Christopher Testani
Catherine Kast
February 24, 2017 03:12 PM

Top Chef star Sam Talbot’s new Brooklyn restaurant Pretty Southern is all about comfort food: “Southern food is in my roots,” the chef, who grew up in Charlotte, NC and Charleston, SC, tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “It’s in my DNA.”

His menu is chock full of classic southern dishes like fried chicken, biscuits and banana pudding, but with Talbot’s own healthy twists. “There are a lot of subsets on my menu,” he says, giving the option for his customers to have classic dishes, or gluten-free and vegan versions of those dishes. His grits are made with coconut milk, and he can make his fried chicken with a blend of sweet potato, millet and rice flours. His gluten-free biscuits are one of the most popular orders, and even his mac and cheese can be made vegan!

“Remember when you were a kid, you’d read those choose your own destiny books? You can choose your own meal,” he says. “We offer something for everybody.”

Since he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when he was 12, Talbot has had to navigate the balance of eating the food he loves with what’s good for him. “I keep fresh pineapple, carrot and beet juice in the kitchen at the restaurant,” he says. “I love my banana pudding, but I can’t eat that every day. I’ll allow myself a scoop on Sundays.” His newest book, 100% Real, features those healthy ingredient swaps he’s become known for as a chef.

Talbot, who co-founded diabetes awareness foundation Beyond Type 1 with Nick Jonas and others in 2015, is “very methodical” when it comes to managing his condition at work.

“Being a diabetic means you need to constantly think about what you’re eating, when you’re eating and how to keep your joints moving,” Talbot says. “I’ll go up to the roof and do 50 push-ups in the middle of the day.” He also installed a pull-up bar at the restaurant so he and his staff can sneak in workouts during long days.

For more on Talbot, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now.

Though he’s seriously fit, he doesn’t beats himself up if he can’t make it to the gym. “I walk or skate to and from the restaurant every day,” he says (it’s about a mile from his cozy apartment). But he’s also on his feet at work from around 8:30 am until midnight. “[The tracker on my] phone says I walk like 12 miles a day.”

“As a restaurateur and a small business owner, I have to be in the restaurant to make it successful,” he says. “So my health comes first.”

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