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Seamus Mullen, the chef at New York City's Tertulia, doesn't sugarcoat it. "It's no secret that the lifestyle of your average chef is not typically very healthy," he says. "We tend to work hard, drink and party a lot, never rest, and we don't take care of ourselves."
While a chef can run on cigarettes and coffee in his or her 20s, Mullen knows firsthand that it's not sustainable in the long run—and it nearly cost him his life. After a complete overhaul of his eating and exercise habits, he's in his best physical condition ever and has made it his mission to help other people find their way to health through a better relationship with food.
Meet the chefs who have used the power of the plate to turn their own lives around, without sacrificing an ounce of pleasure.
The chef: Seamus Mullen, chef/owner of New York City's Tertulia and El Colmado, and author of Hero Food
The toll: Stress, partying, drinking, poor eating and insufficient rest exacerbated some serious chronic health issues, but Mullen felt helpless to do anything about it.
The turning point: He was in and out of hospitals, taking 18 to 20 pills a day and receiving weekly injections when a doctor essentially gave Mullen two options, "change" or "die." He chose the former.
The regimen: Mullen enlisted the help of a doctor who took a more holistic approach, teaching him to use food as a powerful tool to build a healthier life for himself. The diet he adopted—lots of vegetables, some meat, plenty of good fat, very little dairy, and virtually no sugar or carbohydrates—has helped him almost completely reverse his health issues and become stronger and more mobile than ever before. And he makes sure that he can eat that way at his own restaurants.
The responsibility: Every day, Mullen hears from people who, like him, suffer from chronic and autoimmune conditions and don't know where to turn. In his book, Hero Food, he empowers people to take control over their eating patterns and learn to cook with delicious ingredients that can actually make them feel better. "As chefs, we love food and feeding other people and seeing the effect it has on their emotions," he says. "To believe that in order to be healthy, you can't have any of that? That's incongruous. You have to embrace and love the food that you eat."
The takeaway: "Health is as contagious as illness," Mullen says. "What I want my colleagues to understand is that I'm not an anomaly. The difference might be that I made a really conscious survival choice that keeps me on a good path. They can do that, too."
The chef: George Mendes, chef/owner of New York City's Lupulo and Aldea, and author of My Portugal
The toll: The stress of being pulled in so many different directions—running a restaurant, being a chef, leader, coach and business owner—led to unhealthy habits. A combination of bad late-night meals (pizza was a frequent favorite), not enough sleep or exercise, and too much coffee made Mendes incredibly irritable and ungrounded. "You get to a point where you're losing track of how you're feeling and any sense of well-being. You can't create in that frame of mind," Mendes says.
The turning point: Loved ones expressed their care and concern about his health, so Mendes took it to heart and realized he had to make a commitment to feeling better.
The regimen: In addition to giving up alcohol, Mendes revamped his diet, opting, for instance, for egg whites, avocado and bacon, rather than a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich for breakfast. While caffeine is still in the mix, he's sipping a lot more water and fruit juice along with it. "There's still fat, but more nuts and fiber in my diet. I'm eating oatmeal and grains more often," he says. And he's using that nutritious food to fuel his new obsession: running 20 miles a week—sometimes alongside Mullen.
The responsibility: It's important to Mendes to maintain his identity through the food he serves, even as his menus focus more on straightforward, healthy dishes—a natural progression for a chef focused on Mediterranean flavors and ingredients. "It's part of our craft as cooks to take responsibility and not to just grab fat for flavor," he says.
The takeaway: Though he does get questions about his decision to abstain from certain things, his health and well-being come first, and Mendes is grateful to have a support system of people who care enough about him to keep him on track. They're cheering him on as he trains to run his first half marathon this March.
The chef: Marco Canora, chef/owner of New York City's Hearth, Fifty Paces and Brodo, and author of Salt to Taste, A Good Food Day and Brodo
The toll: A chef-typical schedule of late nights, stress and overindulging left Canora feeling inflamed, bloated, exhausted and depressed.
The turning point: Bloodwork revealed a host of physical issues—including prediabetes, gout, and high cholesterol—most of which had been brought on by his taxing lifestyle.
The regimen: Canora selects whole ingredients that are nutrient dense and dishes that balance fiber, protein and fat. He figures that if it's not a pleasure to make and eat, and doesn't leave you feeling great, it's just not worth it. A regular yoga routine rounded out his reboot and left him feeling calmer and more energized than he had in years. (And, yes, he's the guy behind the bone broth craze.)
The responsibility: When he sunk deeply into the science of nutrition, Canora found himself swimming through jargon. "It's absurd to me that I can know more about my food shopping in a supermarket buying packaged goods than I can when I go to a restaurant and spend even more money," he says. In addition to writing his Good Food Day cookbook, he's recently developed an infographic that he uses at the restaurant to explain his philosophy and empower diners to ask useful questions about the food they eat.
The takeaway: After New Year's Eve service, Canora closed 12-year-old Hearth for six days to completely overhaul the interior of the restaurant, then reopened with a new menu that still reflects the homey Italian flavors and dishes for which he's known, but more closely mirrors the diet that has helped him become healthier and happier.
The chef: Jon Bonnell, chef/owner of Fort Worth's Bonnell's Fine Texas Cuisine, Waters and Buffalo Brothers, and author of Waters, Texas Favorites and Fine Texas Cuisine
The toll: "Go figure, a guy in his late 30s in the culinary industry suddenly starts gaining weight. How could that possibly happen?" Bonnell jokes.
The turning point: "There's this strange deal in this industry where unhealthy habits are celebrated," he says. "Chefs are supposed to be fat and drink and smoke, maybe do some drugs and die in their 50s." When his daughter was about to turn two, Bonnell suddenly realized he owed it to her to avoid that fate.
The regimen: Bonnell finds balance in a two-meal-a-day strategy that eliminates snacking, keeps carbs to roughly 20 percent and focuses on whole ingredients. He sticks to that during his workweek and allows himself to eat whatever he wants for two meals during his off days. "So long as you stick to your exercise plan. Sunday night while you're watching football, if you want a whole pizza and a pitcher of beer, just do it." And about that exercise plan: Bonnell was sweating his way through 20-minute cardio sessions on the treadmill when his brother-in-law convinced him to try a Thanksgiving Day 5K turkey trot. He found it so satisfying, he began signing up for every 5K in sight, training for half marathons, marathons and triathlons, before taking on (and completing) Ironman courses in Lake Tahoe and Kona, Hawaii—where he took great delight in passing Gordon Ramsay during the bike leg.
The responsibility: When Bonnell got in shape, people noticed. Though he still fields snark from people who like to say that a slender chef has no credibility, he prefers to focus on inspiring and empowering people to join him on his journey. When staff members make noises about undertaking a 5K or bike ride, he's with them every mile of the way. In fact, when the general manager of one of his restaurants wanted to try the legendary Hotter'N Hell 100-mile bike ride in the dead of the Texas summer, Bonnell offered to ride in front of him to break the air. "Just follow," he said, "and, dang, if he didn't do it!"
The takeaway: While his main focus at his restaurants is the pleasure of his customers, he loves that he, himself, can go in and enjoy a meal that satisfies him body, mind and palate. "We have a pecan-crusted Texas redfish with crabmeat butter sauce over the top. That's got a lot of calories, but that's all healthy stuff, made from whole ingredients," Bonnell says. "If you get on a diet that says you can never ever eat a cookie or anything delicious, you're not going to stick to it."
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