Chef fitness secrets

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Chefs often work grueling hours in the kitchen under extremely stressful conditions, tasting much of the food they cook. It's not easy to stay slim under such circumstances -- but not necessarily for the reasons you might suspect.

True, some chefs are tempted to overindulge at work, but others are so busy feeding other people and so sick of what they serve that they rarely take time to eat full meals during the day. Starving by the end of the shift, they gorge on massive meals late at night and then drop into bed with a bellyful of food. This isn't exactly a recipe for good health. Several prominent Los Angeles chefs, however, have managed to avoid these professional hazards and get fit while working around food. Six of them share their secrets here.

Kristi Ritchey: Chef de cuisine at Ford's Filling Station, former executive chef at Murano

Ritchey, 27, was overweight most of her life. By the time she moved to Los Angeles two years ago, she weighed 260 pounds and was a size 26. Like many chefs, she wasn't eating enough during long days at work, and when she did eat, it was all the wrong stuff.

"When you're around food all day, you lose your appetite," she says. "So many of us have coffee or soda in our hand all day and don't eat healthy, regular meals. We have too much to do. Then we scarf it down. I'd eat . . . Jack in the Box at midnight or 1 a.m."

The wake-up call came after she landed in the hospital for 12 hours because she was so exhausted and out of shape. "My prep cook took me to the ER," she says. "My veins had collapsed from dehydration."

Meanwhile, working next to a movie studio made her self-conscious about her appearance. "There were all these movie stars around," she says. "I remember people staring at me -- like, 'Look at the chef, what did she do, eat my dinner?' "

One day, she decided she'd had enough.

Her friend Jonathan Rollo, the owner of Greenleaf Gourmet Chopshop, encouraged her to try Barry's Bootcamp, a fitness program in West Hollywood and Sherman Oaks, California, designed by instructor Barry Jay, whose workouts focus on high-intensity bursts of weights and cardio that change every minute.

"I worked out five days a week for nine months," Ritchey says. "The classes are really intense. They're supposed to burn 1,000 calories an hour. I would do an hour a day, sometimes two classes a day. I lost 100 pounds."

After the opening of Italian restaurant Murano, where she was executive chef, Ritchey didn't have time for organized classes anymore. So she started working out with a personal trainer twice a week and running three to six miles five or six nights a week. She dropped an additional 10 pounds.

"I ran the Turkey Trot 10K on Thanksgiving in under an hour in the rain," she says. "It's a great feeling to go from being that large and wearing a double-X chef jacket to a small."

Ritchey started eating three healthful meals and two high-protein snacks a day. She limits refined carbs, typically eating salads with 4 ounces of protein for lunch. While she still enjoys multi-course gourmet meals for dinner, she's careful not to finish each plate. "When you're shoveling food in, you don't appreciate it," she says. "My palate is much sharper now. I'm savoring the food."

Of the foods she has given up, Ritchey misses pizza and sweets the most. When she craves a pizza, she eats a healthful version with whole-wheat crust, soy cheese and turkey. To satisfy her sweet tooth, she drinks chocolate, almond and banana protein shakes.

But it hasn't been easy resisting temptation. At Murano, to test for quality, she had to taste each batch of cheesy risotto used for risotto fries, not to mention doughnuts and cheesecake. At times, it was torture limiting herself to just a bite.

"It's so hard -- a fresh, hot doughnut straight from the oven," she says. "There were definitely times after a workout -- I'm not going to lie -- there were a few days when I ate cheesecake for breakfast, maybe three times in a year and a half. But I made sure I compensated for it."

Keeping a food diary helped her stay on track, and she eventually lost all cravings for junk food such as burgers, fries and soda. "I haven't drunk soda in over two years," she says.

At 5-feet-7 and 150 pounds, Ritchey is still hoping to lose more. "My goal weight is 140," she says. "I haven't weighed that since the fourth grade."

Erik Oberholtzer: Chef-owner of Tender Greens, former executive chef at Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica, California

"My Mom's Sicilian, so I grew up around food," says Oberholtzer, 40. "The big challenge has always been finding balance."

Sports including soccer and tennis were a part of his youth, but as he moved up the restaurant food chain, finding time to work out became increasingly tough. "When you're working 12 to 14 hours a day, the last thing you want to do at the end of the night is go running."

Oberholtzer realized he needed to work out in the morning or it would never happen. These days, he wakes up and meditates, eats breakfast and then runs five times a week for 4 to 6 miles. Afterward, he works out at Gold's Gym for an hour or more a day.

