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Back trouble, high blood pressure, soaring cholesterol, obesity, substance abuse, burnout. Ring any bells? The restaurant business comes by its high-stress reputation honestly, and there are plenty of worn out bodies scattered around that can attest to it. Whether you’re in the kitchen or at the home office, long hours, late nights and an overabundance of food and drink can come to define the lifestyle. For those who fail to tend to their own health as carefully as they tend to their business, the scenario can be a dangerous one.

Back trouble, high blood pressure, soaring cholesterol, obesity, substance abuse, burnout. Ring any bells?

The restaurant business comes by its high-stress reputation honestly, and there are plenty of worn out bodies scattered around that can attest to it. Whether you’re in the kitchen or at the home office, long hours, late nights and an overabundance of food and drink can come to define the lifestyle. For those who fail to tend to their own health as carefully as they tend to their business, the scenario can be a dangerous one.

“It’s a big problem in the industry, and not just for owners and chefs, but for employees as well,” says Milton Stokes, chief dietitian at St. Barnabas Hospital in New York City and a former restaurant owner for 10 years. In addition to other problems, he says, the hospitality habit of caring for everyone else first often leads to personal neglect.

“In restaurant concepts like mine, which specialized in Southern cuisine—much of which was high-fat and fried—the problem can be even worse.”

In the kitchen it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking things are fine, that you get a workout on the job and that you don’t overeat because you rarely sit down to a meal. You can also chalk those extra pounds up to professional dedication.

And the health outlook for restaurant professionals juggling the stress and time demands of managing the restaurant or, much less, a chain of them, isn’t any better. After all, it’s easy to overlook the need for a healthy lifestyle when you’ve got franchisees who aren’t meeting numbers and big chains breathing down your neck.

But restaurant folks who somehow manage to stay fit say they—and their business—are better for it. Here are four of them. All made the realization that their health needed better tending and they found the willpower to do something about it.

The Incredible Shrinking Chef

Sometimes you have to lose in order to win

Four years ago, at well over 350 pounds, Jeff Tunks, co-owner and executive chef of Passion Food LLC, which operates four Washington, D.C., restaurants, had exceeded the weight limit on his doctor’s scale. He’d turned 40, had lacerated discs in his lower back that required surgery, was a borderline Type 2 diabetic, was developing sleep apnea and had bad knees. Plus, he didn’t have the energy to keep up with his two young sons.

“It was a combination of things, but exceeding the scale during pre-surgery tests and being out for three to four weeks was a turning point,” says Tunks, whose restaurants include DC Coast, Acadiana, TenPenh and Ceiba. “I wanted to be there for my kids and knew I needed to make some lifestyle changes.”

Since then, Tunks has lost 125 pounds and dropped nearly 12 inches off his waist. His “big clothes” have gone to the Salvation Army. His wedding ring and watch have been re-sized—as has his life-insurance premium, which is now half what it used to be.

Like many chefs, Tunks’ work day often starts at 10:30 a.m. and ends around 10:30 p.m.—not very conducive to fitting in fitness. Until reaching his turning point, he basically ate all day and well into the night.

“Chefs are notoriously bad eaters,” he says. “I wouldn’t eat breakfast, but I’d come in and taste everything on the line, nibble through lunch and then eat a big lunch after the shift. Then it would start again, tasting through the line before dinner and, late at night, going out with friends to eat and drink or raiding the fridge at home.”

Among the first turnaround steps Tunks took was to work with a personal trainer three to four times a week. “I kept up with that for about nine months, but in the process of opening our fourth restaurant I kept missing appointments,” he says. “That gets expensive. But I’d learned that I could make time to work out on my own between lunch and dinner. Our restaurants are in or near buildings with health clubs, so it was convenient. We trade out open-house food for memberships for our managers. I do cardio and weight training for a half hour to an hour four to five days a week. It’s great. You work out, watch a little TV or listen to music, take a shower and come back for the dinner shift feeling refreshed and full of energy.”

Tunks also started walking instead of driving to and from his restaurants, which are situated within about a 20-block radius. And he’s reigned in his on-the-job eating.

