How Top Chefs Stay Thin

They spend all day surrounded by delicious food, yet they don't pack on the pounds. Rachel Syme spoke to svelte kitchenmasters to find out how they eat and eat without gaining weight.

12.15.09 11:59 PM ET

We used to like our chefs fat. A rotund belly was not only a sign that a cook was eating well, it suggested that he or she would feed us well—there was something comforting about James Beard's plumpness and Julia Child's hulking physique. And still, we have many large-scale icons in the culinary world. Mario Batali, Ina Garten, Paula Deen, and Paul Prudhomme all seem to like to eat food as much as they like to prepare it. There is something unabashedly charming about Deen's insistence on heaping another spoonful of lard into a pan, cheerfully agile in her curves.

But as American diets have moved toward healthier, farm-fresh ingredients, a new crop of svelte chefs have risen through the ranks. Culinary stars like Eric Ripert, Anthony Bourdain, Jamie Oliver, Top Chef's Sam Talbot, and Food Network starlets Cat Cora and Giada di Laurentiis have shown that it's possible to fire up the grill without putting on the pounds. But it takes discipline. To prep for the stressful, food-packed holidays, The Daily Beast checked in with six working chefs who have managed to stave off weight gain, despite being surrounded by temptations on the line every night. Below, their top six tips for staying thin and healthy, even if you love to eat. And no, we didn't let them get away with saying they simply “have a high metabolism.”

1) Taste, Don't Gorge
Nibbling their most fattening dishes is a key trick chefs use—they test a forkful and move on. "To be successful as a chef, you've gotta try the food," says Greg Griffie, head of Boston's popular 606 Congress, which will serve a decadent four-course truffle menu on New Year's Eve. "But you by no means have to eat the whole thing. We have tastings and daily checks on the line before each service, but I only sample." Quinn Hatfield of Hatfield's in Los Angeles, where he works with his also-slender pastry-chef wife, agrees. "I think people always assume chefs eat foie gras all the time," he says. "But actually, it's possible to work an entire shift and not eat anything, since we're running around all the time. And the butter and meat and calories I consume are so minimal compared to what goes out on each plate."

Click Here to View Some of Our Chef's RecipesTakeaway tip: When faced with the huge feeding trough that is a holiday meal, do as the chefs do—take a bite of everything (a bit of cookie here, a smear of pâté there) and do not fill up your plate with one thing. A little taste can go a long way.

2) Exercise Is Key
It should come as no surprise that all the chefs we spoke to are fastidious about working out. Hatfield virtually moonlights as a competitive cyclist: "I spend about eight to 12 hours a week in training or racing, either out on the street or on a stationary bike in the gym.” Pichet Ong, one of Manhattan's most beloved pastry chefs and dessert makers, maintains his teensy 28-inch waist by hitting the gym two or three times per week, where he runs and "does all the cardio I can." He also walks everywhere, and walks “very fast," and the demands of the chef's life keep him "constantly on his feet." In fact, all of the chefs we spoke with claimed that simply running around a restaurant is enough to keep anyone trim. "I can work 15 to 18 hours in a day," says Laurent Gras of Chicago's L20. "I am certainly burning more on my feet than I eat. I try to steer clear of butter and cream, but other than that, just the sheer effort I spend getting the food out will burn everything else."

Click Image Below to View Our Skinny Chef Gallery

Takeaway tip: Exercise is of utmost importance when it comes to staying thin, but short of being able to actually get to the gym, try to remain on your feet for as much of the day as possible. Even standing up at your desk while you type helps. Consider investing in a standing desk, like the Igo model seen here.

