This article originally appeared in Dutch on MUNCHIES NL.
The stereotype of overweight chefs has been etched in our minds by comics and cartoons. But what is it really like to be overweight in the professional kitchen? Dutch chef Huub Biro, who weighed almost 300 pounds at one point, closed the doors of his restaurant Trattoria Senza Nome to become a triathlete. Here he talks about how it feels to be overweight in the professional kitchen, and all the discomforts and taboos that come with it.
"Great chefs are overweight," people often used to say. Nonsense. Being fat is not great in any profession—except, perhaps, sumo wrestling. Nevertheless, I saw a lot of chefs around me steadily gaining weight, myself included. It is a phenomenon of the 21st century, I think.
Chefs have always worked long hours, but they used to be more physically active. We usually work in a 2-square-meter area, like a chicken in a cage, and we barely move.
Working conditions are obviously better now than they used to be. We do not need to fire up old stoves with coal or oil, or empty heavy pans full of lobster soup into a colander. We turn on a button to light a fire and the kitchen is full of automatic devices. Being a chef has become less labor-intensive. Therefore we burn fewer calories, and we have time to put food in our mouths. That is a deadly combination for chefs like me who do not have a very fast metabolism.
I was 14 when I started working in the kitchen, five to six days a week, including evenings and weekends. Until recently I had my own restaurant, and I still own two ice cream parlors. The reason that I closed my business is that it was making me a fat, unhealthy man. My professional career was growing, and the size of my pants grew at least as quickly.
The first curse to the chef's body is the irregular eating habits. I worked seven days a week. At about 11 or 12 o'clock I was in one of my parlors making ice cream for five hours before going to the restaurant until midnight. I ate my first meal around noon, which is really late, and then I'd eat again before evening service when we'd have a team meal in the kitchen. But the eating didn't stop during restaurant service.
A chef has to taste his food, but for me it happened too often. I always tasted the food. Two tablespoons of risotto here, two spoons of flan with whipped cream there. Whenever I got warm bread out of the oven at 7:30, I could not resist cutting off a slice and putting butter and salami on it. It all became a very normal routine, but at the end of the night I'd wind up having eaten three to four hot meals.
After work, it all continued. The team sat together and drank alcohol. Like many other chefs, I do like fine wines and good drinks, and once that started, all sorts of other food was served. We often used to put some côte de boeuf in the oven at two or three o'clock in the morning, and we'd fry up some food or some fellow chefs would come along with some beautiful products: salmon, a nice ragout, or smoked meats.
Everything outside of work also revolved around food. Going out for dinner was a form of relaxation. I went everywhere with my chef friends—Salzburg, Lyon, Milan— just to eat. We would look for the best restaurants and went out to eat two or three times a day, and quite often a chef we knew would open his kitchen for us after 11 o'clock at night. We chewed our way through the city.
After so much food and drink, you do not feel like exercising at all the next day. At least I didn't. I had to recover. I would also crave fatty foods because of the alcohol that was still in my body. It is a vicious cycle. Even on mornings when I woke up and didn't want to see or smell food at all, I fell into the same pattern as soon as I stood in my kitchen.
At one point, my weight really started to cause problems and inconvenience. Bending became increasingly difficult, and my chef's pants did not fit anymore. We joked about my pants looking like a tent, but when I could no longer purchase pants in a regular store and my jacket became the size of a tent, I started to ask myself more and more questions about how I was living my life.
I also started to have physical problems. Standing in one place all day with only my upper body in motion, my knees were starting to hurt. I got varicose veins from my high cholesterol, which caused heavy cramps, especially when I drank alcohol. I also sweated a lot more because I was so heavy, so I dehydrated quickly. I even once got a kidney attack and had to be hospitalized.
I decided it was time to radically change my life. I started to exercise, train for triathlons, and generally add more structure to my life. When I was still working as a chef that was hard. Now that my restaurant is closed, I have less of all these problems and I've lost 35 pounds.
Now, four months a year, when my ice cream shops are closed, I travel abroad—to Dubai, Japan, New Zealand, and Australia—to do triathlons. The other months, I work a few hours in my ice cream parlor every afternoon, but before that I cycle 100 kilometers, then run 15 kilometers or swim two. I've never been so happy.
Great food remains a big part of my life, but so does exercise. I have an "everything goes" mentality: do what you want, but do it in moderation. It is just unfortunate that it is so terribly difficult when you work in a kitchen.
As told to Stefanie Staelens.