"Many top chefs have discovered some surprisingly tasty ways to keep the pounds at bay. [Their] tantalizing suggestions [are] put forth in Smart Chefs Stay Slim, a new book detailing the eating strategies of today’s culinary superstars." -- OPRAH.COM

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Think like a Chef: Keep it Simple

BIRTH ANNOUNCEMENT! We harvested our first tomato today, an organic Burbank variety grown in our window box. Realize I'm not the first person ever to grow produce in New York City, but this was our first -- my 10-year-old son and I started our tiny garden in the Spring. We couldn't be more thrilled.


Now, just days before he leaves for summer camp (and on the very day he got the cast off his arm) we brought our debut tomato in, sliced it, and ate it with basil (also from the garden) olive oil (Greek lately, because it seems like their economy could use the boost) and Maldon salt. "It tasted," said my son thoughtfully, "like... a tomato."



Because he's going to be away for the next two weeks, I've promised to keep whatever ripens during his absence in the form of tomato sauce. But it is hard to beat a great fresh-cut tomato, eaten with little fuss.

Here's what Thomas Keller had to say on the topic, when I spoke with him for my book: "The best ingredients you can get will result in the best food you can cook—as long as you don't screw them up." He likes a salad of tomato, salt, olive oil, plus a good vinegar. "It's a really simple thing and you go, 'My god, that's just incredible!' Four components, but done right, when the tomatoes are amazing, it's compelling and impressive."  It's a good lesson: Buy (or grow!) the best you can, don't screw it up.

Our little tomato was gone in a flash. Fortunately, there are some more out there starting to blush, including a tiny silver fir tree tomato. Stay tuned.


Why Ask Chefs: The James Beard talk

 I gave a talk today at the James Beard Foundation. Simpson Wong of Wong and Café Asean joined me. Here's an excerpt:

I thought first I might tell you why I decided to talk to chefs about how they eat, particularly with a thought to staying fit.   After all, chefs are not nutritionists or dieticians or doctors.  As a group, fashion models are uniformly skinnier.  And chefs are notorious for feeding us the very foods that ruin our diets. They wrap things in bacon, bathe dishes in cream, they sauté innocent vegetables in duck fat.

And, of course, we love them for it.  We pay them good money for it.  But are these the people we should be consulting about eating well and being healthy? This turned out to be a question on more people’s minds than just my own.

Right before the book came out, Paula Deen announced that, after years of celebrating fatty and fried foods on television, she had been diagnosed with diabetes.  And Frank Bruni from the New York Times called me and we talked about --not about Paula in particular, because she isn’t someone I interviewed --  but about how what many chefs feed us is not necessarily the way they feed themselves. How eating oatmeal with berries for breakfast every day, as Art Smith does,  and some form of salad and protein for lunch, as many chefs do, wasn’t really sexy.  Talking about this kind of real-life eating isn’t what celebrity chefs engage in, or really even what we want them to.  

With JBF president Susan Ungaro and chef Simpson Wong, who graciously provided summer rolls for a very hot day.

Then a different newspaper called, and that reporter wanted to know: Didn’t chefs have a responsibility to help their customers eat healthfully? Especially, she said, the high profile chefs, didn’t their fans deserve from them the same healthy menus that school children, who have no choice whatever, deserve from the lunch lady?

For me, the answer is no. If I am lucky enough to get an invitation to, for instance, Per Se, I don’t want Thomas Keller to skimp on the butter.  If I’m in the mood to eat what my friend Alyssa Shelasky brilliantly calls “ironic fried chicken” at Momofuku, I think it should actually be fried, not some baked version or with the skin removed. And I take responsibility for making sure that such outings are a rare occurrence, not the way I’m eating every day.  David Chang should do his thing, and I’ll do mine.  But what I do think chefs might do is disabuse us of the notion that the food they serve us is the food they most often eat.  So I asked them, and plenty were happy to tell me.

Which brings me back to the question: Why ask chefs about staying slim? First of all, because many of them have managed to stay in shape.  And they they’ve done so while spending their professional lives around the bacon and the butter and the cream and the duck fat, and so on.   This is a greater hurdle than most of us have to face; I mean, how often have you met a slim chef or maybe seen one on TV and thought,  “if I had your job, I’d be as big as a house”?