3) Build a Routine
Aside from knowing the night's menu, a chef's life is wildly unpredictable. There is no “average day,” so many chefs find it useful to establish some eating and working habits that never change. Julieta Ballesteros, the waifish proprietress of New York's Crema Restaurante, says that to counteract her beloved "margaritas and guacamole at the end of the night," she doesn't eat before sundown. "I will wake up and have a manicure or pedicure, but I forget about eating until the evening.” Sophia Brittan, a young chef who hosts her own online cooking show, Kitchen Caravan, also has a routine: "I try to do my heavy cooking in the morning, and eat a stronger lunch than dinner. If you get the bulk of your nutrition during the day, you give your body time to process the food while your metabolism is going strong." Hatfield says it's all a matter of discipline. "Sometimes you don't get off a shift until 12:30 a.m., and then you're starving, and all you want is a giant cheeseburger. The business can promote unhealthy choices, so you have to stick to your guns a bit.”

Takeaway tip: Draft an eating routine and stick with it, without exception. Temptation will always be present, as a chef who has worked a 12-hour shift on an empty stomach can attest to.

4) Indulgence Is Necessary
Dessert guru Ong says he eats his sweet confections every day, despite his self-consciousness about his waistline. "I have ice cream pretty much every night," he says. "And not just my own, but any commercial ice cream from the store. I love Ben & Jerry's. I have a sweet tooth. I also keep butter and olive oil on the table, and especially when food is really delicious, I eat everything on my plate." But Ong's indulgences are just one part of his overall healthy diet, which includes a lot of "sashimi and dim sum" to compensate for his caloric intake from dessert. And indulgences don't always have to be fattening. Luis Mota, the chef at Manhattan's new Mexican joint Ofrenda, says his indulgence, very spicy chiles, actually help speed his digestive system and make him sweat enough to promote weight loss. "But I do love tortillas," he admits. "I just pair them with a nice grilled piece of chicken or fish so I don't eat too many."

Takeaway tip: Don't deny your cravings—even the most accomplished chefs binge on store-bought ice cream and refined carbs. But do keep them in moderation, and make sure everything stays in balance.

5) Don't Feed Your Stress
The No. 1 danger that every chef we spoke to mentioned is not the pans of delicious food that surround them, but the stress of cooking it. "It's a pretty tough job," says Laurent Gras. "It wears you out. It's so easy to see people who are stressed start to drink and overeat and put on the pounds. I've seen it in so many coworkers." Ong heeds that warning: "I consider myself a glutton, especially on hard days at work. So I have to be sure not to order rice or potatoes because I'll eat them all right away." Greg Griffie adds, "I've certainly worked with some individuals that have no self control and don't know when to stop. There is definitely excess in this business, and high pressure. I often see a dessert and want to five of them."

Takeaway tip: Even professional chefs who have nuanced relationships with food often eat out of stress or emotional strain. It's important to consider why you are putting something in your mouth. Has the pressure of work caused you to reach for the Doritos, or do you really want them?

6) Sit Down to Eat, and then Eat Healthy
Another final tip from the chefs we spoke to was to never eat while standing up, working, or moving around. For chefs, that is nearly their entire shift, so they need to be careful to make time for actual meals. "It's possible to taste and graze throughout the day and have consumed thousands of calories without ever knowing it," says Greg Griffie. At home, he cooks with fresh, seasonal produce that he gets from CSA, or community sourced agriculture, deliveries, and says his family has learned to "pickle and preserve" fruits and vegetables, creating low-fat condiments. "Chutneys and vinaigrettes are the best additions," Griffie advises, "because they kick up flavor but don't add a lot of fat or cream." He adds this about healthy cooking: "I don't want my guests to walk away feeling that they need a wheelbarrow. You want people to be able to order three courses and not feel overwhelmed with oil and salt and butter." Laurent Gras agrees. "I want people to wake up and feel great, not extremely heavy,” he says.

Takeaway tip: It sounds like a no-brainer, but meals should not be eaten on the go; there is no way to truly tell what you are eating or if you are actually full when you are dashing around. When you do sit down to eat a real meal, garnish it with healthy chutneys and vinegar-based sauces, rather than heavier options that rely on butter, oil, and cream.

