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A Chef's Loss Is His Gain

Weighing in past 350, Jeff Tunks knew something had to change. More than two years later and 100 pounds lighter, he has.

By Judith Weinraub
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 5, 2005; Page F01

For Jeff Tunks, the tipping point came when he stepped on the scale in his doctor's office and weighed considerably more than the dial could register.

As he stood there, the 6-foot-3, 43-year-old executive chef at three downtown Washington restaurants -- DC Coast, Tenpenh and Ceiba -- was hardly the picture of health. He was facing back surgery for a ruptured disc. He'd already been diagnosed and treated for high blood pressure, sleep apnea, a pre-diabetic high glucose count and arthritis in one knee -- all conditions aggravated by carrying too much weight.

_____Tunks at Home_____
Recipes
Tips From Chef Tunks

• Plate your meals, and eat only what's on your plate. "In a buffet line, you're setting yourself up for failure," says Jeff Tunks. "I plate meals at home. I keep it within some kind of structure. Otherwise, you can go back for more."

• Be ruthless about controlling portion size.

• Don't give yourself an unrealistic time frame for weight loss. You're less likely to gain back weight you've lost slowly. "People want quick results," he says. "But I've lost weight quickly and gained it back. The failure rate is very high."

• Don't cut out carbohydrates. But try to eat them early enough in the day to work them off before you go to bed.

• Eat at home. It's easier to control what you eat.

• Don't overproduce your meals. You don't need a turkey and a ham for a holiday meal. And you don't need two kinds of pie. For Christmas dinner, for example, Tunks cooked two racks of lamb (16 rib chops) for four adults and two kids. On Christmas Eve, he served stone crab claws, a Caesar salad and white wine or Champagne.

• Exercise. "It's easy to blow off a workout, but once you get there, it's easy," he says. "And it's key."

-- Judith Weinraub

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But it wasn't until he pushed past the scale's 350-pound limit that he decided to take action. He decided he had to lose at least 100 pounds. He had to change the way he ate, and he had to exercise. "Something has to happen to make your mind up," he says. "Nobody else can do it for you."

But how could he get in shape, taste the food at three restaurants and maintain a chef's traditional schedule (late to bed, late to rise, no breakfast, nibbling in the kitchen all day, lunch whenever and dinner really late after the restaurant's kitchen is closed -- often with other chefs who are also really hungry and ready to relax over bottles of wine)? "Chefs have notoriously lousy eating habits," he says.

Two and a half years later, with occasional slips along the way, he's done it. He's dropped from a 54-inch waist to a 42, from a 54-long suit size to a 48. He's bought new underwear twice and had his wedding ring resized from a 12 to a 10.

But lest anyone think his problems are over, forget it. Losing weight is rarely a simple success story. For chefs, maintaining that weight loss is an ongoing struggle that's both harder and easier than it is for most people.

As a group, chefs are not the world's best dieters. How could they be? To do their jobs well, they have to taste everything they cook. Day and night, they're surrounded by temptation. And their long hours make it hard to fit in exercise.

Like many dieters, Tunks had been fighting weight all his life. He'd lost that 100 pounds once before. But then came a divorce. And a job change took him from a body-conscious, sauce-on-the-side clientele at a seaside resort in San Diego where he kept his weight under control to a stint as presiding chef at the Grill Room in the Windsor Court Hotel in New Orleans, with all the city's culinary temptations.

"You can't be overweight in southern California," he says. . . . And it's almost impossible to find a healthy meal in New Orleans." Gradually, over three years, the weight piled back on.

His father and grandfather had died of heart attacks -- his grandfather when he was only 44. Tunks wanted to stick around to enjoy family life with his wife Katharine and sons Jordan, 5, and Bradley, 3.

"I wanted to be able to do all the things a normal dad can do -- to roll around in the yard, go biking and skiing," he says. "I knew I had to be in better shape to do those things."

His back surgery turned out to be a blessing. For one thing, his post-surgical rehab program forced him to exercise. Six weeks after his surgery, thanks to a Christmas present, he hired a personal trainer and began a workout program (30 minutes of cardio, 30 minutes of work with weights) that he tries to do between the lunch and dinner services three days a week.

Since he goes back and forth between three kitchens, he splits his workout time between exercise equipment in the building that houses DC Coast and a new club closer to his other two restaurants. "It makes me feel so much better," he says.

The next challenge was regularizing his meals. Now he has a real breakfast -- usually cereal, or half a whole-wheat bagel with light cream cheese, or scrambled EggBeaters -- and V8, a real lunch -- at times sandwiches from Subway, but without cheese or mayonnaise; at other times a salad with grilled fish on top, or a tuna burger.


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