When chefs compete, it’s usually with dinner plates. For the Fit for Hope Challenge, 16 local chefs are vying against one another with weight plates.
The 12-week contest, which began June 24 and leads to the American Cancer Society’s Taste for Hope gala in September, is more “The Biggest Loser” than “Top Chef”: Participants have been split into two teams and are monitoring their progress through weigh-ins. But these 14 men and two women can’t be exclusively focused on exercising more and eating better — two behaviors linked to a lower cancer risk. They also need to do their jobs, which require caloric temptation.
“I drink a lot, eat a lot and party a lot,” said Mike Isabella, host of the American Cancer Society gala, at the opening of his restaurant Graffiato. “But I hate losing.”
Maybe that explains why he’s dropped down to 225 pounds (from his 254-pound starting weight).
Teammate Todd Thrasher, PX’s cocktail whiz, has another theory: “When you open a restaurant, you’re so busy, you forget to eat.”
Because Isabella has been debuting Kapnos on 14th Street, he hasn’t been at team workouts, which Thrasher credits for his 25-pound weight loss.
Thrasher and Isabella are in the group trained by Jason Yoo, a taekwondo coach who incorporates kicks and punches into their routine at Vida Fitness. (“I have bruises on my knuckles,” brags The Majestic’s Shannon Overmiller.)
The other team, trained by Monica Pampell, has been getting schooled in weightlifting techniques at CrossFit Metro Center. After her chefs warm up on rowing machines, they’re thrown into circuits with kettlebell swings, medicine-ball squat throws and dead lifts.
Both Yoo and Pampell have experience training chefs, so they understand their work schedules, stress and stiffness. That’s why stretching is also a key part of their workouts.
Keeping up is tough, especially for folks not used to much exercise.
“I haven’t been to a gym in such a long time,” Range’s Bryan Voltaggio said at the kickoff. “I don’t know what they look like anymore.”
But years of training in kitchens have taught them not to complain.
“You just say, ‘Yes, chef,’ and do it,” explains R.J. Cooper of Rogue 24, who’s already 30 pounds lighter. “It’s all become easier. But not easy.”
Thinking about people he’s lost to cancer has helped Brasserie Beck’s Anthony Acinapura stay strong while getting stronger. “I’m not doing it just for myself,” says Acinapura, although getting six stents last year was a sign he needed to pay more attention to his health.
The support — and occasional taunts — from other chefs has made the ordeal manageable, participants say. And the challenge has reminded them that there are ways to hang out that don’t revolve around food.
“I’ve never seen half of these people in the daylight before,” Derek Brown of Mockingbird Hill said as he scoped out his competition at the kickoff. Like several other chefs, Brown doesn’t have much to lose but wants to establish better habits.
Some of those habits are already benefiting diners. For instance, Ripple has a newly revamped menu.
“I’ve found ways to make things taste good without butter and extra calories,” Marjorie Meek-Bradley said between planks and pushups at CrossFit Metro Center.
So maybe everyone will win this competition.
Eat for Hope
In addition to the competition, chefs are also trying to raise $2,500 for the American Cancer Society. Here are some healthful ways you can help:
Asian Cooking Classes: Scott Drewno of The Source (575 Pennsylvania Ave. NW) will teach low-cal techniques at 11 a.m. Sept. 7 and 21. Each two-hour session is $75, with $25 going to the cancer society. Email email@example.com.
Farm Dinner: Marjorie Meek-Bradley’s five-course meal at Ripple (3417 Connecticut Ave. NW) is $75, with $50 going to the cancer society. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vegetable Crudites: This $18 dish at Frederik De Pue’s Azur (405 Eighth St. NW, azurdc.com) is available through Aug. 24; $5 goes to the cancer society.