1) Quinn Hatfield of Hatfield’s Restaurant, Los Angeles

Slow-baked Salmon with Salsa Verde
Serves 4

4 4 Oz. Salmon filets, skin removed
½ C. minced shallot
½ C. minced garlic
1 C. canola oil
2 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil
1 Tbs. paprika
½ C. finely chopped parsley
1 Tbs. finely chopped mint
1 Tbs. finely chopped cilantro
1 anchovy filet, finely chopped
1 Tbs. capers, finely chopped
1 lemon (meyer lemon, if available)

Place the shallot, garlic and ¾ C. canola oil in a small sauce pot and sweat over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until they have lost their sharpness and are tender (about 10-15 minutes). Remove the saucepot from the heat and add the paprika, stirring to incorporate. Allow the paprika to bloom as the oil cools to room temperature (about 10-15 minutes). Transfer to a mixing bowl and add the remaining canola oil and olive oil. Using a rasp, zest the meyer lemon into the bowl and add the chopped herbs, anchovy, capers and a few grinds of black pepper. Mix thoroughly and taste; depending on the saltiness of the anchovy and capers, more salt may be desired. Adjust to taste. Transfer the salsa verde to an airtight container and store in the refrigerator if not using immediately. It will keep for up to a week. Allow it to come to room temperature before using.

Preheat the oven to 225˚F. Check to make sure the salmon filets are free of any pin bones and season lightly with salt. Place the filets in an ovenproof baking dish large enough so that they are not touching. Generously spoon the salsa verde over the salmon, being sure to stir up the solids that have settled to the bottom. Bake the salmon until it is just cooked through (about 10-15 minutes depending on thickness). To check doneness a thin metal skewer or cake tester should be inserted through the filet, against the grain. When the fish is cooked, there is no resistance. Place the filets on four plates. In the baking dish, mix the remaining cooking liquid and salsa verde solids and spoon over the salmon. Be careful about the amount oil you spoon on each portion; focus on getting the solids and there will be enough oil to delicately dress the fish. Squeeze a few drops of the lemon juice on each filet, if desired, and serve immediately.

Note: The recipe for the salsa verde will yield more than the recipe requires. The rest goes great with a sliced, toasted baguette! Just be sure to allow it to come to room temperature if it has been refrigerated.

2) Laurent Gras of L20, Chicago

Ginger and Lemon Steamed Striped Bass with Fennel Salad
Serves 4

Two 2-pound whole striped bass, cleaned and heads removed
One 2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
1 lemon, thinly sliced
1/4 cup fennel fronds
Kosher salt
1 fennel bulb—halved, cored and very thinly sliced
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons snipped chives

Season the fish, inside and out, with salt. Stuff the bass with the ginger, lemon slices and fennel fronds. Place a wire rack in a large, deep skillet with an inch of water; bring it to a simmer. Set the fish on the rack, cover the skillet and steam over moderately low heat until the fish is cooked through, about 18 minutes. In a bowl, toss the sliced fennel with salt and 2 tablespoons each of olive oil and lemon juice. Let stand for 15 minutes. Transfer the fish to a platter. Drizzle fish with the remaining olive oil and lemon juice, and sprinkle with the chives. Serve the fish with the fennel salad.

3) Julieta Ballesteros of Crema Restaurant, New York

Crema’s Burrito De Atun (Tuna Burrito)
Serves 4

1 pound tuna loin #1 sushi grade
4 flour tortillas 10 inches
White sesame seeds toasted
Pico de gallo
Sliced avocado
Cilantro vinaigrette
Chipotle emulsion
Salt and pepper
1 cup of cooked black beans

Pasilla sauce:
6 chiles pasilla roasted
2 tomatillos roasted
1 plum tomato roasted
1 garlic clove peeled
¼ cup mayo
¼ cup teriyaki sauce
Salt and black pepper to taste
*Blend all the above together until it form smooth sauce

Pico de Gallo:
4 plum tomatoes diced
¼ red onion
¼ Spanish onion
1 lime juice
1 fresh jalapeño diced
2 table spoons of cilantro chopped