Second, chefs are people who care about food as more than simply nutrients that the body needs. They think about flavor foremost. How does it taste? How does it make you feel when you eat it? What shared memories does it trigger?   I found that when I asked about how they eat today, we always came around to how each chef ate when they were growing up.  Michelle Bernstein tells a story of being five years old and the last one in her family at the table, still dipping pieces of bread in the salad bowl to get every drop of her mother’s salad dressing.   Chefs aren’t going to tell you to eat salad with just a squeeze of lemon – because no one ever gets misty-eyed remembering how their mother put just lemon juice on lettuce.  

Generally speaking, chefs  aren’t willing to cut out whole categories of food, or decide that for the next 10 days all they will eat is cabbage and cayenne pepper.  Rick Moonen put it best, I think, when he told me, “Chefs are fun and they drink and people don’t want to give that up. There’s a happiness factor.” 

Even harder than maintaining weight while working with food is losing a lot a weight that you’ve put on.   And while I would never tell anyone not to consult a doctor about changing unhealthy habits, I liked hearing from Michael Psilakis, the chef at Kefi who took off about 80 pounds,  when he told me: “Doctors are looking at the problem from a scientific perspective, saying 'This is what you should eat.' But what if you want to eat something else? There has to be another way.”

It was my hope that this “other way” would be one that would value flavor and food the way that chefs do. So I spent about a year interviewing fit chefs at home, and hanging out with them in their restaurants, and at food festivals, and listening to them talk about food, and work, and weight and diets, and exercise and everything they know about bringing all of that into balance.  And about the best way to experience all that this moment in the food world has to offer us, without letting it take our bodies in a direction we don’t want them to go....


Smart Tip: A Taste is Just a Taste

Do you taste what you're making as you're cooking? If you do, congratulations: This is a just what chefs do when they are in the kitchen.  Making sure what you're cooking is cooking as you want it to is essential in the professional kitchen. But all those little bites, tastes, dips into a sauce, samples of the sirloin... they add up. They may not feel like a meal because you're not sitting down, but they count. 

During the time that he was losing about 90 lbs. (down from 280) chef Alex Stratta became very conscious of every bite he took on the job. "I dip a spoon," he told me during our Smart Chefs Stay Slim book interview. "You don't have to taste a whole scallop."  It was one of many strategies he employed to take the weight off. Alex Stratta before, in 2006

It is instructive: Watch watch you eat when you're cooking. Marc Murphy entertains at home often, and finds that by the time he is ready to serve, he is no longer in need of the meal he is serving to his guests. He might have a glass of wine and that's it.  I'm trying to be aware when that is the case for me.  Limit those bites, or count them as part of the meal. 

Still a third chef confided that his secret was switching from tablespoons to teaspoons when he is sampling -- a 2/3 calorie reduction.  My version: Keep those baby spoons from when your children stop eating mush; they are the perfect size for sampling. (Related: I've used the measuring cup from my son's childrens Tylenol to measure out appropriate doses of tequilla -- for me, not him.) Alex Stratta, now

I'm not saying don't taste your creation -- on the contrary, cooks who don't taste what they are putting out reguarly get voted off reality shows. But don't have a whole meal before you put out a whole meal.


Eating with Kids: "Diner # 1"

A little over a year ago, Anthony Bourdain charged writers who cook (and cooks who write) with thinking about why to cook well. The answer that most pleased him would be published in the paperback edition of his next book. Though it did not win, my entry forced me to think about why I put effort into cooking. It holds true today, and I thought I would share it here.

DINER # 1 

Cook well because your first customer — demanding, critical, often irrational — is also your best customer: He’ll be back tomorrow, the next night and the next

The first customer arrives when you least feel like cooking.

You’re prone, splayed, crying. There’s blood on the table, probably shit too.  

Fortunately, all Diner #1 wants is milk. Milk we have! If things go well the kid latches on, and you’re out of the weeds. The first meal is served before you’ve even located your underwear.  

