Wild Common executive chef Orlando Pagan was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis on May 8, 2010.
Every day brings new challenges, Pagan told the City Paper, but the Puerto Rican-born chef’s heightened awareness of food’s role in his health is driving the cuisine he cooks at home and in his Spring Street restaurant, where he focuses on balanced, often vegetable-driven entrees that dazzle diners.
“This illness is very difficult to understand,” Pagan said. “There’s days I wake up with no energy, and I did everything I could.”
But after 11 years of living with the disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of nerve signals between the brain and body, Pagan has found a way to improve his symptoms with his diet.
“I have two kids and my wife, and I buy stuff for me and stuff for them,” said Pagan, who noticed a shift in his symptoms in 2013 after trying a paleo diet. Nowadays, he’s dairy and gluten-free. “It’s tricky sometimes, because they’re so little I don’t want their bodies to reject gluten and dairy when they eat.”
“I always have gluten-free bread, plant-based butter, plant-based burgers,” Pagan added. “There’s always vegetables and greens in every single dish, and then a little small bit of protein. We try to eat vegan once a week — we all do it.”
Wild Common serves a four-course tasting menu, one of only a handful in Charleston. There’s gluten, dairy, meat and seafood on Pagan’s signature $75 menu, but his balanced approach and inventive use of vegetables allows him to incorporate much of what he’s learned about his own diet in the last 11 years.
“I worked for a restaurant group in California, and their model was, ‘We want to leave our guests happier than when they got here’,” Pagan said. “I want my guests to feel great the next day — I don’t want them to feel like they’re in a food coma.”
“I always cook with butter, and there’s gluten in the menu — I just try not to use as much,” added Pagan, describing his cuisine as “less heavy” and “a lot of seafood and vegetable-driven stuff.”
This approach has been met with some resistance, Pagan said.
“Sometimes guests want bigger portions. It’s hard for people to understand that this is how we do things here,” he said. “I don’t see myself opening a vegan restaurant, but I want to see a better balance, which is what I strive for.”
World Multiple Sclerosis Day is May 30, and Pagan said the slate of events the Charleston chapter of the National Multiple
Sclerosis Society puts on each May will not take place this year, due to COVID-19. But, the 43-year-old chef continues to take part in Zoom meetings with other chapter members.
“We meet once a month, and it’s amazing. One of the reasons I’m active on social media is I remember when I was diagnosed, and it was horrible,” said Pagan, adding that he experienced some depression in the years after he was diagnosed. Recently, he helped two other members navigate this challenging time. “We share our stories and what we do to stay healthy.”
Chefs work well-documented long, laborious hours, and there are days when Pagan’s blurred vision, fatigue and other symptoms are too much for him to handle. In 2017 while working at McCrady’s Tavern, Pagan said he had an episode at work that resulted in a loss of feeling in his right leg for two weeks. These days, he knows when to push and when to give himself the rest he needs.
“I’m lucky enough that my staff — we’ve worked together for a few years,” Pagan said. “There’s days where I look at my sous chef, Zach, and I say, ‘I can’t do it,’ and he says, ‘Chef, go home.’ I always have a lot of energy and am having a good time at work, so they know. And, now that I’m getting older, I’m taking the help more whereas before I saw it as a weakness.”
And, that’s been a key transformation for Pagan — living with MS has led to a healthier work-life balance.
“One of the best and worst things that happened was MS because before that I was just focused on work,” he said. “It was affecting my personal life and obviously it was affecting my health. It opened my eyes and made me realize that life is precious. I’m more into taking care of myself and enjoying the people around me.”