Weight, career can be a tough recipe for chefs

"Never trust a skinny chef."

That's a decades-old joke that plays upon the oft-debated supposition that fat chefs must be good chefs because they eat their own food.

But being overweight is no laughing matter. And a chef's lifestyle creates a potential recipe for packing on the pounds: long hours into the wee hours, liberal access to alcohol and a need to sample their wares.

Food Network's  bluntly titled TV show "Fat Chef" debuted last month and chronicles the challenges of a dozen chefs, caterers and restaurant owners trying to shed pounds over 16 weeks using dietitians and fitness trainers.

Carolyn O'Neil, a local registered dietitian and author who writes a column for The Atlanta Journal Constitution and ajc.com, said she has never seen any studies proving chefs are necessarily fatter than the average person.

"There are plenty of  super-fit chefs, but being around food constantly is a barrier to eating healthily or cutting back," she said. It's possible, she noted, that people predisposed to loving food a wee bit too much are drawn to the restaurant business.

O'Neil has mixed feelings about "Fat Chef." "For some people, watching a chef lose weight in a challenging environment could give them hope. Then again, that show title makes me cringe."

So what do professionals in the food business do to to lose weight? Here are four local chefs and their individual recipes for healthier living:

The runner

Richard Blais, the winner of last year's "Top Chef: All Stars," has lost 50 to 60 pounds the past five years.  At 5 feet 6 inches, he dropped from a chunky 220 pounds to a healthy 170. Blais, 39, became an avid runner, completing his first marathon last November.

"I used to look like Uncle Fester" from "The Addams Family," Blais said in a recent interview at HD1, his restaurant in Atlanta's Poncey-Highland neighborhood where he was promoting a "healthy heart" campaign for Campbell's soups.

"Temptation is a professional hazard. Salt and fat. Salt and butter. Pork belly."

His motivation for losing weight was meeting his future wife, Jazmin, a personal trainer.  "One morning, she asked me to go for a run. After a few blocks, I was trailing her by a few hundred yards. Two years later, I caught up to her!"

The weightlifter

Kevin Gillespie, the red-bearded chef at Atlanta's Woodfire Grill who almost won "Top Chef" in 2009, tipped the scales a year ago at 260 pounds after a decade of focusing on cooking-- and not much else.

"It was becoming a burden," said the 5-foot-10-inch Gillespie. "I was tired all the time. My energy levels were really down. My back hurt a lot. It really snuck up on me."

This chef's epiphany? He tried to reach his toes with his hands and couldn't get past his knees. "That spurred me on."

Last June, the 29-year-old joined a 24-hour gym and started a weight-lifting regimen, which has helped him replace fat with muscle and shed 30 pounds. He hopes to lose a few more pounds but -- given his stocky build -- he isn't looking to be rail-thin.

A radical solution

Todd Richards, chef at The Cafe at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Buckhead, said he decided one day to write down what he ate. It made him realize he consumed more than 1,000 extra calories in a single day just tasting food in his work kitchen. But Richards does not blame his weight issues on his profession. For him, it's more complicated, citing genetics as part of the reason.

"Our profession does not make us fat. I was a big kid growing up. I've always battled weight. I've tried all the fad diets. I think the biggest hurdle is more mental health and breaking habits of overeating."

At 300 pounds, the 40-year-old Richards said he has chosen to get gastric bypass surgery next month. "My body is one of those that resists extreme measures to lose weight. The surgery allows me a better chance to manage problems I've had."

Lifestyle shift

Justin Balmes, who competed on Food Network's "Food Network Star" TV show last year, worked in a variety of restaurants from 1998 until 2009, including the now-closed MidCity Cuisine in Midtown under famed chef Shaun Doty. But he said the lifestyle didn't gel with his desire to regularly mountain bike.

"The industry is very pirate-like. Lots of late nights and drinking and heavy eating on the fly. I partied hard when I was younger with liquor and cocaine. I was an idiot."

He recalls working six days a week, 12 to 15 hours a day. "You get one day off and you're spent. You're lucky to catch up on your laundry."

In early 2010, the 33-year-old Atlanta native became a fishmonger at Whole Foods and now is a chief instructor at The Art Institute of Atlanta. "The hours are much more forgiving."

Staying healthy in a world of food

-- Chef Kevin Gillespie:

- "Exercise is 100 percent routine-based. You need to determine what time each day to do it, whether it's early morning or late at night. Just don't come up with reasons not to. I'm a morning guy. By the time, I am really awake, I'm already at the gym."

- "Chefs are often malnourished. We don't always eat enough. When we do, we binge. We don't think about healthfulness, even when we serve healthy food. I had to learn to eat properly and stick to a meal at a particular time. It doesn't matter how hard you exercise, if you don't back it up with proper nutrition, it's worthless."

-- Chef Richard Blais:

- Substitute salt and fat with spices and fresh herbs. Celery seed, for instance, has natural sodium and is a good replacement for salt.  Employ savory tomatoes, shellfish, mushrooms, soy, ingredients that make your mouth water.

- He does 100 push-ups a day, which is easy exercise because he doesn't have to be at a fitness club. He could bang them out in the Delta Air Lines Sky Club. "I'm kind of obsessive."