A chef's life is marked by extremes: the hours, the stress and the heat often dovetail with the drinking, the drugs and the hedonism (never mind the butter, bacon fat and crème fraiche). Ten years ago, it would have been hard to find a health-conscious chef remotely interested in fitness or a plant-based diet, let alone one who would get out of bed before noon to go for a run.
So, it might be surprising for Toronto food fans checking out their favourite chefs' Instagram feeds to see pictures of neon running shoes and kale smoothies instead of pork belly and head cheese, all collected under the hashtag #FoodRunners.
Every Monday and Wednesday at 8:15 a.m., food writer Chuck Ortiz convenes a group of restaurant insiders at Richmond and Portland Streets in Toronto for a six- or seven-kilometre run. After the 40-minute session, the group convenes upstairs at the Nike Loft, where the runners take turns creating superfood smoothies for the gang. Ortiz started the Food Runners group in 2014 after realizing it was something chefs and cooks needed. "Rather than just writing a feature about it, we decided to start a movement that would address it head on," says Ortiz, who owns the magazine Acquired Taste. About 20 people show up every week, and the group has gotten as big as 35 runners, including Bar Isabel's Grant van Gameren, Tara Lee from Bar Hop, Amanda Ray of Biff's Bistro, Canoe's Coulson Armstrong and Vittorio Colacitti from the Good Son.
They're not the only local food people focusing on getting fit – in February, Donnie Wheeler, who works for Havana Club rum, and Josh Lindley, a bartender at Dakota Tavern, are launching an exercise program for bartenders and servers. "We are bringing together a nutritionist, yoga instructor and a personal trainer," Wheeler says. The program will be designed for front-of-house workers, but cooks and other back-of-house staff are also welcome.
The drive to make kitchen life just a little more healthy is happening in the most unexpected places. The original bad boy – the one who made the case for the hard-living, heavy-drinking, coke-snorting chef lifestyle – is, of course, Anthony Bourdain, who exposed the seamy life of professional kitchens in his 2000 bestseller Kitchen Confidential. But guess what: He doesn't smoke or do drugs any more. These days, you'll find him at the Renzo Gracie Academy in Manhattan, N.Y., where he does jiu-jitsu training every morning at 7.
On a recent episode of CNN's Parts Unknown, Bourdain visits San Francisco and admits his main reason for shooting in the Bay Area is not the off-the-beaten-track culinary delights and dingy dive bars, but mainly so that he can train at a local jiu-jitsu spot.
Another celebrity chef, Chicago-based Graham Elliot was up to almost 400 pounds before he decided to get healthy. After a sleeve gastrectomy (which removes part of the stomach) and a new fitness and diet regime, his weight was down 147 pounds in nine months.
As chefs focus on getting healthy, patrons who visit their restaurants for a bit of decadence might worry that menus will also take a turn to the lighter side. Nova Scotia chef Joe MacLellan is hard at work opening Kitchen Table, a new restaurant in Halifax. MacLellan started dish washing in restaurants at age 15, more than a dozen years ago. Although he's always kept fairly fit thanks to hiking and foraging, he didn't have the healthiest lifestyle. "Because of my poor diet over the years, I've come down with severe acid reflux," he explains. "I can't drink coffee or alcohol any more. It also changed my eating habits. At home, we don't eat a lot of meat; my diet is mostly vegetables."
Not so for the menu at Kitchen Table, an expansion of Ratinaud, the Halifax cheese and charcuterie shop where he works. "We'll be serving lots of meat and seafood and using lots of butter," McLellan says – things he doesn't eat regularly, but will cook, taste and serve to his customers.
Renée Bellefeuille, the newly appointed executive chef at the Art Gallery of Ontario, hired a personal trainer a few months ago. "Eighteen years ago, when I started cooking, there was no talk of fitness – it was all about eating, and eating as much as possible," Bellefeuille, 37, says. "There was never any talk of the repercussions of eating and drinking the way we did."
She gained 35 pounds in a year when her job took on a more executive role. "I thought I could still eat the same way. When you're moving all day, it doesn't affect you as much; it adds up when you're sitting at a computer all day," she says. "That muffin top turns into a full-on cake."
Bellefeuille says she still tastes everything that comes out of the kitchen, but no longer pigs out on foie gras. She's also cut down on alcohol. "I only drink three to four glasses a week when I used to drink three to four glasses an hour!"
In the past three years, Anthony Rose has opened five Toronto restaurants (a sixth, Bar Begonia, opened in December). At the same time, he's been turning his somewhat pudgy physique into a total hardbody sculpted by a new-found passion for yoga and a Paleo diet.
"I was overweight and I didn't work out," Rose says of his fitness level when he opened his first restaurant, Rose and Sons, in 2012. The next few years were difficult personally, as he went through a divorce and figured out how to be a single father. Rose began to feel as though his world was "caving in."
"I had this massive list of things I wanted to change about myself and exercise was a big part of it," he says. In 2014, his business partner, Rob Wilder, gently nudged him toward yoga, which Wilder had been practising for 20 years.
Rose adopted a high-protein Paleo diet that cut out carbohydrates and dairy, and now goes to yoga four times a week. "It was about getting rid of bad habits," he says. "[This is] the best I've ever felt in my life."
Despite embracing less food and more exercise, chefs know that they cook for the public – and the public still wants pasta, butter and overstuffed sandwiches. Last summer, Rose opened a new spot, Rose and Sons Swan diner, with a Paleo-friendly menu. He soon scrapped it, realizing that even though that's how he eats at home, it's not who he is as a chef. "My cooking cannot be dictated by my diet," Rose says. A recent lunch special was a triple-decker grilled-cheese sandwich stuffed with cheddar, Monterey jack, pimento cheese, corn and jalapenos.
Even the svelte Rose admits he isn't immune to the pure pleasure his style of cooking gives. "Once a month, I eat a patty melt at Rose and Sons," he says, "with a peanut butter and chocolate shake to go with."