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Chef raises money for kids with mental health issues

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Jordan Wagman

For award-winning chef Jordan Wagman, being in a position to draw attention to Jewish Family & Child’s (JF&CS) youth mental health centre, as well as sharing his knowledge about the benefits of a plant-based diet for auto-immune disease sufferers, is coming full circle.

“I was a real pain in the ass growing up,” Wagman, 46, recalled. “I was an angry child.”

He explained that the triggers for his anger, and likely his debilitating psoriasis, was experiencing two tragedies when he was 13 – the passing of his beloved grandfather and, just a month later, witnessing the death of a fellow summer camper, who was involved in a boating accident.

“I watched it happen and it was life-changing for me. It impacted my entire life. After that summer, I discovered my psoriasis,” he said.

Wagman struggled emotionally and academically, and later made the decision to leave his Toronto-area secondary school, to attend the Jerome D. Diamond (JDD) Adolescent Centre in Grade 11.

Founded in 1974, JDD is a youth mental health centre that is operated by JF&CS, in partnership with the Toronto District School Board. A team of social workers, special education teachers and a consulting psychiatrist and psychologist provide services to youth between the ages of 12 and 17 who experience psychological, behavioural and academic challenges.

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“It impacted my entire life, the lessons that I learned there.… It put some really good tools in my toolbox,” Wagman said of the program.

Wagman, a James Beard-nominated chef who leads cooking classes for youth and adults through JF&CS, spoke to The CJN about the inspiration behind the five-course farm-to-table meal that he’ll be preparing for a June 10 fundraising event called Dining at the Diamond, with help from special guests, including Collin Smelser, executive chef at the Sheraton Gateway LAX in Los Angeles, and Tomer Markovitz, the head chef at Parallel Brothers in Toronto.

“I’ve worked with some of the greatest chefs and I’ve had a great career … but it was a little frustrating to learn the foods I had been eating for a long time were negatively impacting my skin,” said Wagman.

He said he was advised by a naturopath to take supplements to boost his immune system and was urged to remove refined sugar from his diet, as it was causing his inflammation.

“It was only four years ago that I finally bit the bullet and was … fully ready to make what I thought would be sacrifices,” he said.

Within eight weeks of removing refined sugar, dairy, gluten and nightshade vegetables (such as tomatoes, eggplants and peppers) from his diet, he lost 14 kg.

I’ve worked with some of the greatest chefs and I’ve had a great career, but it was a little frustrating to learn the foods I had been eating for a long time were negatively impacting me.
– Jordan Wagman

“I had always worked out, but finally it looked like I worked out … and my psoriasis went away,” he said.

Today, four years after making this lifestyle change, he does his best to share this message with other auto-immune disease sufferers who believe the only way to treat the condition is with medication.

“It’s trying to go against the grain a little bit and saying, just because Hagen Daz is great, doesn’t mean you can’t have great ice cream without dairy and sugar. If I made you my brownies, you would never know that they’re made from avocado and coconut oil and almond flour. You would just think that they were really ooey-gooey chocolatey brownies,” Wagman said.

The purpose of this upcoming event is twofold: the first is to raise money to build a new gym for JDD students; the second is to inspire those students – some of whom will be speaking at the event about the impact the program has had on them – to believe that in spite of their current challenges, the future is theirs to shape however they want.

“I can sense that the kids see a little bit of me in them and little bit of them in me,” Wagman said.

“I’m seeing what they’re learning from me is what I learned (from JDD). It’s as simple as having a little bit of confidence and understanding that this is just a blip on the radar.”