Maybe this is how the obesity epidemic ends: by giving chefs TV shows. Because people on TV don't like looking fat. And perhaps when chefs start to worry about their own weight, they'll start to worry about their customers'.
At least that's how it worked for Food Network host and best-selling cookbook author Alton Brown, who one day saw himself on TV and noticed he was a doughy 213 lb. Then he started noticing the size of his fans. "I'd go to appearances and see an audience of very heavy people. And I thought, 'What role do I have in that?," says Brown, who is thinking about writing a book about the 50 lb. he has lost since March. "Celebrity chefs are the high priests of the food craze that is partly responsible for the fattening of America. We helped people get into this mess. I don't see why we shouldn't help get them out."
These days so many chefs are losing weight that Brown says even Mario Batali, the cultural signifier of joyous lardo-spread excess, has knocked off some pounds. The methods used by the chefs I talked to are pretty simple and should work for anyone if they've worked for people who spend their long working hours surrounded by amazing food they're forced to keep tasting, people who talk, think and read about flavor all day long, people who--forget about a carton of ice cream in their freezer--have a pastry chef in their office.
"There's an argument, 'How can you be a chef who's skinny?'" says Michael Psilakis, the chef at New York City's Anthos and Bon Appétit's 2008 Chef of the Year. "It's an excuse we've used to eat," says Psilakis, who went from 280 lb. to 200 lb. before putting a few back on recently. "If I'm opening a new restaurant, I always gain weight, partly from the stress. For people who love food, they use it as a form of therapy. It's the same thing for people who smoke."
Many chefs, including Brown and Alex Stratta, of Alex at Wynn Las Vegas, think of their eating habits as addictions they needed to kick. "You don't cut back on heroin, you don't cut back on smoking; you either quit or you don't," says Brown, who now snacks incessantly on avocados, sardines and almonds, having given up almost everything bad for him. "I decided there were foods I was just not going to have. I've probably had three tons of French fries in my life. I don't need any more French fries."
Change did not come easily for Stratta. "That carton was the perfect portion of Häagen-Dazs," he says. "Serves eight? No, it serves one guy who really likes ice cream." Stratta decided to get off sugar, fatty meats and carbs after his suit wouldn't fit for an awards reception, sending him into a big-and-tall shop. "I was a size-20 neck. I was mortified. I was like Alex the Neck," he says. In 18 months, he went from 270 lb. to 190 lb., which is below his high school weight. His new rules include starting the morning with a protein shake, having only three meals a day and never eating after 6 p.m.