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October 24, 2012

How To Stay Fit When You Work With Food
By Amanda Schuster

Photo courtesy of A16

We are all surrounded by decadent temptations every day. All too well we know that leaves the average person having a hard enough time staying fit; but it’s got to be even worse for a chef or food writer, right? Just how does one keep their girlish figure when surrounded by food for a living?

To address that point, and hopefully help the audience avoid the kind of pointed jabs that Mario Batali (and his waistline) received at the NYC Wine & Food Festival roast of Anthony Bourdain, a panel of chefs gathered during the festival weekend for a seminar titled “How Chefs Eat and Stay Slim.” The seminar was moderated by Allison Adato, author of the book “Smart Chefs Stay Slim” which includes testimonies from such celebrity chefs and restaurateurs as Joe Bastianich, Rick Bayless, Cat Cora, Eric Ripert, Naomi Pomeroy and dozens of others who share their secrets to finding that healthy balance. The seminar featured cookbook author Katie Lee (www.katieleehome.com), Chefs Sue Torres (of Sueños – www.suenosnyc.com), Marc Murphy (of Landmarc restaurants – www.landmarc-restaurant.com), and the king of decadent Southern cuisine himself, Art Smith (www.chefartsmith.net).

Adato, Lee, Murphy, Smith and Torres all agreed that especially when one is busy, it’s important to eat well and have a good breakfast. Letting hunger take control is the easiest way to fall victim to temptation because the worst things to eat are usually the ones that are the most readily available. Murphy attested that French fries are always calling to him from the line. If he hasn’t eaten, he says, “It’s the first thing I’ll reach for.”

Being able to reach in and grab something healthier than those tempting fries is about planning. And batching. The panelists agree that it’s important that the batched food is something palatable and satisfying. Freshness, wholesomeness (no artificial sweeteners or processed ingredients) and seasoning are key. To this end, Torres is a big proponent of using plenty of acid and chiles to wake up flavors, even in fruit salad.

With a panel filled with authors who undertake book tours, and celebrity chefs who fly around the country making appearances at various special events, it was inevitable that the conversation turned to resisting temptation and staying healthy while traveling. It’s a well known fact; airports can be a “food desert,” where most options aren’t very healthy. Their solution? Bring your own. Torres says, “I freeze summer fruits to have all year round.”
Bringing your own is great solution for a short term travel scenario and something to think about, especially if you’re one of those fortunate chefs who, despite your love for food, have never struggled with your weight and health. Art Smith isn’t one of those lucky ones. He recently lost more than one hundred pounds after his Type 2 Diabetes became a major concern. Smith confessed he was perfectly happy with his weight, eating as he pleased, and only changed his ways when his health was threatened.

Changing habits doesn’t have to be threatening or wholly unpleasant. The panel stressed the difference between the concepts of “diet” vs. “lifestyle”; “diet” has the connotation of forbidden choices, but a “lifestyle change” helps one continue to make healthy choices and find a proper balance between indulgence and moderation. Smith admitted he still eats dessert and fried chicken as he points out, “Real fried chicken, none of that fake baked stuff,” but does so while making healthier choices at other times of the week, and frequent exercise. The only way he could lose the weight was by not denying himself the things he loved now and again, and finding new foods that inspired him to stay on track. People have pointed out that rich menu choices in his restaurants haven’t changed much, to which he defends, “I’m not in the business of running marathons. I’m in the business of making food.”

On this point, Murphy said that as restaurateurs, they should have the freedom to offer everything. It’s up to diners to “make the right choices” and “not finish everything” if they feel portions are too big. Besides, if he made smaller portions, some customers would complain. Diners are a tough crowd indeed, but one way he satisfies customers is to offer small desserts for $4 each. There’s a little bit of something sweet, and no one feels they’ve gone overboard. (Smith is more of a proponent for big desserts that people can share.)

Lee said that her routine keeps her very disciplined on the weekdays, and more free to indulge on weekends. However, sometimes falling off the wagon is unavoidable, whether it’s indulgent work events, special occasions, generous dinner hosts (“gratuitous” plates when dining out at friendly establishments) or a busy, stressful week that simply doesn’t allow for proper diet and exercise, never mind all that batching. Torres emphasized that it’s important to stay focused, even when a day feels like it’s gotten out of control. Don’t make the excuse, “I’ve already been bad today, might as well indulge for the rest of the night and wait till tomorrow to be good.” Rein it in as soon as possible.

The most important thing that Adato was able to extract from her panelists was the concept that how we eat is as important as what we eat. Even if Torres is known for hearty Mexican food or Smith for Southern comfort classics or Murphy for architectural cotton candy, it’s about balance. Lee notes, “I used to think more about how things tasted than whether they were healthy, and now it’s more the other way around.”

So, how to continue to eat like a chef and stay fit in the process? Go ahead. Have that fried chicken. Taste every dish that comes across the pass. It’s your job. Just remember, it wouldn’t hurt to walk a few extra blocks too.

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