You can get by this way for months—ample time to get to know Diner #1, reacquaint yourself with both your kitchen and the underwear you liked before your body was a bed & breakfast. But eventually there must be utensils, and breasts can’t abide them.  The first spoon-fed dish my son ate, at four months, required no recipe: Milk mixed with rice cereal.  But I measured, checked temperatures, stirred slowly to the perfect consistency. He might not remember this day, but I would.   As I airplaned the inaugural bite toward him, Julian didn’t wait for the spoon to reach his lips; he grasped with two small fists and yanked it squarely into his mouth.  Houston, the eater has landed.

Have you ever noticed how a baby will put anything—lint, toes, dog toys—into his mouth? This is one reason, the best one as far as I am concerned, to cook well: Because someone is relying on me to grasp the world through his taste buds.

Fast forward: The bouncy chair gives way to the booster seat, mashed avocado gives way to sushi rolls, mac and cheese to linguine vongole—a dish I made dozens of times before he finished kindergarten.  

Feeding my son pushed me to be a better cook than before—better even than when I was far better rested and had the luxury of dawdling in the aisles at Balducci’s comparing sea salts. Everyone benefited: My husband, our friends, me especially. We all ate well.

Fast forward: Stuffed grape leaves. Caesar salad with anchovies. Coq au vin. (The wine cooks off, right? That’s what I told myself.) Was there nothing this kid wouldn’t eat?Your best bet is getting the kid to cook for himself. Or at least make pie.

Yes, it turns out. One night, when he was 5, I was low on groceries and scrounged up a dinner of soba noodles, the purchase of which likely predated Julian’s conception. Frozen corn also figured into it. Possibly Thai fish sauce, too.   Diner #1 was having none of it. I tucked into my bowl, prepared to make the sort of show of yummy noises that the parents of picky eaters put on nightly. But he was right: This was vile. I dumped the whole mess in the trash and ordered Chinese from Sammy’s.  

Fast forward: Homemade caramel ice cream and banana birthday cake. Hand-rolled gnocchi. Live lobsters boiled as he stood on a stool at our stove.

Yet what’s the meal this 8-year-old still talks most about? “Remember, Mom, when you made the gross noodles? Deee-scusting!”  

Another reason to cook well: Diner #1’s reviews are searing, and his is the only name in the reservation book for the next decade or so.


Dine out Smart: The Law of Diminishing Returns

Have you ever been presented with a dish so intoxicatingly delicious that you felt you couldn't stop eating it? That you only did stop when it was gone? Think back: Were the last few bites as enchanting as the first few? Thomas Keller would guess not. When we spoke for the Smart Chefs book, the celebrated chef-owner of Per Se and the French Laundry shared an interesting perspective on how much is just enough. photo by Deborah Jones, TKRG

"Our whole menu is based on the law of diminishing returns. The most compelling portion of a dish is in the first three or four bites. With the first bite you're getting into it, by the second bite you start to realize it, and it is at the third or fourth bites you get the maximum appreciation and pleasure from that dish...and you keep eating because of that memory of it being really extraordinary. But was it as good [at the end] as it was at that second, third or fourth bite? No."

His solution? Smaller portions. Don't allow yourself to keep eating and eating trying to recapture that early blush of pleasure. The time to stop is when you still are so excited by a dish that you want a little more. Keller has long served a signature salmon cornet canapé, and people often ask for a second one after they have demolished the first delicate cone studded with black sesame seeds and filled with sweet red onion crème fraîche and salmon tartare. Sorry, folks, no more cornets for you. "No," says Keller. "It's a matter of finishing a dish at the height of flavor impact." Of course, at that moment he's sending out another small enchantment. salmon cornets. photo by Deborah Jones, TKRG

I try to remember this when I'm getting over enthusiastic about a restaurant meal. But it also works at home, though there you need to be even more disciplined. You need to be both the consumer in want of that second helping, and you have to be your own Chef Keller, and politely tell yourself: No. Sometimes I have to remind myself that, he's right, I'm just chasing the memory of that initial yum. Better to have less, savor more.