Culinary instructors face unique challenges in maintaining a healthy weight. Chef Weiner shows you how to lose weight by example.
By Chef Adam Weiner, CFSE
Normally I write about teaching techniques and cooking fundamentals. This article is different in that it is just for you personally as a teacher.
In the last 18 months I’ve lost about 30 pounds. I am just under six feet tall and started around 235 pounds. I now hover around 205 pounds. I have five more pounds to go. Everyone asks how a culinary instructor can lose weight. Most people seem to believe culinary instructors are destined to be overweight.
For several years I tested pre-diabetic. My primary care physician wanted me to see a dietician and I fought it. I wasn’t going to have someone tell me to measure everything. Then my doctor found a dietician he knew I would like and offered to personally pay for the visit if I didn’t like the person. I met Ann Pocapalia, RD, CDE, who turned out to have known me during college. She took her arm and swept all the measuring cups and spoons off her desk and told me she knew how to work with chefs.
With her support and guidance, I lost 30 pounds and basically never felt hungry. If you can afford a dietician, or have one on your health plan, work with him or her. Just tell them you are a culinary wizard, you know basic food measurement and nutrition principles and you can’t be treated like their other muggle patients.
Below is a list of what she taught me and how I implemented them in my career.
- Write Down or Photograph Everything You Eat
I used a weekly chart that covered breakfast, morning snack, lunch, afternoon snack, dinner, and evening snack. It also had a place for recording the number of glasses of water and daily exercise. This was quite a burden to begin with but over time became routine. One big advantage was it cut down on my snacking and tasting in class (see numbers five and seven below) because I didn’t want to go to the trouble of writing it down. More importantly, I didn’t want to see it stare at me in the face from the chart. If you photograph everything with your phone create a special folder for easy review.
- Write Down the Times You Eat
It isn’t good to eat past 8 p.m. (I still violate this one a lot.) Study your eating times and you will see a pattern and places you can make some changes. For example, I saw that 80% of my eating occurred when I got home and before going to bed. Does this sound like you? I discovered I had to keep watch during that time frame.
- Watch the Carbs
If you are going to eat carbs, make them complex. Whole grain bread is better than candy. Keep all foods as close to natural as possible. An apple is better than an apple pie. (I am just reminding you of things you already know.)
- Exercise – Do It!
I am on my fourth step counter: one broke, one was lost in a hotel, and one came off my belt in a men’s room. I attribute at least half my weight loss to a step counter. When Ann recommended I buy one, I purchased it that day and wore it to work the next day. She told me to shoot for 10,000 steps per day. Just past 3 p.m., I discovered I already walked more than 8,000 steps. I quickly realized I was walking well over 10,000 steps a day and was still fat. I knew I had to up my game. Now I strive for at least 13,000 steps a day. I often don’t hit that, but I strive for that.
I also try to use the gym's stationary bike and basic weight machines at least twice a week. The machines, instead of being a burden, turned out to be fun. Fun? I had lost so much weight I used the machines to tighten up. That’s a fun thought.
Find some exercise you like. It doesn’t have to be running a marathon or weight training to burn calories. If you like it, you will be more likely to do it. Load up tunes on your phone and listen while you work out. Also, some people think exercise partners are great. My problem when I had one was that he wasn’t available as often as I wanted. I would find myself not walking because he wasn’t with me. You still have to exercise if your partner is not available.
- Your Job Doesn’t Require You to Eat Everything Your Students Make
Students would say to me, “Chef, I just made my first omelet. It looks great. Would you like to taste it?” I felt guilty when I said no. The “taste” would be a plate with a three-egg omelet, hash browns, toast, and all the works. Of course, the next student would say, “But you need to taste my omelet too.” Not a pretty picture when you have a large number of students. The bottom line is that you cannot, and should not, eat everything made by your students. I now tell a student who asks me to taste something to share it with their group and get the group’s input.
- Teach Students What a Taste Means
A taste of something is not a full serving. Watch the judges on the food reality shows. They take a fork bite or two. They don’t hork down the entire plate. Watch the bartenders on the bartending shows. They put in a straw and suction off one or two drops. They don’t drink the entire drink. In a commercial kitchen a taste is about a teaspoon or less.
There are two reasons: food costs and you can’t possibly eat more of everything. I show students how to taste with a chocolate chip cookie. I hold it up and ask how many people will be able to taste this cookie. Everyone says, “Just one person.” I then take the cookie and break it into 10 pieces and give 10 students a piece. That’s a taste. I do the same with a slice of bread which I can get into more than 20 taste-size servings.
- Beethoven Was Deaf!
Culinarians are taught taste is the most important sense. We are told that we must TASTE, TASTE and then TASTE again. For many of you, tasting all of what the students make (even using just regular taste-size portions) is what’s causing your weight problem. I have several comments on this.
7a. We eat with our eyes. My friend Chef Doug Robertson, who cooked for Pope John Paul II, would guest teach my class and repeatedly tell the students to eat with their eyes. What does that have to do with you losing weight? If the food doesn’t look good, you probably don’t need to eat it to find out. If the food looks great it probably is. Don’t believe me? Picture a perfect Toll House cookie. Do you need to taste it to know it is good? Picture one burnt beyond recognition. Do you need to taste it to know it isn’t good?
7b. You can almost always tell by looking whether the food was executed correctly. I can tell from across the room if the rice is undercooked or the bread pudding is not set. I don’t need to taste 20 hollandaise sauces to know which are broken or too thick. You might not be able to see if the food was seasoned correctly but for most things you can tell by looking. Beethoven had hearing problems and became deaf around the age of 30. If he could write his 9th Symphony being fully deaf then you can probably judge most of the food around by sight.
7c. Get others to sample and critique the food. I am a big believer (okay, now 30 pounds less of a “big” believer) students need to be able to taste and critique each other’s food. I know sometimes it is necessary to bring in someone else, and to do this I use other faculty members, chef friends or graduates. You don’t have to be a culinary arts instructor to tell if something is bland, too salty, over cooked or just right.
- Keep It Off. One of the hardest parts of losing weight is keeping it off. I do this by changing my goal. When I approach a goal weight then I lower it a few more pounds. I believe there is danger in achieving your goal. Once you have reached your goal it is easy to slack off. With the goal changing, you keep moving toward it. Take note, you should just move the goal slightly. If you move it drastically it will be easy to get frustrated and just give up.
- Treat Yourself Once in a While. You don’t need to become a food hermit. At least once a week I treat myself well. Sometimes it’s with an extra drink, or dinner out with my wife, or even a burger and fries. I find I end up ordering far less than I did before and I feel more satisfied. Also, treats become much more fun and interesting now that I am eating less. A warning, at least from my personal experience, is alcohol hits you more heavily and faster.
- Don’t Kick Yourself or Beat Yourself Up. We all slip and slide. I know many dieters who kick themselves or slip off the diet when they regain some weight. When our students make mistakes we tell them to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and do it again. When the scale goes back up I laugh and tell myself it is a good thing I practiced losing those previous couple of pounds because I am going to have to do it again. I try to make jokes to encourage myself. My most recent favorite was a text to my son at college, “I got on the scale today and it registered that I still weigh less than the Queen Mary 2.”
Finally, remember things like too much salt, medication, and even changes in sleep patterns can drive your weight up and down in a short period. Don’t worry about the short day-to-day changes. The bottom line is long-term change. Even if you lose just a quarter of a pound a week, that is 13 pounds per year. And, if you lose more than a quarter pound a week you are well on your way to losing more than I did.