“I now eat breakfast every day so I’m not hungry when I get to work. And I focus on the healthy foods in the kitchen,” he says. “After the lunch shift, I sit down to a plate of grilled fish on lightly dressed greens, and I eat a half a sandwich or something before the dinner shift so I’m not so hungry and don’t eat a lot late at night.”

Has Tunks also given up his habit of tasting on the line?

“No, it’s all about balance,” he says. “I still taste everything to make sure it’s right. But now I use an espresso spoon to do it instead of a soup spoon.”

Stress is Bad - So Lose It!

But do it soon, nothing’s gained in waiting

After 15-plus years as a working chef, the last 10 as executive chef at Washington, D.C.’s highly regarded Kinkead’s, Tracy O’Grady had had enough. Besides working in what she describes as a large-volume, challenging environment, she’d also been chosen to represent the United States in the 2001 Bocuse d’Or competition in Lyons, France.

“I was completely burned out and had herniated a disk along the way,” O’Grady says. “After so many years of physically demanding work, and with Bocuse d’Or in the middle of it, I thought I was ready to get out.”
O’Grady did get out. She left Kinkead’s, did some teaching and expected to quickly bounce back physically and emotionally. But she didn’t. “After six months, I still had no energy and wasn’t sleeping well. That’s when I found yoga.”

She started on her own, using a tape a friend gave her, but soon joined a class, which was much more physically demanding.

“The beauty of yoga, in general, is that you get both fitness and stress release,” she says. “I noticed a huge difference, as did my friends and family, within a couple of weeks.”

In fact, O’Grady credits the physical and mental benefits she gets from yoga with giving her renewed vigor to resume her career. “It’s been like night and day,” she says. “Yoga gives me a different perspective on life, and that’s especially useful in restaurants where everything is so intense and immediate. It taught me that you can only do the best that you can do. Realizing that, you seem to be able to handle everything better.”

Five months ago, at age 38, O’Grady and partners opened Willow Restaurant in Arlington Heights, Virginia. Never particularly athletic or able to stick to an exercise routine, O’Grady says yoga resonated because of its emphasis not just on working out, but on understanding how the body works. “Chefs are on their feet constantly, and we do a lot of repetitive motions in confined spaces. We twist and turn the wrong way. For me, the result was fatigue and back problems. Now, I know the cause of those problems and what to do to avoid them.”

Having discovered the benefits to her own body and business, O’Grady is looking to spread the benefits of yoga around. “I’m hoping to find a yoga master who will conduct classes at the restaurant during off hours,” she says. “You don’t need fancy equipment; just a cheap, portable yoga mat. It’d be partly for me, but also for my crew. I don’t want them to go through what I went through.”

You Don't Have to Go It Alone

The team approach is easier for some

Within the past decade, 42-year-old Aaron Kennedy has brought his vision of building a chain of quick-casual, globally inspired noodle shops to life. Noodles & Company today encompasses 118 restaurants in urban and suburban locations across the country.

As founder, chairman and CEO, Kennedy, who before launching Noodles & Company spent 10 years as a brand manager for behemoths such as Pepsi, Oscar Mayer Foods and Sears, is intensely focused on his business. That’s a trait that he extends to his health, as well. Always active, he’s not one to need a nudge to stay in shape. But despite all that, early last November, Kennedy stepped on the scale and was shocked to find himself 10 pounds heavier than usual.

“For the past 10 years, I’ve always stayed within a 5-pound range of what I consider my ideal weight,” he says. “That 10-pound gain was a wake-up call for me.”

Taking a CEO’s approach to the problem, Kennedy set out to not just shed his own excess pounds, but to get his team focused on health and fitness as well. He devised an “Exer-Diet Challenge,” inviting members of the Noodles & Company leadership team to get involved and set their own personal weight and fitness goals. At stake: a magnum of Silver Oak Cabernet, or an equally attractive prize for nondrinkers, for everyone who met the goals they set for themselves.

“We have several new members on our leadership team and I thought it would be a good way for us to build camaraderie,” Kennedy says. “We started in early November and went through January 31—not an easy time of year to focus on diet and exercise. But everyone set their own goals and we tracked our progress weekly. Every day, I sent out motivational e-mail messages to those who participated.”

