’m using? What is the cream, the milk?

You’re in a big restaurant group with a huge support. Was the transition hard? And, for chefs in smaller companies, would you recommend your path at GT and Untitled as worth it?

It was a big thing to do, to make this happen. It required a lot of thinking. It’s a business, after all; it has to be manageable from a financial perspective. You have to make it happen without blowing up food costs. It’s a lot of work.

But I’ve loved it, enjoyed it, and it’s personal to me. I get why we don’t see it too much on menus. But unfortunately there are more people like us, and it’s going to get worse. So more chefs are going to be forced to think about it, and have items on the menu that are going to be friendly.

Stay tuned, because in January Miro and I have a piece coming for Saveur specifically about how his Crohn’s diagnosis revolutionized how he uses sugar at Gramercy Tavern. It’s fascinating.

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