Never Trust a Skinny Chef

By Sharon Salomon MS, RD / Photography By Art Holeman | May 15, 2013
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Do we expect our chefs to be fat? We think the person preparing our food should love food and love to eat. Many chefs do enjoy eating, but what chefs really love is to create delicious food for others.

Charleen Badman, chef-owner of FnB, had been overweight pretty much her whole life when a friend's remark about her lifestyle made her take notice. "I don't understand why you chefs nurture others but you don't take care of yourselves."

Weighing well over 100 pounds more than she does today, Chef Badman most certainly was not taking care of herself. Her friend's words had an impact, but Badman's own mother's struggle with diabetes really prompted her to make the changes that resulted in her slow but steady weight loss.

Over the past three years, Badman has shed 125 pounds by using mindfulness, a technique that has lots of solid research to support its benefit in weight control and stress reduction. Mindfulness is a way of self-regulating by paying attention in a nonjudgmental way to, in this case, everything she eats. In other words, she does not eat mindlessly. She chooses what to eat carefully, pays attention while she's eating (meaning she does not watch TV or read a book) and she makes certain she pays attention to the taste, texture and even the temperature of what she is eating. When you follow the teachings of mindfulness, you learn to fully enjoy your food.

Tasting food in the kitchen before sending it to a guest used to be a fairly mindless act for Chef Badman. "I still taste in the kitchen but I'm mindful of what I taste. Before, in addition to tasting what I was cooking, I could mindlessly eat one pound of cheese and not even realize it."

She also made some fairly strict dietary adjustments and added exercise to lose the weight.

"I no longer eat dairy or meat except to taste the dishes I prepare for the restaurant, so I'm reluctant to call myself a vegetarian but I do not choose to eat animal foods at any other time than tasting in the kitchen."

Yoga was Chef Badman's first exercise but after losing 60 pounds she added hiking. She strives to hike North Mountain in 16 minutes each time.

For Badman, the "sacrifices" have been worth it. "I love that I can now shop for clothes in a regular store. Before, my mother made all my clothes."

Restaurant work is a hard business. It’s hard on the body—standing and lifting for long hours. A chef should be fit. A chef’s body is as important to her job as an athlete’s body is to hers. —Chef Badman

Working chefs spend countless hours conceiving recipes, preparing food and tasting. Tasting all day long. Tasting food made with butter and cream. Tasting food that is breaded and fried. Tasting sweets. Even little bites can add up to lots of calories by the end of the day.

If, on top of all that tasting, the chefs also eat full meals then weight gain is almost inevitable. Many chefs go out after work to unwind. That means late-night eating and drinking. Sometimes lots of very-late-night eating and drinking. Added to the tasting done in the kitchen, late-night eating can really pile on the pounds leaving chefs overweight and generally feeling lousy.

Feeling lousy is exactly what prompted Chef Aaron Chamberlin, chef-owner of St. Francis, to make changes to his life.

One night while he was expediting in the kitchen, Chef Chamberlin's throat got sore and stayed sore for days. "Then I woke up in the middle of the night and I couldn't breathe. I was newly engaged to a beautiful healthy woman and I realized if I didn't start taking care of myself I'd end up like my mother, who has health problems."

Chef Chamberlin felt like he'd done everything wrong for 20 years. "I led a chef's life. But I'm getting married soon. I want to have a family. I realized I had to reevaluate my life."

He stopped smoking, changed his diet, started going to bed earlier and got into an exercise routine. He participates in CrossFit and exercises "seriously" three to five times a week.

Chamberlin cut back on simple carbohydrates like sugar and foods made with white flour. He's added more vegetables to his diet, especially now that he has his own vegetable garden. He reaps another benefit from his garden: Time spent caring for the plants is relaxation and a way for him to reduce stress.

I used to eat purely for pleasure. Now I eat mostly for nourishment but also for pleasure. I don’t want to deprive myself, so I allow myself an indulgence especially on days when I know I’ve worked out extra hard. —Chef Chamberlin

You might know Chef BeauMacMillan, chef at Elements at The Sanctuary, from the Food Network. He beat Bobby Flay on "Iron Chef" some years back and then landed his own show.

Chef MacMillan recently worked on The Alzheimer's Prevention Cookbook with a local physician. He had already decided that he was ready to improve his overall health but reading the research on diet and Alzheimer's disease while working on the book convinced him that he should be eating better. Helping to write the book changed his life.

"I already knew I was overweight. No one had to tell me that. I was probably about 100 pounds overweight," says Chef MacMillan.

The first step for him was to cut out a lot of the fat, sugar and other simple carbohydrates from his diet. He now eats five smaller meals during the day consisting mostly of vegetables with a little lean protein. He's lost about 70 pounds and intends to lose another 40.

Does he miss any of the foods he used to eat? "Not really. I believe that eating this way has added balance to my life. I can go off the plan occasionally without dire consequences. I miss going out with friends for chicken wings and just hanging out. But I do allow myself an occasional pizza or ice cream."

Have the chefs' newfound health regimens affected what's served at their restaurants?

For Chef Badman, the answer is yes. "The more I got into eating vegetables, the more vegetables I started cooking for the restaurant. In fact, two-thirds of the walk-in refrigerator is packed with vegetables from local farmers with only one shelf devoted to animal protein."

Chef Chamberlin has added new vegetable dishes to the menu at St. Francis and vegetables from local farms will be a key ingredient at his new Phoenix Public Market Café.

Chef MacMillan says, "The menu at the restaurant trends healthier because that's what people want. I don't force anything on our guests. I am a servant of the people who eat at the restaurant. I serve them what they want and right now they seem to want more vegetables."

What's the takeaway from all of this? Obesity is considered a national epidemic. We know that there's more to gaining weight than a simple equation of eating more calories than you burn. There are many causes and many different approaches. But for those who are obese because of overindulgence, the success of these chefs should give us heart. Exercise, healthier eating and being mindful and present when eating are the key components to these happier, healthier chefs.

If people who are around food all day long can resist the temptation to overindulge perhaps there is hope for the rest of us.

I am emotionally connected to food but I knew I had to make some changes, especially after working on the Alzheimer's cookbook. I take responsibility for my health. I strive for consistency in my diet. I don't skip meals and I make sure to eat only when I'm hungry. – Chef MacMillan

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