Heading into bathing suit season is always tough. Now imagine embarking on the celery-and-cottage-cheese regimen when your workplace is a restaurant kitchen and tasting every dish a job requirement. Now imagine losing more than a hundred pounds in the process.
On any given day, the atmosphere sizzles in the close quarters of Lark Creek's kitchens, where chefs and cooks squeeze past each other in a constant, cozy choreography. It wasn't that long ago that executive chef Scott Wall finished his long days in a state of drenched exhaustion.
Exercise? Forget it.
"I got an aerobic workout," he used to joke, "from the stress that's involved."
Wall would head home in the wee hours, having tasted his way through the day without actually eating anything approximating a balanced meal. He'd down some chow late at night, wash it down with a few drinks, eat more, then collapse into bed.
It's a tale familiar to anyone in the culinary biz. Chefs are particularly prone to bad eating habits — sleep-deprived and stressed, too busy to eat healthy meals, they quickly become nutritional nightmares. Instead of eating several small, well-balanced meals, they taste all day, then eat a very large meal late at night and go straight to bed. And they've been raised in a culinary tradition that equates flavor with butter and cream.
Not anymore. Suddenly, skinny chefs are starting to emerge across the country. A recent USA Today piece about the executive chef at Beverly Hills' Greenleaf Gourmet Chopshop noted that after she lost 110 pounds, Kristi Ritchey changed her restaurant's menu to reflect her newly awakened health consciousness. The same thing happened at Chicago's Four Seasons after the executive chef lost 90 pounds.
And in Walnut Creek, where Wall and general manager Jeff Berretta have dropped a combined 170 pounds in the last year, the Lark Creek menu overflows with healthy, interesting choices — none involving cottage cheese or celery sticks.
Of course, Lark Creek always has promised customers it can accommodate any dietary request. Berretta and Wall simply put that to the test, they say with a laugh, subbing in lush soups and seasonal vegetables, and devising their own little tricks to ward off temptation.
Bulgur wheat adds whole grain oomph to a low-calorie, composed salad of grilled chicken, Brentwood cherries and arugula, lightly dressed with a garlicky balsamic vinaigrette. Vegetarian first courses, such as Wall's favorite English Pea and Butter Lettuce Soup, offer the luxurious mouth-feel of a cream soup, without the calories.
And grilled steelhead salmon fillets float atop a saucy mixture of shelled English peas and crisp-tender asparagus spears, flecked with fresh tomato salsa. Berretta loves it so much, Wall calls it "the Jeff Special."
"Obviously any steamed vegetables can be used," he says, "but the idea is that barely any oil is used at all, and by topping it with pico de gallo, you're adding more freshness, a little spiciness and more flavor."
It was nearly a year ago that Wall made the decision to get healthy by putting his longtime membership at a 24-hour gym in San Ramon to actual use. He'd work his 12- to 14-hour shift, then hit the gym around midnight. And the man who orchestrated menus and dishes for everyone else finally started planning his own meals. Wall, who has lost about 10 pounds a month, compares the impact to dropping two bags of flour every few weeks.
As Wall's chef pants got looser and looser, people began noticing.
"I never had any intention of losing weight at all," says Berretta. "But I saw how much Scott had lost and I decided I wanted to be in shape too. I had no will power prior to this."
Berretta bought a Nintendo Wii Fit, so exercising would feel more gamelike, and started monitoring the carbs, calories, fiber and fat in his meals.
"I never call this a diet," says Berretta, wincing at the clichéd phrasing. "It kind of is a lifestyle choice."
Having a diet buddy makes things easier, of course — especially when your weight-loss pal is a chef who lives for seasonal produce and varied preparation. Berretta was on a spinach kick for a while, Wall teases. Then it was cauliflower. Wall finally got him switched over to English peas and asparagus. For now.
"Lots of flavor, farm fresh, you never get bored," says Wall. "A mixture of vegetables prepared with a little oil or butter, grilled protein and some sort of kicker — a taste-bud tingler, a relish with olive oil and vinegar, or fresh salsa with lemon juice and spice. The combinations are endless. Soon it'll be corn and tomatoes and we'll all be happy."
So, how does the pair survive in a kitchen known for its garlic mashed potatoes, creamy polenta and butterscotch pudding?
Even Wall admits, "Tasting is one of the bigger challenges. We taste food and make soups. We have mashed potatoes here. I try to limit myself, stay out of the French fry bowl. I stay active, so there's less time to nibble. Have lots of fruit around."
The restaurant's signature Fuji apple and Romaine salad, enlivened with radicchio, blue cheese and spicy walnuts, means that the kitchen had a plethora of fresh apples.
"I keep apple wedges in all different spots in the kitchen," Wall says. "I make my lunch — steam everything, a little olive oil. Breadless sandwiches — everything I'd want in a sandwich, but not on bread. I can't remember the last time I put butter in something. And I stay away from eating late."
Wall hoists a pair of his old chef pants. Both men would fit in them now, one in each leg. They laugh. For Wall, the hundred-pound weight loss means more energy and more ease in the kitchen.
"I feel less tired," he says. "I'm more active on days off, more motivated to get out, instead of sleeping all day."
"I never felt bad before," he says, "but my wife tells me I don't snore anymore. She's sleeping better."
Reach Jackie Burrell at email@example.com.
From the Chef