Cut tuna in 4 equal pieces (long side), season with salt and pepper then roll in white sesame seeds. Pan seared the tuna in a table spoon of oil, 45 sec each side, place on a warm flour tortilla, filled with frisse, sliced avocado, frizzled with cilantro vinaigrette, chipotle emulsion, wrap like a burrito, place on a skillet medium high 30 sec each side, cut in half diagonally place on a place on a plate with a side of pasilla sauce (garnish with whole black beans)

4) Greg Griffie of 606 Congress, Boston MA

Grilled chicken, farro and Brussels sprout leaves salad, pomegranate vinaigrette
Serves 4

For the Salad:
6 oz Chicken thighs, skinless, boneless
1 C Cooked Farro
1 C Brussels sprout leaves, blanched
¼ C Thinly shaved red onions
¼ C Fresh pomegranate seeds
2 tbsp Dried currant (re-hydrate in hot water 10 minutes, drain, pat dry with towel)
1 tsp Fresh chives, chopped
1 tsp Fresh flat leaf parsley, chopped
Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

For the Vinaigrette:
1 tbsp Sherry vinegar
2 tbsp Pomegranate juice (reduced by half from 4 tbsp)
¼ tsp Fresh thyme leaves
5 tbsp Extra virgin olive oil, add as little or as much as you like
Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
Note - For the Brussels sprout leaves,. Cool immediately.

1. To make the salad, soak the farro overnight then cook as you would barley. Allow to cool to room temperature.
2. Gently remove the Brussels sprout outer leaves, blanch in boiling water for 30 seconds to 1 minute and allow to cool completely.
3. Toss farro, Brussels sprouts, red onion, pomegranate seeds, chives, parsley, salt and pepper together.
4. To make the vinaigrette, in a pot, reduce pomegranate juice by half and let cool.
5. In a bowl combine pomegranate reduction with sherry vinegar, fresh thyme, extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper and whisk together.
6. Season chicken with olive oil, salt and pepper and cook on a grill to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Allow to rest.
7. To plate, place salad on plate and drizzle with pomegranate vinaigrette. Top with grilled chicken and serve.

5) Luis Arce Mota of Ofrenda, New York

Atún Adobado a la Parilla con Chile Pulla y Salsa Mexicana con espinaca – marinated, grilled tuna with Mexican salsa and sautéed spinach
Serves 2

Marinated Tuna
2 6-8 oz. yellowfin tuna steaks
1 pulla chile
2 pasilla chiles
1 ancho chile
1 tablespoon coriander seed
16 cloves garlic
1/8 teaspoon cumin
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
5/8 cup canola oil
1/8 teaspoon ground chile de arbol

Mexican salsa:
2 large, ripe and firm plum tomatoes, diced
½ small red onion, diced
½ Serrano pepper, minced
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
Juice of 1 lemon
4 cups baby spinach

Remove seeds from the pulla, pasilla and ancho chiles. Toast chiles lightly for about 2 minutes, taking care not to burn them. Tear the chiles into small pieces and add them to the coriander seed, 6 cloves of garlic, cumin, black pepper and 1/8 cup canola oil and put into blender and blend to a slightly textured consistency. Rub sauce into tuna steaks and refrigerate for 3 hours.

To make the Mexican salsa, put diced tomatoes into a bowl and season with salt. Add diced red onion, minced Serrano pepper, chopped cilantro, and lemon juice. Let rest for 10 minutes at room temperature, and then mix all ingredients together. Cover and refrigerate.

Take ½ cup canola oil and remaining 10 cloves of garlic, making sure the garlic is immersed in the oil and put in a small pan. Cook at low temperature until the oil is infused by the garlic,and the garlic has become very soft, taking care not to burn the garlic. Strain the oil and put aside. This will be the oil used to sautée the spinach.

