It was a blustery evening in Battery Park.
We were celebrating Dessert Professional Magazine’s Top Ten Pastry Chefs of 2015 amidst glass and glittering champagne flutes looking out over the Hudson River when pastry chef Kierin Baldwin told me she has diabetes. I’d known already about her hospital stay, having seen it on Instagram but not being privy to the particulars. She’s been a touch familiar about my own chronic health hiccups. It was a brief conversation, in which I’d mentioned another chef I knew with Crohn’s — Miro Uskokovic — and more chefs who’d been reaching out to me, quietly, when they’d received diagnosis requiring them to cut this or that out of their diet.
There was a story there, of course. I felt it that night.
Months later, that story landed on Extra Crispy as a piece about brunch. I hate going out for brunch — there’s no point in it when you can’t eat gluten, sugar, or most dairy. I can make my own pancakes thank you very much. And as I report in it, most of my food friends with foods issues are earlier on in their journeys, and so they ride the “healthier is better” train whereas when I’m paying for a professional to make me food, I want gluttony. Otherwise, I’ll stay home with my teff crepes and my pancake addiction.
But for the Extra Crispy piece, I got to spend some quality phone time with Kierin, who left the restaurant job I’d first interviewed her at after that Dessert Professional event. And the full story was too beautiful not to share.
Kierin Baldwin: I’m a Diabetic Pastry Chef
What’s the source of your health issues?
It started in the end of June. I’ve always been really active, pretty healthy, and taken good care of myself, but I got gallstone pancreatitis.
I’d had two people quit and hadn’t found their replacement. So for the first two days, I thought I had food poisoning and was working through it the best I could, and when I finally got a day off I realized how horribly sick I actually was.
At first, they were insistent it was because of drinking alcohol, which was absurd because I didn’t drink that much. But by that point, the gallstone had already passed. It was a fluke, but bad enough that I had what they call “severe acute gallstone pancreatitis with fluid collection.” Basically, pancreatitis is when your bio duct backs up, and the enzymes your pancreas excretes into the small intestine stay in the pancreas and digest the pancreas itself. So a good portion of my pancreas was out of commission by that.
In the hospital, I was put on a lot of antibiotics and fluids and no food (so that my pancreas wouldn’t excrete fluids). I was also getting insulin during this time.
After, I thought everything had normalized. Then, in early 2016, it came out that while my blood sugar wasn’t crazy through the roof, I was diabetic enough to require treatment. I was pregnant and I miscarried, and we found out that it was probably the reason I miscarried. Gestational diabetes is a thing, I guess because the placenta the child is developing because the child is secreting this substance that makes you insulin resistance.
So now I’m a diabetic pastry chef. Which is ironic, but manageable. But it requires some thinking about how I conduct myself. Relatively speaking, I’m lucky because I haven’t had to adjust my diet a lot. I’ve always been an “everything in moderation” kind of eater anyway, so I eat less sugar and in small amounts. Candy is out, and juice is out. I’m pregnant again and everything is going fine, and I give myself insulin 4-5 times a day, and when I eat and at night.
How has your professional life shifted because of this experience?
I’ve been saying this for years, but I think there’s this cult of overwork in the restaurant industry, and I don’t find nobility in that. Hard work is great, and I’m a hard worker. But having to be on call 24/7 is not what I can do anymore – especially in terms of having a child. So in terms of my health… my heart’s not there anymore.
I can’t imagine being the kind of person who doesn’t have a background in how food works in term of carbs and sugar, because even with that knowledge it’s hard to learn. That’s part of the reason why I decided to step away from my job; another part is because I’m pregnant and have to take extra care, since diabetes can cause birth defects and such. I’m trying to figure out how to continue to do the pastry thing and morally square it with encouraging people to eat this thing which I now can see is not the healthiest. But as I essentially believe in “everything in moderation” kind of eating… I don’t know. I’m lucky in that I don’t have many things that I just don’t eat anymore because I can’t; it’s just that I have to think very hard before deciding to eat anything. Or I have to think ahead, so I take insulin before I eat ice cream.
How do you keep that discipline up?
I tend to be someone who’s like, “Keep moving forward.” I try not to feel sorry for myself. But ever since I got out of the hospital I’m not drinking anymore. I had a few drinks on vacation this year where I was like, “You know, fuck it! I’ll have a beer with lunch.” I did that for a week with a few drinks, and a couple of times it made me feel not well, and I noticed my insulin doses went up. I have to be really honest with myself and just stop. It’s not making me sick right now, and other people struggle with making that transition, but if it’s going to lead to me to take more measures to stay healthy in the long run, I have to.