For Kennedy, staying in shape is a matter of wanting to be a vibrant, healthy CEO and father. “I want to have the energy to nourish and inspire my team and my family,” he says. “If I don’t exercise, eat balanced meals and get enough sleep, I can’t do that.”

Indeed, those three factors form the cornerstone of Kennedy’s approach to personal fitness. When in Noodle’s headquarters city of Boulder, Colorado, he bikes to work two to three days per week. When he can’t bike to work, he uses an elliptical cross trainer or a stationary bike. And he often spends his lunch hour, alone or with colleagues, doing a 30-minute climb up 1,400 vertical feet on nearby Mount Sanitas. Once a week, on average, he also sees a personal trainer for a half hour of weights, lunges and crunches.

“I think about fitness like I think about business,” he says. “I focus on the outcome I desire, and then I plan the work and work the plan, measuring my progress along the way.”

If he does slip from time to time, as he did last fall, he catches it and gets right back on track. “Long term, I just want to be an energetic, feeling good person,” he says. “If I don’t exercise, I know I can’t be that person.”

What you Don't Know...

If you haven’t had a checkup, go now

When Hurricane Katrina hit, Didier Dessemond, executive chef at the Hilton Americas-Houston, wanted to help. The 50-year-old French born chef decided the least he could do was to give blood. His heart was in the right place. But, as he discovered, it wasn’t in the best shape.

“The Red Cross screening showed that my cholesterol level was 320 and my blood pressure was high, something like 160/100. I had no idea I had such problems. I went to my doctor and found out I was a ticking time bomb.”

Dessemond, who put on 20 pounds after he quit smoking years ago, had nonetheless never really been overweight. But since his blood-donation discovery, he’s changed his eating habits, taken up exercise and dropped 15 pounds. He’s on medication for blood pressure and cholesterol control and says he’s learned that lots of his chef colleagues are in the same boat.

“As chefs and managers trying to make the numbers, we have so much pressure and stress and we don’t always eat very well,” he says. “We snack all day on food that really isn’t good for us, and we tend to eat standing up because we’re always so busy.”

For Dessemond, that amounted to eating lots of red meat, cheese, baguettes and pastries—throughout the day and consumed in small, seemingly harmless portions. “I didn’t even realize how much I was eating,” he says. “But it adds up. In Europe, we eat a lot more vegetables and less meat, but here vegetables are almost considered a garnish.”

He’s cut his red-meat consumption down to once a week at most. His meals today are more likely to consist of salads, light soups and grilled chicken. He also tries to eat dinner early, before 6 p.m. “I used to eat late and have a few drinks before bed. But when you do that, you take it all to bed with you,” he says. “That’s not good.”

Dessemond has also made daily exercise part of his routine. “Every night I spend 45 minutes to an hour on the lifecycle in my bedroom. At first it was a struggle, but now I really look forward to it,” he says. “I put on some music and never get bored. And I track how much I do every day on my calendar.”

Also motivating him is his 11-year-old daughter. “I had a child a bit later in life. I need to be around...for her. Finding the time to exercise can be a challenge, but you have to do what you have to do for yourself. Do you want to exercise or be at risk and on medication? It’s as simple as that.”     

