How do chefs, who spend most of their lives around delicious, decadent food, manage to keep their weight in check? Author Allison Adato interviews them to get their tips for her book, "Smart Chefs Stay Slim." Below is an excerpt.
I’ve always been enchanted by restaurants. Don’t mistake this to mean that my parents were not both great home cooks; they were. My mom somehow struck a balance between trying the latest 1970s California bean-sprouty health food trends and feeding us soul-warming briskets, stuffed cabbage, and latkes. My father, meanwhile, mastered a tight rotation of signature dishes like Turkish Pizza-pie Eggs, an anytime breakfast that he—and only he—still makes when we get together.
But restaurants were a big deal in my family. My mother’s father, a Levy’s Bakery truck driver and later a union leader, was hardly a man of means. Yet when we visited him he took the whole family to Windows on the World, the restaurant on the hundred-and-seventh story of the World Trade Center, where, above the clouds and New York City, my little brother had to wear a tie and we ate duck and clams (my brother spit one out in his napkin, which a waiter whisked away) and ice-cream sundaes. On another day Grandpa took us to an Italian seafood house on Long Island Sound that could be reached only by boat. In retrospect, I realize that must have been part of his restaurant hyperbole; there had to have been roads. But we went by boat and it was a wonder to a car-bound L.A. kid.
My grandfather would also tell stories of his Ukraine-born mother, an amazing cook who rolled her own paper-thin strudel dough at home and worked in the kitchen of a Lower East Side Italian place. I’m sure I romanticized the idea of this Russian Jew turning out Italian food in New York. She wasn’t a chef; she was a cook, and the only reason she was that was because her husband, a southern Italian immigrant who had converted to marry her, was killed at age twenty-two in a streetcar accident. For a young widow there was nothing glamorous about turning out ravioli at work and kreplach at home; it was survival for her and her two little children. She died, having wed three more times, when I was twelve years old; I remember her as a slight, wiry woman who, to the end of her long life, would take her tea in a glass with a cube of sugar held between her teeth. She would have laughed heartily at the idea of her great-granddaughter making a living, in part, by celebrating restaurant cooks in the pages of a glossy magazine.
But that is what happened: I was asked to cover celebrity chefs for the magazine where I work. As I began to navigate their world, I was eating more and richer food than I probably ever have. There were lunches with chefs’ publicists, restaurant opening parties, celebrity chef charity events, three- and four-day food festivals, each one a carnival of one-upsmanship with sauté pans or tiny blowtorches.
Inconveniently, this occurred in my mid-thirties, as I evolved from being able to eat anything with little consequence to noticing a direct correlation between my morning bagel and a new uncooperativeness from the top button of my jeans. Clearly this would not be allowed to continue, I thought. But I was unwilling to go on a diet. Eating was a big thing for me.
In the course of a few weeks I ate caramelized quail and apple confit at the open-kitchen counter of French chef Joël Robuchon’s L’Atelier at a press lunch in the middle of what would otherwise have been (like the day before and the day after) a sandwich-at-my-desk afternoon; I tasted Rick Moonen’s Everything-crusted Tuna (basically all the toppings of an “everything” bagel seared onto a gorgeous ruby piece of fish) at a farewell party for the old Oceana before it closed its town house and moved to the other side of the city; I then met two food-magazine pals at the new, relocated Oceana, and was reminded that when you’re in the company of a recognizable and beloved food editor, the chef will send over seemingly everything on the menu. Much of that lunch is a blur.
Then the cycle would start again: I’d meet a PR rep for lunch at a client’s restaurant, and regardless of how lightly I’d ordered, extra dishes from the kitchen magically appeared. I’d ask for plain grilled chicken and, in addition, out would come bites of pâté on brioche toast, salads dotted with sweetbreads, a dessert plate composed of six variations on chocolate and cream. Basic politeness (plus a voice in my head—it may have been my great-grandmother’s—telling me not to waste food) demanded I taste everything. Sometimes it was more than a taste. By the time you get to that sixth variation of chocolate, you might need to go back and remind yourself about the first. Then the second . . .
Further compounding the problem was the fact that my entry into the food world coincided with what could be called the Bacon Age: a culinary era that, transcending haute and low cuisine, celebrated all things streaky, fatty, smoked, and salty. Bacon appeared in seemingly every dish, from dorade to doughnuts, and made oblivious converts of vegetarians. (Look away if you must, but if that restaurant’s green beans taste so much better than the ones you cook at home, credit a pig—not just the chef.) I had never been much of a meat person, but I happily tried what was put in front of me and found some of it delicious, even as I felt that this wasn’t really how I was meant to be eating.
Meanwhile, none of this professional exploration took into account the dining I was doing on my own time, like taking my son for the pizza pane frattau at Mario Batali’s Otto. That’s the pizza topped by a fried egg. At the age of six the boy got a “why didn’t I think of this” look on his face when he encountered the magical mash-up of two favorite comfort foods. So, clearly I would not be cutting those experiences out of my life.