About 15 minutes before serving, remove Mexican salsa and tuna from the refrigerator and let sit at room temperature. Pre-heat a grill until very hot. Place marinated tuna steaks on grill and grill each side for 1-2 minutes. The outside should be seared and the center should be warm and rare.

Sautée spinach with previously infused garlic oil with a pinch of chile de arbol for 30 seconds.Put spinach in middle of the plate and the grilled tuna on top of the spinach, and garnish the tuna with the Mexican salsa.

6) Sophia Brittan,

Fireside Pear
We love the way pear and rum cozy up to each other so easily. Freshly grated pear barely needs any sweetening, which is why we encourage you to make the pear puree yourself. When slightly heated up, rum becomes the best alcohol to drink by the fire under a blanket.

2 ounces good quality dark rum
1 tablespoon organic cane sugar
1 ripe bosc pear
1/8 tsp. ground cinnamon

Grate the bosc pear with a cheese grater into a small bowl. Stir in the sugar, cinnamon, and rum.
Pour the mixture into a small saucepan, and heat on medium-low until warm.
Strain the liquid into two cocktail glasses.

Calories per serving:120 fat: 0g

**Note: a cinnamon- sugar rim makes this cocktail slightly more elegant:
Mix together about 1 tablespoon of sugar and 1 teaspoon of cinnamon and then lay it out on a flat plate.
Rub the edge of two cocktail glasses with the squeezed lime halves.
Place the cocktail glasses upside down onto the plate, so as to create a sugar/cinnamon rim along the edge.
Pour in the shaken rum cocktail, and enjoy!!!

Dark and Spicy Mexican Hot Chocolate
Chile ancho powder is a versatile spice derived from dry Mexican Ancho chiles. It goes beautifully with dark chocolate, making for an enticingly spicy version of hot cocoa. Dark chocolate powder is low in calories and fat, but rich in flavor. We sweeten it to taste with organic cane sugar. Orange zest and cloves add seasonal aromas that bring this drink closer to home and the holidays.

2 cups almond milk (or 1 cup + 1 cup water)
4 tablespoons dark chocolate powder (Valhrona or Droste are the best brands)
1 tablespoon orange zest
1 clove
½ teaspoon chile ancho powder

Heat up the water and milk in a small saucepan.
Stir in the chocolate powder and whisk lightly to combine.
Add the zest, clove, and ancho powder and stir.
Sweeten the cocoa with the sugar, adding more or less according to your taste.
Strain into 2 mugs and enjoy!

Calories per serving: 115, fat: 7g

Peeky Toe Crab Salad, Passion Fruit, Meyer Lemon, Tarragon
Serves 6-8

Passion Fruit Shaved Icc
2 passionfruit
1/4 cup warm water
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt

Remove juice and seeds of passion fruits. Stir sugar in warm water to melt the sugar, add salt, and juice and seeds of passion fruit.
Whisk together all ingredients and transfer to a container with lid. Cover and freeze until solid.
Once frozen, use a fork to scrape ice, starting from the top, working all corners, until fine snow. Cover container and return to freezer until use.

Crab Salad
Juice and zest of 1 meyer lemon
1 teaspoon ground white pepper
2 tablespoon yoogurt
¼ cup chives
¼ cup chopped tarragon
¼ cup chopped mint
½ cup apples, cut into 1/8” dice
1# crab meat, fresh picked
1 teaspoon salt
Toss together all ingredients up to 8 hours before serving. Right before searving, season with salt and pepper.

To Serve
(Per Serving)
Micro mint
Star fruit chip, optional
Tarragon Infused Oil
For each serving, place 1 tablespoon of yogurt on plate.
Scoop about 1/2 cup of crab salad mixture on plate, followed by a teaspoon of tarragon oil at the base.
Top salad with 1 tablespoon of passion fruit ice, followed by micro mint, and star fruit chip.

Plus: Check out Hungry Beast for more news on the latest restaurants, hot chefs, and tasty recipes.

Rachel Syme is culture editor of The Daily Beast.