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Fat chefs in the spotlight as 'Fat Chef' debuts on Food Network

January 27, 2012|By Jeannine Stein, Los Angeles Times / For the Booster Shots blog
  • Dimitri Verteouris, shown here pre-weight-loss, appears on an upcoming episode of "Fat Chef" on the Food Network.
Dimitri Verteouris, shown here pre-weight-loss, appears on an upcoming… (Photo credit: Food network )

On the heels of the Paula Deen debacle comes a new show from the Food Network: "Fat Chef."

No euphemisms allowed here, apparently. The new reality series, which debuted this week in an incredible feat of good timing, features obese chefs who need and want to drop a considerable amount of weight, and do so -- or try to do so -- with the help of a trainer.

Unlike you and me, for these people food is their life -- literally. They're preparing it, cooking it and tasting it for most of the day because their jobs depend on it. With long, stressful days being the norm for many chefs, finding time to exercise is sometimes next to impossible. For the chefs featured on the show, we see that as their health begins to deteriorate, they feel the need to do something, and soon.

The do-or-die weight loss reality format is a staple on the television landscape, but seeing chefs talk about their fast-food addictions is not. Yet Deen is hardly an anomaly among chefs, or even celebrity chefs. Many of her peers, including Emeril Lagasse, Ina Garten, Mario Batali and Graham Elliot Bowles are extremely overweight and could be at a higher risk for diabetes.

In the first episode of "Fat Chef,"  we meet Michael Mignano and Melba Wilson; Mignano is a pastry chef from Long Island in New York, and Wilson is the chef-owner of Melba's in Harlem.

The goal for every chef on the show is to lose 25% of their body weight in four months -- a tall order, even for people who aren't around food and working 14-hour days. We won't spoil the ending of the first episode, but despite some setbacks, both do pretty well at attaining their goals.

Featured on an upcoming episode is Dimitri Verteouris, the 28-year-old New York chef and owner of three health food restaurants -- no, the irony was not lost on him -- who ballooned to 327 pounds on a 5-foot-9  frame. Two heart surgeries in childhood set the stage for a somewhat sedentary life, and becoming a chef was a big factor in packing on weight. Being around for his two daughters and returning to boxing was motivation to lose it.

"The last time I saw my cardiologist, he said my heart was slightly enlarged," Verteouris said. "Things were going downhill. I had trouble tying my shoes and walking up stairs. It slowed me down at work, and even my brain wasn't as sharp as it used to be." He also had a severe case of sleep apnea.

Besides not exercising, Verteouris also never ate his own healthful food, opting instead for pasta, fast food and rich desserts.

Although chefs' daily lives are unlike yours and mine, is there a take-away message from these shows for viewers?

"You have to get to to the root of the problem," said Brett Hoebel, one of the trainers featured on the show (he's also appeared on "The Biggest Loser"). "If you're stressed, you can't sweep that under the carpet. You can try to deal with it in another way besides eating, but you ultimately have to resolve it."

Chefs, Hoebel says, often suffer from the same bad eating habits many of us do, such as binging on trigger foods, especially when we're hungry. "One of the main things people should do," he says, "is have healthy snacks around. Also, eat something -- not a giant meal -- every two to three hours to regulate your blood sugar so you're not hungry."

Does he think chefs bear a responsibility to the public to advocate more healthful eating? "

"So many celebrity chefs are overweight," he said. "This is a really big issue.... Food should be there to fuel you; it's not there for happiness. You should enjoy it, but if you have other areas of your life that make you feel good, you're not going to rely on food that much to make you happy.

"I think there's a clear message going out to Americans that says you can't just look at food and not understand what it does to your body."

Verteouris won't say how much weight he ultimately lost (we'll have to watch the show), but he says he feels great and is now eating the food he prepares at his restaurants. He's also on a mission to help others.

"When I started this journey, I said to myself that this is my calling," Verteouris said. "This is a great opportunity to show people what I've been through, and to tell people who have my problem that this can be done when you put your mind to it."

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