Feb. 10, 2010 — -- "Never trust a skinny chef," the saying goes. And for the longest time many foodies haven't, as far as famous chefs are concerned, at least.
The face-stuffing celebrity gourmets hold a special place in diners' cholesterol-filled hearts. When it comes to cooks, many people like them jolly, such as acclaimed Italian chef Cesare Casella.
Casella's New York City shop, Salumeria Rosi, is filled with meat, and pig, and more meat. On a recent morning visit, Casella carved a reporter slices of the face of a 400-pound pig, for breakfast.
"This was a cheek," Casella said, hoisting a giant pork haunch next to his head, "thick, big cheek.
"The fat is a fantastic thing," Casella said in his charmingly knotty English. "It's something that make you happy, it make your look, your stomach, your brain become more smart. ... Think when people go on diet, what happen, they are sad, they think no this, no that, if you are no on diet, you drinking, you happy."
Many of Casella's customers expect him to be fat and happy. They equate it with a good meal. But that chef's coat has been fitting a little too tight lately.
"This is XXX-large," the chef said.
So Casella is starting Weight Watchers. And if you look around at your favorite famous foodies, it seems he's not alone. The larger-than-life celebrity gourmets and food personalities aren't quite so large lately.
Food Network star, TV pitchman and best-selling author Alton Brown has lost 50 pounds. Celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito lost 40 pounds (maybe he danced some of it off: DiSpirito was a "Dancing With the Stars" contestant.
Then there's Bobby Flay, noticeably much thinner in recent months. Bon Appetit's 2008 Chef of the Year, Michael Psilakis, lost 80.
And Oprah revealed the new Art Smith last week. Her former personal chef is now 85 pounds lighter.
"What happened was is that I just felt that, 'Hey, I just have to do something,'" Smith said. "I was faced with diabetes two and I was taking the pill and I was like, 'OK Art, you've got to do something.'"
Chef Art, 'Please Help Me'
Over a pot of low-calorie jambalaya, instead of the fried chicken and macaroni and cheese his Chicago restaurant -- Table 52 -- is famous for, Smith said that chefs, who wield significant cultural influence, have gotten the message that America is ready to get healthier.
"Most definitely," Smith said. "Now, also, America really likes chocolate and all those great things too, so let's not fix that. But I also think that America has spoken and said, 'Hey, we really, really need help.'
"And I do believe they are. I mean I've had people downright crying, saying, 'Chef Art, please help me.' And I think in the beginning, when I started out, I really didn't think I could do it, and to be honest with you, there were people in my life that were like, 'I don't know if you can do this.' But you know what? I did it."
Of course, vanity does play some role. Remember, these chefs are on television and the adage that the camera adds 10 pounds is true, Smith said.
"One time [on] the 'Oprah Winfrey Show' they said, 'You know, Art, why don't you change the color of your jacket?'" Smith recalled. "So I'd wear these blue jackets, because they hide everything, and I wore a purple one. Well, honey, I thought Welch's was going to come and squeeze me, cause I looked like a big grape. So we're not doing that anymore."
Nate Appleman, whose new restaurant, Pulino's, is scheduled to open its doors next month, looked fit on "The Next Iron Chef." But it was another story a couple years ago.
"At my heaviest, I was about 245 pounds, had a 40-inch waist, I was big," Appleman said. "I had a son about 3 years ago, and I was looking at pictures after he was born in the hospital, and I just thought, 'Wow, I look really bad.' And that was years and years in the making. I had always been big since I was a child, and something clicked when I had a son, I thought, 'I want to be around for him, I want to have the energy to not make excuses to go to the playground, I want to be that dad who is willing to do whatever it takes to make my son happy."
Appleman said he was still prone to eating binges.
"I was in Montreal," he said. "A couple friends and I ate at 15 restaurants in 48 hours. I don't know if you've ever been to Montreal, but that is not light food. That is cream, butter. ... One meal, we had three lobes of foie gras. It was indulgent, to say the least. ... Then I got back the next day and ran a half-marathon."
Now 70 pounds lighter, Appleman is about to open a restaurant in New York with some healthy options, including a nutritious daily breakfast.
The shift in chefs' thinking may be good for diners but, Casella said, many of them turn to celebrity chefs for a gastronomic escape.
Indeed, he's starting Weight Watchers next week only to lose a few pounds; so he can gain it right back.
"We have a deal," Casella said. "I start [Feb.] 17. Then we go to March 20. ... OK, by the 21st of March, I will lose 20 pounds."
That means no more pig cheek, Casella said.
"For one month," he said. "Then after three months, you enjoy."
After all, Casella only carries weight with many of his customers when he carries a lot of weight.