Tips for Staying Fit

Direct from health and fitness pros who ought to know

  • Bring a jump rope to work and use it whenever you have a few minutes. If you take four five-minute breaks throughout the day, that’s 20 minutes of cardio.
  • Take a 15-minute walk around the block after lunch and another after dinner. It’ll clear your head, work off some stress and give you time to think about what you ate and what you’re going to eat when you sit down for a meal. According to the American Heart Association, even short but frequent exercise stints make a significant difference in long-term health.
  • Use your days off wisely. Join a recreational sports team, make it a ritual to go hiking on Saturday mornings, shoot baskets, bike around the lake. Whatever it is, spend at least some of your time off doing something active and fun.
  • Drink water, and lots of it, throughout the day. Sugary soft drinks and high-sugar, high-caffeine energy drinks add lots of empty calories and wreak havoc with your blood sugar
  • levels.
  • Eat early. Waiting to sit down to a full meal with a couple of glasses of wine until all of the guests have cleared out, and heading to bed soon thereafter, results in a big influx of calories that flood the body’s systems and significantly slows
  • metabolism.
  • Schedule time for exercise. Personal trainers and fitness experts say this is critical. “Write it down in your day timer, your Palm Pilot, on your calendar,” says Milton Stokes, chief dietitian at St. Barnabas Hospital in New York. “Let everyone know you’re unavailable during that time, then head out to the gym, the pool, the yoga studio—or just take a brisk 10- or 15-minute walk or bike ride.”
  • Arrange for membership-for-food trades with nearby fitness facilities. This can get you going and also be an attractive perk for your staff.
  • Keep trying different activities until you find one that you really enjoy. It doesn’t matter what it is and it doesn’t have to be a strenuous gym-based workout. It just needs to be something you like and something that gets you moving.
  • If you can fit it in, do a combination of cardio and strength-building exercises. For example, a quick, balanced home workout might start out with a minute or two of jumping jacks followed by push ups, the bicycle (lie on back with head and feet off the ground and pedal as you would a bike), sit-ups, squats and wall sits (stand 2 feet from the wall, lean your back against the wall and slide down until your knees are at about a 90-degree angle, hold for 20 to 30 seconds, feel the burn, stand and repeat).
  • Spring for a few sessions with a certified trainer, especially if you’re seriously overweight or have health issues. They can motivate you, set up a workout routine and identify which types of exercises are best for you.

Fitness for Cheapskates

Low-cost gear that will help get you on your way to better health

Pedometer. Strap one on and see how close you can come to the recommended 10,000 steps a day for fitness.

Shoes. Invest in a good pair of walking or cross-training shoes with adequate support. Your legs and feet will thank you for it, and you’ll enjoy your workout more.

Resistance bands. Like big rubber bands, they’re cheap and, according to personal trainers, very effective for toning muscles without bulking up.

Fit balls. Simple but effective tools to help strengthen and tone muscles, and improve balance, coordination and mobility.

Yoga mat and tape. Pick up a mat for under $20 at a discount store, check out a how-to tape at the library and you’re on your way to discovering the spiritual and health benefits of yoga.

Jump rope. Great for quick cardio workouts, cheap, and easily fits in briefcase or purse. 

Exercise videos. Hit the library or the local video store for an easy, at-home exercise option.

Used equipment. Check for local stores that specialize in used sporting goods and exercise equipment. Likewise, check the classifieds, where you can find barely used fitness equipment for sale. 

Walkman, MP3 or other portable audio device. Music (or talk radio, or books on tape…) makes it all more fun. 

Notebookor small diary. Experts say tracking what you do and what you eat is a great motivator for those trying to adopt more healthy lifestyles.


Heart to Heart

Head off heart disease before it gets ahead of you

Restaurant professionals are exposed to the top risk factors for heart disease, including high stress, insufficient sleep, excess weight and overindulgence in alcohol and high-fat, high-cholesterol foods.

Patrick McBride, M.D., director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Hospital and Clinics’ Preventive Cardiology Program, says that the first warning for one out of four people with heart disease is sudden death. “Another one out of four die within one year of a first heart attack, so primary prevention is crucial,” he says.

The good news is that heart disease is very preventable—if you identify and do something about the known risk factors. Here’s what you can do right now to start taking better care of your heart, courtesy of the American Heart Association (www.americanheart.org).

  • Know your numbers. Learn and control your cholesterol and blood pressure levels. If your doctor prescribes medications, take them.
  • Get moving. Try to get 30 to 40 minutes of physical activity five or more days per week.
  • Eat right. Adjust your diet to minimize your intake of high-fat, high-cholesterol foods and increase your consumption of fresh vegetables and fruits, low-fat dairy products and low-fat proteins such as non-fried chicken and seafood, tofu and legumes.
  • Moderate your alcohol intake.
  • Don’t smoke. Quitting smoking can lower your risk of heart attack by one-third within two years.
  • Reduce stress. Experts recognize a relationship between cardiovascular disease risk and stress. Learn and practice relaxation techniques, set realistic goals and make time for yourself.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. The more you weigh, the harder your heart has to work. Being overweight also leads to high blood cholesterol, diabetes and high blood pressure.

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