Listening to Sam Talbot wax enthusiastic about raking for wild blueberries of the rocky coast of Maine or catching octopus while snorkeling in Fiji, it’s easy to get hungry. Lucky for Brooklyn, then, Talbot’s passion for food will be on display come summer, when his new venture, Pretty Southern, opens on Bedford Avenue.
For some Bravo fans, Talbot may be best known for coming in third as the hunky, 6 foot-plus, type one diabetic contestant during Top Chef’s second season, while others may be familiar with his stints cooking at places like Montauk’s Surf Lodge or Pig and Poet in Camden, Maine, or—especially if you are or live with a diabetic—his excellent cookbook, The Sweet Life: Diabetes Without Boundaries. My own personal copy of this book is cooking-stained and dog-eared, thanks to Talbot’s savvy use of spices and citrus to create big flavor with healthy dishes.
These days, the 38-year-old is staying close to home in Williamsburg, focusing on his non-profit, Beyond Type 1, whose founders also include fellow diabetic Nick Jonas, and Pretty Southern’s launch. Once the restaurant is up and running, he promises fried chicken and champagne—“it’s a thing,” he jokes—for anyone who wants to have a picnic in McCarren Park. (Fun fact: There will be gluten-free fried chicken on the menu.) We stopped by his apartment, around the corner from the Bagel Store’s endless rainbow bagel line, to say hi recently and to meet his adorable rescued pit bull mix, Tank, the ingénue of a menagerie.
What’s Pretty Southern going to be like? I grew up between Charleston, South Carolina and Charlotte, North Carolina, so cooking southern food is something that I hold near and dear. I was also diagnosed with diabetes at 12. While I was coming up in the Carolinas , I was learning to cook and falling in love with it; also, I started to play with my food and have fun with it. Pretty Southern is all about organic. It’s clean fried chicken.
What’s clean fried chicken? We start with a really great, amazing product. From there it’s about the colonel’s secrets that we put into it. It’s a three-day process; there are two wet brines, one is a water-based brine and one is a coconut-buttermilk brine; it all goes into the seasoned flour. We have two types of fried chicken, the regular and the gluten-free fried chicken.
That’s great! My husband is diabetic and celiac. [As many as ten percent of all type one diabetics test positive for celiac.] One of my investors, her daughter [Ella] is a type one diabetic and also happens to have celiac, so in doing this, she said we have to celebrate gluten-free. It’s a great balance to have both options. It also helps people like your husband, like Ella, like everybody.
It starts there with the chicken, and then we have all the southern sides that people know: biscuits; collard greens; macaroni and cheese, also gluten free; butter beans with ham-hock; shrimp and grits; blackened shrimp; the list goes on. We do these pie-scuits, it’s a pie and a biscuit, a pretty cool hybrid; we get fresh blueberries, we make a blueberry preserve and then we par-bake our buttermilk biscuits, crust them up, and put that pie filling in there and top them with coconut cream. They’re through the roof.
That sounds bananas. We have all these cool twists and turns, which is why we stand alone. With the branding, when you think of most fried chicken places, there’s usually a chicken involved in the logo. But because I wanted to make sure we stand out from what was out there, we have a hybrid chicken as well, it’s a unicorn chicken.
[Sam shows me the logo on the phone; it’s a pretty chicken with a unicorn horn.] I guess that’s what organic chicken is like, it has unicorn horns. The food is southern but elevated southern, clean southern, southern that makes sense for the neighborhood, and it goes down all the way through the logo. Everything’s been really thought out and there’s a story behind it.
Just hearing about it makes me hungry. We just got approved for our beer and wine license so it’s going to be fried chicken and champagne. Nothing makes more sense, it’s like peanut butter and jelly. If you think about it like that, it makes sense. Think about it for a second. [He laughs.]
How is it working long hours as a chef with type one diabetes? I would think it was very stressful On top of working out, on top of yoga, on top of the daily walk and run over the bridge, it’s a lot, but I think those kind of things make you who you are, right? What would I be doing if I wasn’t a chef? Would I sit behind a desk? When it becomes all you know, it’s all you know, and I do everything in my power throughout the day to make sure I can always do it as long as I want. It’s where my heart lies. For me it’s work and sometimes it sucks and sometimes I’m like ‘Why didn’t I pay attention in high school algebra?’ But on the flip side of that, Saturday night or when you do that huge event, truly, sometimes you don’t even look at it like work. Type one diabetes, I run that shit. I step on it and let it know how the day’s going to go.