Counting Calories in the Kitchen

After slaving away in restaurant kitchens, I learned why most chefs aren’t role models for healthy lifestyles. You spend 14-hour days on your feet under relentless pressure, hunched over a counter that’s knitting a knot in your back. It’s enough to make you cry out for relief and food is the most accessible anecdote.

I remember inhaling many a family meal while standing at my cutting board. Some of my favorites included our sous chef’s pho with hoisin-spiked meatballs, and the porky posole one of our line cooks made (my dream was to combine the two into the ultimate soupy delight, “phosole”). My all-time weakness was my fried chicken and biscuits. I dredged buttermilk-soaked chicken in seasoned flour, egg wash and flour again, then fried it to golden perfection. The biscuits, packed with pearls of cold butter, baked up like puffy pillows. I could crush half a chicken and a pan of biscuits all by myself.

In a kitchen dripping with intensity, it was also oozing with irony. We were knee-deep in amazing ingredients like fresh porcinis as long as my forearm, squash blossoms picked so fast they housed a bee or two, and potatoes still warm from the ground. But it was interesting to see how the kitchen staff chose to eat. Some of the cooks effortlessly gobbled up everything in sight without gaining a pound. (I hated those guys.) I knew one chef who could go all day on nothing but a handful of trail mix. That’s an adequate diet for a medium-sized squirrel but not for a guy pounding through a long service. I figured I was eating family meal instead of lunch and dinner so I was ok to consume as much as I wanted. Except I wasn’t. After just 1 year, I gained over 30 pounds.

Since I didn’t want to keep expanding and eventually wedge myself between the counter and stove, I needed to feed myself well while feeding others. I had to mentally separate the food I was making from the food I was eating. This mindset came in handy when I ran a test kitchen. Eating my test dishes as lunch saved loads of time, but buying bigger pants cost way too much. I added a tasting plan to my prep list so I sampled just what was needed. By being aware of how much I was tasting, I shed those extra pounds.

Now I treat professional cooking like a sporting event, inspired by my husband who just completed a 70.3 Ironman triathlon. Athletes take in fluids and calories to keep their energy stable, and now I follow suit in the kitchen. I refill my tumbler of water constantly and I pack protein bars in my knife kit so I can grab a quick, healthy bite. If I keep my hunger in check, I can cruise by the rolls on the speed rack without blinking.

These days I work in my home kitchen, inventing healthy recipes for clients. And though I’ve swapped foie for farro, I still have to watch what I eat. Even when you’re enjoying healthy foods, it’s easy to blow it on calories. Plus, when I really get going, hours can fly by and suddenly I’m starving. No matter what kitchen I’m working in, I have to first focus on what I need so I can put the best of myself on every plate.

Anne Haerle didn’t grow up cooking. She was raised in a Southern family who prepared, debated, and discussed food endlessly but didn’t take much interest beyond cleaning her plate. She has now discovered the real reason she loves to cook and chronicles her journey on her blog yourinspiredchef.