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Chefs trim the fat - on themselves

By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, January 4, 2011; 2:39 PM

Losing weight is not easy for anyone, but for professional chefs the task is especially challenging. They work long hours, don't get much exercise, eat irregularly and are constantly tempted by the abundant availability of rich foods and alcohol. In recent weeks, we noticed that despite those temptations, some Washington area chefs have been shedding the pounds. Their insights stand to help any resolution-makers follow their lead.

Among them, these chefs - Bryan Moscatello, Will Artley, Robert Wiedmaier, Gillian Clark, Cathal Armstrong and Mike Isabella - have lost 278 pounds, the weight of two average-size women.No two of their regimens are the same, but some commonalities emerged from our interviews.

The no-nos: eating late at night, drinking alcohol and consuming sugar and caffeine. The winning strategies: a healthful breakfast, regular exercise and moderation over deprivation. What comes through loud and clear is the message we all know to be true: There is no magic way to lose weight; the process involves hard work.

Being surrounded by deliciousness all day might be difficult, but the challenge is not insurmountable. Clark puts it aptly: "Just because it's there doesn't mean I have to eat it, and if I eat it, I don't have to eat the whole thing."

Chef Gillian Clark

General Store and Post Office Tavern

Age: 47

Height: 5 feet 6¾ inches

Peak weight: 247 pounds

Current weight: 206 pounds

Lost: 41 pounds

How she gained: "I've been on every fad diet there is over the years. When I hit 40, that's when it got hard. I have high blood pressure, and the medicine affects the ability to lose weight. And I'm menopausal. Those things make it harder.

"I struggled with weight all my life. When my father died, there was a lot of depression eating going on. And I'm an anxiety eater. There were the pressures of closing one restaurant and opening another. We [chefs] stand in the same spot all day long and put junk in our mouths. We don't want to throw out that pie!"

Aha! moment: "My father died from cancer in June, and I told myself I owed it to him to be as healthy as I could be."

Regimen: "I joined Weight Watchers for the computer programming. I don't go to meetings. It trained me to look at portions, to see how much I'm eating, write down everything and be accountable for everything I put in my mouth.

"I try to stick with between 1,500 and 1,800 calories a day. If I slip, I'm just going to get back on and talk to myself in a more reasonable way. I'm not trying to get into a bikini by 2015; I'm just trying to live as healthily as I can and get exercise as much as I can. I do Jillian Michaels for Wii 20 to 30 minutes a day.

"It really comes down to intake versus output. Just because it's there doesn't mean I have to eat it. If I want sweet potato pie for dinner, that's nine points. That means I have 21 points left for the day, and I have to live accordingly for the rest of the day. I have to live by the rules."

Chef Mike Isabella

Graffiato (opening this spring)

Age: 36

Height: 5 feet 9 inches

Peak weight: 230 pounds

Current weight: 215 pounds

Lost: 15 pounds

How he gained: "I was working out seriously when I was on the original 'Top Chef' (Season 6), running, cardio. Once I got back from the show, I was happy at Zaytinya [where he was working as chef], I was getting married. I just started putting on weight. I put on 40 pounds over a year and a half."

Aha! moment: "When I was recording "[Top Chef] All-Stars" this year, competing was so much harder: bending over, my back. I realized it was time to make a change. Seeing all the pictures and video coming out, there's a big difference from the shows in Vegas."

Regimen: "I had a membership at Vida that I never used, so I started working out with a personal trainer three times a week. I've been doing that for three months. I do core training, leg exercises. With a new restaurant opening, I'm going to be on my feet all day long for six, seven days a week. I don't want to rush it and lose the weight and have it come right back. It took [time] to put the weight on; it's going to take at least two years to take it off, and I'm three months into it.

"I was never a breakfast eater, but now every morning I have a healthy bowl of cereal that has no sugars in it; or oatmeal; or two eggs with two whites added.

"I drink water 95 percent of the time. Soda is a special thing. I cut out those high sugars. I really cut down on drinking booze to once or twice a week.

"At this point in my life, I have to watch what I drink, watch what I eat, watch my sugars, and work out on a fairly consistent basis. No special diets. It will be little nerve-racking opening up an Italian restaurant that's going to have pizzas and pastas on the menu every day. I'm nervous about that. I just have to be focused. Baby steps, baby steps."

Cathal Armstrong

Restaurant Eve, the Majestic, Eamonn's, PX

Age: 40

Height: 5 feet 10 inches

Peak weight: 209 pounds

Current weight: 185 pounds

Lost: 24 pounds

How he gained: "I attribute a big part of that to cola; I used to drink it all the time. There are 12 teaspoons of sugar in one can of soda, and at a certain point in your life, you just don't need that much sugar anymore. And I'd eat a turkey-and-cheese sandwich every night when I got home at 1 a.m.

"Drinking alcohol is always a big factor in the restaurant business. Alcohol is so easy. I'd have a glass of wine, then another and another. Before you know it, you're drinking a whole bottle of wine every day."

