Dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, he walks a few doors down to the entrance of an apartment complex and swipes a security card to unlock the gate. He swings it open and marches through the courtyard and into the workout center. For the next 60 minutes, he sweats through burpees, dumbbell lifts, presses, squats and rope jumping. The high-intensity workout has been Wong’s routine for the past year. He’s lost 40 pounds and never felt better.
The restaurant industry isn’t exactly a model for health and wellness. The hours are long and unpredictable. The work is stressful. And not just mentally. Prolonged standing, repetitive motions and heavy lifting take a physical toll on the body — leading not just to strains and sprains, but literally broken backs. The constant presence of food and the inevitable need to taste what’s cooking can translate to weight gain. Easy access to drink can lead to alcohol abuse.
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But there are signs that the image of the fat chef, the notion that you can’t trust a skinny chef and the credo that a chef needs to be chained to the kitchen are changing as more people who work 12-hour shifts to feed diners carve out time to care for themselves.
Answering the wake-up call
It was three or four years ago when Public School 404 executive chef Imani Greer took a good look at himself and his lifestyle. “My body was breaking down. I was working a lot of hours. My back, feet and joints hurt. I had no energy.” He was only 30 years old. “You party, you drink. That’s when I started to make changes,” said the 18-year kitchen veteran.
Greer began incorporating exercise into his daily routine. It led to some weight loss, but when the 5-foot-11-inch Greer began lifting weights instead of focusing just on cardio, the scale went from 150 to 200. “I was putting on good and bad weight,” he said. “I was bulking up, but eating recklessly.” Three months ago, he cut down on bread and pastas — mindful to curb his tendency toward late-night indulges in carbs — and he’s lost 8 pounds. “I’m a little bit slimmer, but it looks better,” he said.
Yet looks are less important to Greer than the increased energy and positive attitude that he attributes to exercise. “It’s me being able to go the whole day without being tired or groggy or feeling weak.”
Chrysta Poulos, pastry chef for Ford Fry Restaurants, has been into fitness for the past 20 years, ever since she joined the Air Force after graduating from high school and was put on a weight management program because she had put on a few pounds. But this year, she doubled down on her efforts. The reason? Next year, she will turn the big 4-0.
“I just wanted to do something as a birthday present for myself,” Poulos said.
A longtime vegetarian, she has switched to a vegan diet, with the exception of tasting what she makes on the job. Adding to her home workout of rowing, weight lifting and ab work, she joined a gym and began working with personal trainers who push her through whole-body circuit training twice a week.
When she turned 39 on June 4, she posted a photo of herself on Instagram with a note about having decided a few months earlier to “start putting my health first.” “I’m not getting any younger and it isn’t going to get any easier,” she wrote.
Poulos isn’t focused on losing weight. But the tone and definition in her body are visible. More importantly, as she shared in her Instagram post, “I feel great!”
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For some chefs, it took a medical scare to jolt them into action. In 2000, Jamie Adams, then 41, underwent quadruple bypass surgery. Two of his coronary arteries were 100 percent blocked. His brother had died of the same thing seven years earlier.
“I was extremely lucky,” said Adams, the chef-partner at Il Giallo Osteria & Bar in Sandy Springs.
His health was really just one problem area in that bleak time in his life. “I was in a tight corner when I left the restaurant Eno. I took a pay cut. I couldn’t afford my mortgage.”
Broke and without a car, he borrowed his girlfriend’s bike to get to his job at Veni Vidi Vici.
What started as a mode of transportation became a stress reliever, then a passion. He joined a cycling group and has even cycled on long-distance fundraising rides. These days, he rides a few times a week, with the goal of clocking 100 miles.
“It is a way to clear your head, get away from it all. It’s just you, the bike and the road,” said Adams. “It enables me to have a great deal more stamina. I’m almost 60 years old, and I can work circles around the younger kids at work. When they are tired, I’m going into second gear.”
