Chefs struggle to stay healthy in pressure-cooker setting

Chefs struggle to stay healthy in pressure-cooker setting
Restaurant owner Dimitri Verteouris, left, and health consultant Robert Brace, right, appear in the Food Network's new show "Fat Chef." (Emile Wamsteker, Handout photo)

A few months before his wedding, Neill Howell was tipping the scales at 240 pounds and knew he needed to make a change.

There was just one problem: Howell was the executive chef in a restaurant kitchen, a high-stress workplace full of ready-to-grab calories and little opportunity to work them off.

Three years later, Howell has oatmeal before work and packs himself a healthy meal for the middle of the shift. He does Muay Thai, a vigorous combat sport that emphasizes conditioning and has proved to be an effective stress reliever. Howell, the chef at Bond Street Social in Fells Point, is 30 pounds lighter and in shape — inside and out.

"I get to hit something for a few hours three times a week," he said. "I feel 100 times better now than before."

TV chef Paula Dean's announcement last week that she has Type 2 diabetes shed some light on a dark corner of the restaurant industry. For men and women working long, odd hours — especially those struggling with eating-related addictions — the restaurant kitchen can be a toxic environment.

The subject is the focus of a new Food Network Show, "Fat Chef," which comes to the rescue of overweight working chefs with a SWAT team of nutritionists, therapists and trainers. Howell probably would not have made the casting cut — the show's 12 subjects are dangerously overweight. Cameras follow them for 16 weeks as they institute new exercise and diet regimens.

Unlike other weight-loss shows, "Fat Chef," which premieres Thursday, keeps its cast in the environment that has made their struggles with weight so arduous — a small, stressful room filled with temptation.

"If you're prone to a food addiction, it's like an alcoholic working in a bar," said Robert Brace, a personal trainer who appears on "Fat Chef" as health consultant. "The thing to understand about [restaurant chefs] is that their jobs exacerbate their addiction. The main triggers of a food addiction are sight, smell and taste."

When Dimitri Verteouris, a 320-pound chef who operates three Brooklyn restaurants, answered the "Fat Chef" casting call, he said he was a step away from gastric bypass surgery.

"I'm always in the kitchen," Verteouris said. "Being around food all day long, being able to have it on demand, contributed to a lot of my problems."

Calories consumed on the job are only part of the problem. A chef with a food addiction, Brace said, might go home and gorge on junk food at the end of a long, stressful day in which he's consumed nothing but fattening, non-nutritious calories.

Winston Blick, chef-owner of Clementine, a Hamilton-area restaurant, said he's had a lifelong obsession with food.

"My downfalls are sugar and starch," he said. "I don't have breakfast, lunch or dinner, and I don't eat a lot of fat or red meat."

Restaurant work may be grueling, Blick said, but chefs aren't that active — in the heat of a busy shift, the best-run kitchen is one in which the crews move the least. He recalls the boss at his first restaurant telling him, "I'm not paying you to move, I'm not paying you to walk."

If it's a common problem, there doesn't seem to be a common solution. Resources targeting the needs of restaurant-industry professionals range from scarce to nonexistent.

"We don't have a program specific to chefs when it comes to health and nutrition," said Annika Stensson, a spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association, "but we do have resources for employees, consumers and anyone else who is interested in a healthy lifestyle. Basically, there isn't anything in particular that a chef should do that any other person shouldn't when it comes to health and nutrition."

For Blick, life in a restaurant kitchen — a toxic combination of stress and food availability — holds some appeal.

"There's something about the rush," Blick said. "Food is so much more than fuel to me. I tell my staff, 'Food will never cheat on you, food will never leave you.'"

Howell strives to set an example for his 20-person kitchen crew. He tries to serve healthful options such as fish and salad at the family meal, which the staff shares before the public dinner service.

"It's very easy for a chef to get stressed out," he said. "I think it's important that [the crew] eats healthy meals. We try to do our best to make our family meal healthy."

In the old days, Howell said, he showed up for work grumpy. And though his job is still stressful, he said, "I can sometimes get through the day with a smile on my face."