He also challenges himself with running and cycling competitions and events. He and several other chefs recently biked from San Francisco to Los Angeles, riding 125 miles a day for four days in what they dubbed the Tour de Chef. In the spring, he plans to ride to Palm Springs from the beach in Los Angeles, and in May he'll run the L.A. Marathon.

"At our age, we're not in it to win medals," he says. "It's the process of setting a goal and training. My long-term goal is triathlons. The only thing holding me up is open water. It's a little cold. I lived in Hawaii, and it was great to get in the water there."

Oberholtzer eats five days a week at his restaurant, which serves organic salads. It's a lot easier to eat a healthy diet there than it was as executive chef at Shutters on the Beach. "When I worked in fine dining, there was not a lot [of healthy food] to snack on," he said. "It's not like you snack on foie gras and tuna tartare."

He admits a weakness for "crunchy, salty snacks" so he avoids keeping junk food at home -- or at least, he tries. "My wife bought a box of Cheez-Its, and for two days, I craved it. Last night, I finally broke down," he says. "I ran an extra mile, and I'm good."

It's OK to indulge on occasion, he believes, if you make up for it with exercise. "It's a simple equation. If you're going to eat a lot more, then make time to go to the gym, or take a walk after dinner," he says. "But don't tempt yourself, and don't allow yourself to get so hungry that you'll eat a Double Double or a burrito."

For Oberholtzer, at 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds, the commitment to health has paid off. "For me, it's a lifestyle, not a phase or a fad," he says. "Living by the beach, you have to be Speedo-ready."

David Myers: Chef-owner of L.A. restaurants Sona and Comme Ca, and Pizzeria Ortica in Orange County

When Myers, now 34, was a chef in New York in his 20s, he never had time to stay in shape. "I worked out not at all -- I just worked," he says.

Moving west and launching his own business didn't exactly pave the way to flat abs either. With energy and focus lagging during 14- to 16-hour shifts, Myers decided it was time to make fitness a priority. "It's a stressful business, but I like being fit so I said, 'This is nonsense. I've got to find a way.' "

Myers hired a trainer to lead Navy SEAL-style workouts at the beach for his entire staff. The program was so popular that 60 of his employees were soon crowding the beach for morning workouts. That's when Myers decided to build a private gym across the street from Sona. He tapped trainer David Paradiso to lead CrossFit workouts at the gym for his staff any time they need it.

The workouts combine weightlifting, gymnastics moves and intense aerobics with exercises such as box jumps and sprints. Employees compete with each other to complete 50 of each exercise first. "It's brutal, positively brutal," Myers says. "People throw up afterward sometimes. The workout is done in 20 minutes, and you want to die."

Myers works out three days in a row for 30 to 40 minutes, takes a day off and then starts again. He frequently skateboards between his various restaurants, surfs, snowboards, hikes and practices power yoga with Bryan Kest.

"When I work out, I'm much happier, I get more done, and I'm more pleasant to be around," Myers says. "I have more energy."

Myers typically eats fresh organic vegetables and meat and gets carbs mainly from fruit. He avoids pastas and bread and manages to maintain a weight of 165 on his 5-foot-9 frame. Most chefs, he says, have little bites of the food they cook throughout the day to check for quality and then binge late at night because they're so hungry.

"Every dish we do we taste over and over. You get sick of it," he says. "When you're in the kitchen tasting, the last thing you want is a full meal. Most chefs eat monstrous amounts at the end of the night and then pass out."

Page Moll: Chef at the Beachcomber Cafe at Malibu Pier

At work, Moll whips up decadent dishes such as braised short ribs with Gorgonzola ravioli and s'mores with marshmallows and chocolate. "Unfortunately, in this business, fat is flavor," he says.

But with a discipline level many monks would envy, Moll rarely indulges in his own food. "I don't get off work and get drunk, I never eat late at night when I get home -- and no dessert!" he says. "I'll make you a great crème brûlée or flourless cake, but I'm not going to eat it."

It's not that hard to resist, he says, because cooking is actually an appetite suppressant. "I'm around food all day, but it's almost the opposite effect [of temptation]," he says. "I don't want to have a big piece of cheesecake. I'll have a bite to test for texture and flavor, but if you're doing laundry all day because you work at a laundromat, the last thing you want to do is come home and do laundry."

His one weakness is for Hot Tamales candy at the movies, but "it's occasional." Instead, Moll eats a healthy breakfast of oatmeal, then sometimes grabs a fruit or protein smoothie with a ginger or wheat grass shot after exercising. At his restaurant, he eats soup and a turkey sandwich for lunch or snacks on apples, dried fruit and granola. "I taste more than I sit down and eat," he says. "I'm nibbling, and it kind of fills me up."