The word cancer is what recently triggered chef Kevin Gillespie, 35, to get moving. When the partner with Red Beard Restaurants group, whose dining concepts include Gunshow and Revival, was diagnosed with renal cancer, he immediately began working with a trainer to build up the strength he would need to battle the disease. Surgery to remove a kidney is now behind him, but he still has an uphill battle to face. Yet, as he stated in an interview in June, he is hopeful that he can be strong enough to enter a power lifting competition in December.
Gillespie is kicking himself that, back when he was 18 and enrolled in culinary school, he did not listen to the advice of one of his instructors. Gillespie had asked, “If there is one piece of advice you can give us to help find our way to success, what would it be?” The response: “Join a health club and go three times a week.”
“Why didn’t I listen to him? The stress of this business, mixed with the very real toll that it takes on your body — out of it comes a lot of problems,” Gillespie said. “So many of us choose this business to take care of other people, and we neglect ourselves.”
Gillespie sees that behavioral pattern as one that requires an industrywide overhaul. “It’s beaten into us that the best way to be in the hospitality business is to make tremendous sacrifice. There’s a certain amount of sacrifice everyone has to give to meet their goals, but not sacrifice our own well-being. We have to change the refrain on this song, because it’s getting a bit old.”
I’ll have what he’s having
Peter Kaiser of Kaiser’s Chophouse is a veteran chef, but he’s also a longtime industry model for using exercise as a stress reliever and stamina builder. He’s been tying on his running shoes and hitting the road for the past 25 years — about as long as he’s been part of the Atlanta dining scene. During that time, he hasn’t missed a single AJC Peachtree Road Race. Signing up for 5K, 10K, half- and full marathon races, he said, gives him a goal and the excuse to keep moving.
A decade ago, he got into trail running, joined the Georgia Ultrarunning and Trailrunning Society known as GUTS, and further pushed his limits with ultramarathons.
When Kaiser’s son Christian, who also works at the steakhouse, expressed a desire to lose weight, his father encouraged him to take up running. Seven months later, Christian had dropped 70 pounds. “Now, he’s kicking my ass. He’s become a runner and he’s out there with me all the time,” Kaiser said.
Kaiser regularly invites employees on group runs. Former co-workers have told him, “Without you, I wouldn’t be running.”
Wong, too, is rubbing off on others in the industry. His friend, HomeGrown chef-owner Kevin Clark, recently reached out to Wong about establishing a workout plan. The two planned to meet in the coming weeks for Wong to show him the ropes.
But beyond helping peers to drop some pounds, some chefs consider physical activity outside of work as a way to demonstrate positive qualities for a younger cohort.
Restaurateur Shaun Doty took up marathon running in 2016. For him, it’s an excuse to experience a different city while spending time with his family and co-workers who run the marathon with him. He hopes, though, that those employees come back with larger lessons, such as learning commitment and grit. “I take some guys in their 20s and they just crack,” he said.
Adams, too, hopes his ethos rubs off on the younger people who work with him at Il Giallo. “It’s a good thing to model decent behavior. It’s not all the stuff you see on TV. There is a lot of dark side,” he said of restaurant culture. Cycling has been his solution to “stay healthy and avoid the drink, drugs, failed relationships — all that stuff. I think that’s part of what Anthony Bourdain’s problem was,” he said, referencing the chef and host of travel show “Parts Unknown” who recently committed suicide.
As chefs work up a sweat outside the kitchen, diners are seeing a payoff, too. With Greer’s change in diet have come changes to the Public School 404 menu. Greer’s health-minded moves include roasting the Brussels sprouts instead of deep-frying them. The launch of an “extracurricular” menu later this month will see the addition of a quinoa-based veggie burger as well as a power bowl.
Poulos still makes decadent desserts, but some, like sorbets, are on the light side of sinful. She has also gotten requests to incorporate vegan options into her desserts.
Gillespie sees an even bigger picture to the healthy chef equation that results in a tasty payoff for diners. “When you don’t have your heart in it because you are just too tired or you don’t care anymore, people can taste it. There is some piece of this thing that makes the food of someone who is happy taste better than that of someone who is miserable.”
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