Do you see this affecting the ingredients you’ll use professionally once you’re back in some sort of professional position?
That’s something I’ve started to think about. I come from a traditional pastry background. I took a class at the natural gourmet institute and I was like, I still use refined sugar and I’m a diabetic, but hey! I’m just at the beginning of my learning curve in terms of my alternative approaches that are out there. At the same time I still firmly stick to my belief that I won’t say I’ll never use refined sugar again. But I am becoming more thoughtful about how I use it. And also my palate has changed since I’ve started to reevaluate what I can and can’t eat so I try to use a lot less sugar.
It’s just not appealing to me to use a lot of sugar anymore since it masks other flavors. But I think I’ve always felt that way. In pastry training, people tend to not think about sugar in balance with acid and other things like savory chefs would, but that has always been more of my style. So it’s about refining my style and exploring that.
So I’m starting to look into alternative sugars, and how to make the same food I love taste just as great as I want it to but with less of an impact on health. What was it I saw somebody eating recently? A year ago I would have not have thought anything about it, but it was a sundae with all this shit done on it, and I could never do that to myself anymore. It just changes how you look at the world.
How far should restaurants go in catering to people with food issues and illness?
I think there are a few things:
What we do is a business. There is a huge market out there for people who eat this way and there’s no reason to cut yourself off from these people. When I started, when you said “gluten-free” to me I would have looked at you cross-eyed. It wasn’t part of the conversation. It’s reached a fever pitch, where it was an eye-roll thing where everyone wanted to be gluten free. I’ve watched people I know and love want to have a dietary restriction because it gives them something to have a diagnosis for whatever vague malaise they’re feeling. But I think we’re getting to a point now where we recognize we should not cut off people with legitimate dietary restrictions – unless you have a disease where you are going to die of anaphylactic shock by a cross contamination of something out of my control.
But something I’ve noticed in getting sick and finding out that I’m diabetic is that it’s very much changed the way I think about going out to eat. It’s not like I can’t eat anything – I went out last week with a friend and had a pretty normal meal, I just had to give myself more insulin than I would if I were having a nice meal at home. One of the nice things about not being in a normal job right now is I’m spending a lot of time at home cooking, relearning how to feed myself, and enjoying that. So I’ve noticed when I do approach eating that way (giving myself more insulin), even though I’m not drinking, I still feel hangover the next day: sluggish, heavy, I need to drink more water.
It wasn’t just alcohol—that kind of eating does affect you. It’s fun to do once in a while but it’s a special treat. It affects you physically. It’s helpful also because so much of the culture is gathering around eating out with friends and enjoying yourself that way. It’s so much a part of the pleasure, and I don’t want to give that up. It’s not just about gluttonous pleasure. It’s about seeing the people I like, and sharing foods we enjoy. That’s the biggest part of it, and so it’s about learning not to feel disappointed in that I can’t experience the food component in the same way that they did, but being able to enjoy the pleasure of their company.
Also, again I feel like I’m lucky in that I can go out to brunch and still enjoy the things that I enjoy making. But I can only have one bite, and I need to remember that. It’s a little bit of a bummer. But brunch is not just about getting blitzed on mimosas and eating way too much fatty, sugary, gourmet junk food. Truthfully, I can see that more clearly now that I have no dietary restrictions in terms of how much I can take in of this stuff. Your body does pay a toll in processing it. Most of us are lucky in that we can just do that and not think of it. But really, long term, I’m 37 now and that’s more and more of a consideration, even though I’m a healthy 37. You have to take that into consideration a little more.
I’ve watched a lot of prominent chefs be a part of that conversation. We still love food, but we have to take into account what we’re doing in terms of it just being pleasurable. That’s something that always appealed to me about pastry, and I think that’s why I went into it instead of savory: I enjoy that it’s a little frivolous, and just as much about enjoyment, or even more than it is about nourishment. But you have to learn to balance that. So now, I probably have dessert every day, but I went down to my local market and got really beautiful pears, and they’re my dessert: a pear and a small piece of chocolate. And that’s intensely pleasurable. Your palate, and the way you enjoy things, shifts when you have to make these adjustments. It’s not all a bad thing. It’s not all giving up things. There’s still a lot of pleasure you can be a part of. It just changes the lens you’re looking through.