Chef Charles Mattocks is widely known as “The Poor Chef,” creating healthy yet affordable meals for under seven dollars. His passion and innovation took the nation by storm, appearing on The Today Show, Good Morning America, Dr. Oz, Martha Stewart and CNN, and even pinning a best-selling cook book, Eat Cheap but Eat Well. But there’s more to this Chef and nephew of the late great Bob Marley. Amid the success, Chef Charles was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2011. What seemed like a death sentence turned into a personal mission to not only save his life, but also save the lives of others who shared his diagnosis. Chef Charles is now gearing up for his second national diabetic testing RV tour. A spokesperson for the American Diabetes Association, blue ribbon champion for the International Diabetes Federation, the creator of the Charles Bar, a diabetic-friendly nutrition bar and the director of a major film on diabetes entitled The Diabetic You, Chef Charles is determined to change the game and become the leading force in the fight against diabetes.
BFT: How did you get your start as a celebrity chef?
CM: I moved from Los Angeles where I was doing very well and always had a background in cooking and food. I was raising my son as single father and really wanted to feed him healthy and affordable food. This was the catalyst. Then one day my son and I were going to a restaurant and he said it would be cool to see real people make meals on TV. During that time, a few years back there were a lot of competition based cooking shows on TV but not many regular folks so I thought it would be cool to do that. My mom, grandmother and father were all great cooks. So I came up with the name “The Poor Chef” which involves taking seven dollars and creating healthy and affordable meals for two. I approached a local TV network in Tampa, Florida and one thing led to another. I ended up on TV in Tampa on an NBC affiliate and that’s how things took off.
BFT: This is something that everyone can relate to in just wanting to have budget-friendly meals. Not everyone has a lot of resources and time. From what we saw on your Dr. Oz appearance, you made things easy, simple and cheap. It contradicts the notion many people have that eating healthy is unattainable because it’s too expensive.
CM: For some people, even seven dollars is a lot of money. My parents came from humble beginnings in Jamaica so if you could get some chicken, some rice and banana you can do that with that, so seven dollars is a good amount of money if you think about it.
BFT: What was the response like in your interaction with people who came to your tour stops?
BFT: Why do you think there appears to be such a gap between diagnosis and self-care? Why is there such a lack of knowledge?
CM: Doctors aren’t taught nutrition; they don’t know about cooking or nutrition or anything like that. They are taught to prescribe medicine and how to diagnose or how to treat something. You have to take your health into your own hands and do the research and get motivated. Don’t just take the first diagnosis and say okay that’s it. In my case like many other type 2 diabetics, they want to put you on medication and you think that’s it. But I realized I could lose a couple pounds, I could eat differently, I could exercise more; there are other ways that you can combat this thing. You may need to go on medication for a while until you can figure it out. I also realized there were some things that I could’ve been doing that I wasn’t.
BFT: So when you reflect on your diagnosis about three years ago, how has your life changed since then?
CM: Everything! It has been a mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional journey. I think back to the way I was eating and I know that contributed. Stress is definitely a factor for diabetes as well, and I was staying up late hours and not getting the proper amount of rest. I had to change everything.When you stay up late, you end up doing things and eating things you shouldn’t! I’m sure at around 12 o’clock you start sneaking into the fridge and the pantry and grabbing some cookies and other carbs and starches and sugars. I used to think drinking ginger ale was better than Coca-Cola because it has ginger in it [laughs].
There are different levels of health and I thought I was healthy and there were probably five or six other levels that I could’ve been at. Now, I wouldn’t say I’m at the top level, but I’m definitely close to a very healthy diet and understanding what is good for me and what isn’t.
BFT: It doesn’t seem like there’s one true “face” of diabetes. If we all think about family, friends, or neighbors who have or had this condition, diabetes does not fit one type of person. So what would you say to the BFT community about knowing about diabetes; should you get checked for it? What are some of the warning signs? Does family history increase your chances?