How were other people, particularly those in the field, handling the problem of too much food, too much temptation, leading to too much person? I was meeting a lot of chefs, and it was impossible not to notice two things: First, they loved food and appeared not to be particularly dainty eaters. Two, they weren’t all fat. Yes, some brilliant chefs were pretty big—but they were no longer the norm. In fact, the opposite was true: I met many, many slender and fit chefs. You’ve seen those folks as well, and you may have wondered how they managed it. I wondered too. Perhaps if I knew what slim chefs did, I could learn to enjoy more and worry less. I had let bagels go, at least on weekdays, because it didn’t seem a great sacrifice. But what if, in an attempt to stay in my skinny jeans, I inadvertently eliminated the excitement and flavor from my meals? Or gave up foods that I love? How could I strike the proper balance between pleasure and caution?
The idea for this book started for me with a very simple question: How do chefs eat? We know a lot about how they cook: We can watch them on television, dine in their restaurants, and even, if we’re inclined, attempt to re-create their most elaborate dishes at home. But how do people who have dedicated most of their waking hours to food actually feed themselves? Surely not each night with the twelve-course tasting menus they create. Nor did it seem likely to me that they were leaving their own haute cuisine kitchens only to run home and microwave Lean Cuisine.
Since I had access to great chefs, I began talking with a bunch of them, asking how they ate on the job, or at home with their kids, or when they went out to let someone else do the cooking. I asked about their workouts, and which, if any, foods they cut down on, and which ones they enjoyed most often when they wanted to drop a few pounds. I asked how they ate before the marathon of tasting that comes with judging a TV food competition or testing variations on a dish for one of their own restaurants. I asked what they ate when no one else was looking.
It was Rick Moonen who reminded me that “chefs eat like shit” a lot of the time. (His salty words, though many of his colleagues echoed the idea.) So why ask chefs how to eat or stay in shape? There are nutritionists and dieticians and doctors of several stripes who have dedicated their working lives to these topics. (Not to mention all the skinny actresses and models who will tell you how they do it, though one suspects it doesn’t involve many interesting meals—or, for that matter, many meals at all.) But their advice often seems divorced from real life. Notes chef Michael Psilakis, who lost over eighty pounds on a plan of his own design, “Doctors are looking at the problem from a very scientific perspective: This is what you should eat. But what if you want to eat something else? There has to be another way.” By making chefs the experts, that other way of eating would value flavor above all.
Moonen offers what I think is as good an answer as any to the question of, Why ask chefs?: “Chefs are fun, and they drink, and people don’t want to give that up. There’s a happiness factor.”
Yes! But here’s a more prosaic reason: Chefs work long hours, eat irregularly, and are frequently tempted by an abundance of rich foods. If they can maintain a healthy weight, or even lose weight, surely the rest of us can. A chef’s life is a magnifying mirror reflection of many of our own. Who among us isn’t working hard, fitting in meals, and often tempted by the abundance of food—both good and bad—that is everywhere? But the people who make their living with butter or duck confit or chocolate and still look amazing—they must know some secrets. I wanted in on those secrets. Chefs are intentional about food. What they choose to cook has meaning and is always considered. The chefs in this book have extended that thoughtfulness not just to cooking, but to eating. Which is not to say that how they eat is how they serve us: It was a relief to learn that when Thomas Keller—renowned for creating menus that are as precise as they are lavish—wants a snack, he reaches for a banana or a handful of walnuts; nothing that requires a mandoline or microplane.
For this project, I sought out not necessarily the skinniest chefs—though many are very slender. Instead, I wanted those who are fit, those who make being healthy a priority, and those who have struggled with extra pounds and found solutions that work for them. Inside are stories from chefs who have lost fifteen, twenty-five, forty, eighty, and a hundred pounds.
Several tips I found rather surprising: Eric Ripert, of the four-star seafood temple Le Bernardin, will sometimes come home and cook chicken in the toaster oven, a trick he learned from his (nonchef) wife. Chefs known for steak had secret vegetarian lives. Quite a few ate chocolate daily—that was definitely something I wanted to do too.
I took all their ideas seriously, trying to fit these lessons into my own life. It wasn’t hard. When, for instance, Michelle Bernstein in Miami would talk about craving a lot of fruit and salads and finishing lunch with a biscotti and espresso, I found I could go for that too. Some of the advice is, admittedly, contradictory: A few of the chefs try to limit their eating to only sit-down meals, while others feel better if they graze throughout the day. I tried both methods—though naturally not in the same day. I invite you to do the same, and find out which chefs’ approaches suit you best.
Excerpted from "Smart Chefs Stay Slim" by Allison Adato. Published by New American Library, 2012.