For dinner, he prefers a Mediterranean diet of fish and pasta. "Carbs give me energy," he says.

Moll, 31, is 6 feet tall and still maintains his high school stats: 155 to 160 pounds, with a 31-inch waist. "I do a lot of sit-ups every morning," he says. "Exercise is a huge part of my life."

Moll typically wakes up at 6 or 7 a.m., stretches and practices Pilates. Then, on the hill outside his apartment building, he lifts weights for 30 to 40 minutes looking at the ocean. He also runs three to five miles five days a week and really appreciates exercise as an escape. "No cellphones -- it's my time away," he says.

Living near the beach in Malibu makes being active easy. He rarely drives a car. Whenever the waves are good, he bikes to surrounding beaches with his board before biking to work. He recently ran the Pier to Peak half-marathon in Santa Barbara, which is entirely uphill from sea level to 4,000 feet.

"That was actually tougher than the L.A. Marathon," he says. "It's just the will to be healthy."

Andrew Kirschner: Executive chef at Wilshire Restaurant in Santa Monica, California

High cholesterol runs in Kirschner's family, which motivates him to stay fit. "I want to live a long, healthy life," says the 6-foot, 1-inch, 175-pound chef. "Normally, I don't eat junk food or fast food. I stay away from tons of butter, and I don't cook with a lot of butter. I use olive oil."

Nevertheless, Kirschner eats a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon and toast. For lunch, he'll pick something off the Wilshire menu, such as a chicken sandwich, and for dinner, he often enjoys the same meals he serves his staff, whatever they throw together from the extra ingredients on hand.

"My days of being a chef eating heavy meals at the end of the night are over," he says. "I try to eat before service at 5:30 or 6 p.m."

Because Wilshire prides itself on using organic, local and seasonal produce from farmers markets and dishes with Italian and Asian influences, his food is "light, healthy and fresh," he says.

Kirschner is also an avid surfer, snowboarder and yogi, rising at 6 a.m. to catch the waves and practicing anusara yoga three to four days a week. "It's a pretty aggressive class with Chris Chavez in Beverly Hills," he says. "I break a pretty good sweat. I also belong to a gym and one to two days a week go run on the treadmill."

A lifelong athlete, Kirschner played water polo and swam as a kid. He still swims laps a few days a week in his home pool when it's warm.

Staying fit is about finding activities you love, he says. "I've always enjoyed sports and being outdoors, hiking and biking."

You don't have to deprive yourself of delicious food, he says.

"I think it's about being aware of what you put inside. I'll splurge like anybody else, but I'm more aware now that I'm 36."

Govind Armstrong: Chef-owner of 8 oz. in West Hollywood and Table 8 Restaurant in Miami Beach, Fla.

Armstrong, 38, maintains a 155-pound, 5-foot, 11-inch frame without a whole lot of effort. He was "rail thin" as a teenager -- when he was a competitive pole vaulter -- but says his secret to staying skinny is a mix of genetic luck and a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet.

"I love beef, especially grass-fed beef," he says. "I'll usually have a steak on a plate with a side of vegetables. I do love bread and potatoes, but I'm definitely not getting younger. I'm sitting on a plane much more than I should be."

Armstrong kick-starts his day with a hearty breakfast of steak and eggs. "That helps my metabolism get started from the get-go," he says. He follows that with two smaller meals, but "I am constantly surrounded by food, and I'm a total picker and taster."

Resisting desserts and sugar is easy. "I'm a complete meat tooth," he says. "That's something I crave, definitely not sweets or candy bars."

Armstrong grew his own vegetables as a kid in L.A. and Costa Rica, and his mom cooked every meal. For many years, he could eat ungodly amounts of food without putting on weight. "When I was in New York, I would eat three or four dinners in a night," he says. "It's rather disgusting, looking back. I can't eat like I used to. I don't have the same appetite anymore. I still love pork belly and sweetbreads, just in smaller doses. I definitely listen to my body, and I can't stuff myself anymore. "

Staying fit is more challenging now that he owns restaurants in two cities (with another one scheduled to open in New York in March) and travels the world as a chef. "I logged 120,000 miles in the last year," he says. "It's hard to get on any sort of a schedule. I have several gym memberships, but I never make it because I'm not really at home."

When he does hit the gym, he rides the bike and focuses on cardio. His job as a celebrity chef, much like that of an actor, calls for unusual levels of activity at times. He's currently filming a TV show in Argentina and Mexico called "Extreme Food," which has him doing all sorts of outdoor activities, such as fly-fishing and rock climbing.

"In the first episode, I'm jumping out of a helicopter and snowboarding down a mountain to find mushrooms," he says.

health@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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