Aha! moment: "This past summer, [my wife] Meshelle took a photo of me, and I was like, 'Who is this guy?' I had big love handles, and you couldn't tell where my chin started and my neck ended.

"I went in for a physical and weighed in at 209, the heaviest I had ever been. Between the photo and the doctor's visit, that was it. I had to do something, particularly if I'm going to be an advocate for healthy school lunches for kids. I mean, I can't be fat; that just looks ridiculous."

Regimen: "I stopped drinking soda completely and eliminated alcohol 100 percent, except on Sunday. Mostly I changed when I eat, not what I eat. I have dinner with the staff at 4:30, and then I don't eat after that. I don't give up anything. I eat more fruit, more raw food and fiber in my diet, take a good vitamin supplement and spirulina, a super-food. And I drink water, water, water.

"The other big thing is exercise: energy in, energy out. I go the gym two or three times a week for two hours, a mix of weight lifting, body toning and cardio."

Will Artley

Evening Star Cafe

Age: 32

Height: 5 feet 10 inches

Peak weight: 350 pounds

Current weight: 275 pounds

Lost: 75 pounds

How he gained: "I think it had a lot to do with my upbringing and the way my mom cooked. And living the lifestyle of a cook didn't help, either: the late-night eating, the single life, getting off work at midnight, going out drinking and then going to bed at 3 a.m. It all factored into it."

Aha! moment: "Two years ago, around Christmas, I went to the doctor because I hadn't peed in three days. I had a physical for the first time in about 15 years, and the doctor told me that I had liver disease and sleep apnea and that if I continued the way I was going, I wasn't going to make it."

Regimen: "I run, I bike, I lift weights, I do yoga, I swim. I mix up my workouts a lot; otherwise, I get bored and don't exercise as much or as often as I should.

"I fuel my body on breakfast and lunch and work it off. Dinner is supplemental, just enough to get through to the next day. I eat a lot of greens and watch my portion sizes pretty closely. Lunch is always a salad, raw vegetables, maybe a whole-wheat wrap with lettuce and grilled chicken.

"I'm not a huge calorie counter, but when I reach down to eat something I know isn't good for my body, I look at the calorie intake and remember how hard it was to burn off 700 calories at the gym. I also pay more attention to what I eat on days I don't work out."

Bryan Moscatello

Zola, Potenza

Age: 42

Height: 5 feet 9 inches

Peak weight: 312 pounds

Current weight: 225 pounds

Lost: 87 pounds

How he gained: "I lived in Aspen and was always doing things outdoors, but then I moved to Denver and was working 80-hour weeks. Same in D.C. Picking on bread and sweets all day. When Potenza was opening, pizza, pasta and cannoli was all I ate. I never ate breakfast or watched what I ate, and I ate late at night. On my day off, I'd kick back at home and drink a bunch of beer."

Aha! moment: "May 4, 2010. The Food and Wine Festival was less than two months away and I told myself I had to get back in shape so I could actually do something when I'd be up in Aspen this year. Like breathe."

Regimen: "I go to the gym six days a week for two hours a day and do a lot of cardio. I'm going to be adding weight training, because my goal is to run a marathon in Chicago with a friend next fall.

"No more caffeine. Nothing but water. Breakfast is key: two or three scrambled eggs with farm vegetables for breakfast, or yogurt with granola bars and honey. The rest of the day, I taste and eat what I need to. I might cut a small steak for protein at night. No more late-night pastas, but I basically eat what I want, when I want. If I'm going to exercise, I need a payoff. I go out to eat every Sunday with my wife and really dine. You have to enjoy life."

Robert Wiedmaier

Marcel's, Brasserie Beck, Brabo, Mussel Bar

Age: 50

Height: 6 feet 1 inch

Peak weight: 251 pounds

Current weight: 215 pounds

Lost: 36 pounds

How he gained: "Over 25 years, I went from a skinny cook to a fat [one]. I love Gruyere cheese. A nice, creamy gratin, a warm baguette with butter. I love cream. I love butter. I used to eat whatever was in the refrigerator when I got home after work. I'd go on diets, but in the past, if I broke my diet one day, that was it. I was off of it, and I'd go back to my old ways."

Aha! moment: "I had a physical at 49. My doctor said, 'I'm going to be candid: You're obese. You're on blood pressure and cholesterol medication. If you're at this shape at 50, it's only going to get worse. If I had to operate on you right now, we'd have a problem.' And that was it."

Regimen: "No carbs, no dairy. I drink Chinese oolong green tea all day long. A lot of dried fruit, prunes and apricots, fresh mangoes. Fish and meat for protein. No bread or pasta. I eat a lot of hummus. Olive oil, avocados, nuts. And I eat breakfast. I found if I didn't, I'd get weak in the afternoon and reach for that baguette with brie cheese on it. And no more late eating; after 7 p.m., I don't eat.

"I didn't stop drinking red wine, but I cut back. No more drinking with Michel [Richard] until 2 a.m.

"I do 50 push-ups and 50 incline sit-ups every day. I get on the scale every morning and mark my weight on a chalkboard every day. If I break my diet, the next day I say, 'Today is a new day' and just go back on it."

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