CM: I would say all of the above is important. The sad thing is when I was diagnosed as a black man in my 30s, I didn’t know anything about diabetes and I consider myself fairly educated. I thought I was going to die with a condition that takes the lives of a lot of minorities. I think there needs to be more education in schools about diabetes and other chronic diseases. People need to get tested. Don’t just assume that you don’t have it or you can’t get it. There are 79 million people with diabetes that don’t know they have it and that’s because a lot of people feel that it’s overweight or unhealthy person’s disease, so they don’t get themselves tested.
BFT: One of the issues that remains is that a lot of urban areas, there is a lack of access to healthy food. There’s a lack of fresh produce and organic foods that are available in suburban communities. The convenience store or gas station might be the nearest place to grab some food, while the supermarket could be several miles away. What’s your opinion on that?
CM: Yeah that’s real problem and a lot of people ask me about that when I do shows. Honestly, with the same fight that I’m fighting I think there needs to be someone who takes up that this fight too. If you live in a community where the closest grocery store is 15 miles away, put together a couple people and go to local member of Congress, or a local senator or the Mayor, somebody, and figure out how we can stand together to make a change. You don’t have to accept that there is nothing in your area. I didn’t wait around for anybody to tell me some good news. Even if you found a place where you can get some wholesale fruits and vegetables and build a stand and sell it to your community, you will be helping other people and be and making some money at the same time.
BFT: As a chef, what are some of your favorite healthy meals to make?
CM: I’m from the Caribbean. Obviously fresh fruits and vegetables are readily available so one of my favorites is ackee and salt fish; akee almost looks like an egg and salt fish is a dry salt fish. Callaloo and saltfish is another dish; callaloo looks like spinach. Chicken curry is always a favorite of mine. You have a high-protein that can be prepared with very little oil and its diabetic-friendly, so really a lot of Caribbean dishes are my favorite.
BFT: When you do have the chance to indulge a little bit, what are some of your favorite cheat meals?
CM: I love a good hamburger and I love a good pizza. They are my two favorite cheat meals that I like. I dream about them every now and then. [laughs]
BFT: So how do you find balance with having to maintain healthy diet with knowing when you may or may not be able to indulge?
CM: I think that’s part of the benefit of being disciplined. If you are disciplined you can actually have a few more cheat meals than not. If you’re eating right all week and you’re maintaining your levels and you’re maintaining your weight its okay to eat something you want to eat. You’re not going to gain 20 pounds just off of one cheat meal so it almost actually works better if you’re maintaining and keeping yourself where you need to be so you can enjoy yourself a little bit. Cheat meals are important to keep you from binging, because you feel deprived. It doesn’t take much to ruin progress. Without them, you know, one cheat day can become a cheat week, and a cheat month, then next thing you know you’re right back same situation, trying to lose 20 pounds that you gained back.
BFT: So what would be your advice to people who fall off the wagon or who are struggling with their diet? What would you tell them as far as getting back on track and taking care of themselves?
CM: That’s a good question! I say be vain [laughs] and I say that jokingly, but what I mean by that we should all have pride in ourselves and our health. This helps me deal with my type 2 diabetes because when I look in the mirror I like seeing a young handsome brotha, you know?! [laughs] I want to keep all my toes, all my fingers, my limbs, etc. I don’t want to look in the mirror and see my stomach hanging over my belt buckle. There’s nothing wrong with looking in the mirror and wanting to look good and feel good and thinking that you’re sexy! And sexy isn’t being hundreds of pounds overweight or looking 20 years older than you really are. Have pride in yourself and do your part to live as healthy as you can.
BFT: What can people expect with your second RV tour?
CM: They can really expect us to reach the people. I’m going to schools, military bases and some other great places where we can stop and reach the people, educate, and shake up the game of diabetes and the business of diabetes and get folks to realize that we can all make improvements.
BFT: What type of fitness regimen are you currently doing?
CM: I just walk and run. I used to lift and do all the weights; I was one of those guys that didn’t do cardio and was all upper body and didn’t work out my legs and it bulked me up. Now I don’t want that. I just want a lean slim look like Will Smith and less like Arnold Schwarzenegger.
BFT: How can people keep up with all the great things you have going on?
Website | CharlesMattocks.com
Facebook | Charles.Mattocks.7
Twitter | @thepoorchef1