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Tampa area chefs fight battle of temptation

By Jeff Houck
Published: February 8, 2014 Updated: February 8, 2014 at 12:19 PM
“It’s the kind of job where you’re on your feet for hours and hours, and then when you get off work late at night, you eat before bed,” said Brett Gardiner, shown with his kite board at Sunset Beach Park in Tarpon Springs. “It’s a horrible cycle and everyone in the industry does it.” LUKE JOHNSON/STAFF

Food Network star Robert Irvine is on the phone. He's calling in the middle of a workout at Gold's Gym in Houston during a travel day to talk about his fitness routine..

On this day, he's doing a light workout designed by Hollywood trainer Eric Fleishman. Irvine warms up with 20-pound dumbbells, then works out with a pair of 45-pounders as he goes through a 45-minute, four-set routine that finishes with 50 to 100 push-ups.

Irvine exercises at least five times a week to maintain his Popeye-like physique. The emphasis is on lighter weights, more repetitions and slower, more intense movement.

Twenty years ago, chefs and cooks did their work behind kitchen doors and were rarely visible. But now, Irvine and fellow Food Network celebrities like Giada De Laurentiis, Bobby Flay and Cat Cora have changed fitness expectations for chefs and other food professionals. Even butter-loving Paula Deen, diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, has slimmed down and is preaching portion control.

The reality is that the food industry is notorious for its intake of energy drinks, nicotine and alcohol. And Irvine says staying in shape is hard for those coming up through the ranks. Long hours of grueling work in hot conditions during odd shifts make it difficult to adhere to a fitness routine.

“It's not a 9-to-5 job,” he says. “It wasn't until recently that I watched my diet as closely as I do now. I'd eat steak and blue cheese and mayonnaise. I don't do that now.”

Even for those not on TV, drastic action is sometimes needed to turn things around. Jason Patterson, chef de cuisine at the Hard Rock Café inside the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Tampa, remembers looking down at his scale in August 2012. The number stunned him: 243 pounds.

“It hit me, 'Wow, you're big,'” he said to himself. “You need to put the fork down and work out.”

Patterson, 37, now weighs about 180 pounds, thanks to a fitness regimen he follows at his condo gym and also at Fitness for 10 in Brandon. The 30- to 45-minute routine is somewhat nontraditional. About four or five times a week, he targets one body part — shoulders, arms, legs, back, etc. — and does five types of exercises with three sets of medium to light weights and lots of repetitions. Between sets, he'll run on a treadmill or do crunches to get his heart rate up.

“I look like a weirdo in the gym, but it works,” he says.

His responsibilities overseeing the café at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino include managing cooks, guiding food preparation, checking the time it takes to fulfill orders, placing orders with suppliers, maintaining the kitchen budget and labor costs and ensuring guests are happy with their meals. Most days, there is no time for a sit-down meal.

“As a chef, you get into a grazing mode, where you're walking around and eating a little bit of everything you see,” Patterson says. “It all adds up over time.”

Doing some kind of activity is key to battling weight gain.

“Even if it's only 30 minutes on treadmill at 4 to 5 miles an hour, it's still better than sitting on the couch,” Patterson says.

Staying active is a constant struggle for other local food industry workers. Here's how they stay in shape.

To get a gauge on how much he ate at work, Carmel Cafe & Wine Bar Executive Chef Steve Cook once carried a bucket with him for a day. Every time he took a taste of something, he put an equal amount in the bucket.

“It shocked me at the end of the day,” he said.

Cook, 49, has been in kitchens in one capacity or another since he was 13. He became a chef at 25. All of that stationary standing and tasting added up, and his weight got out of control.

He didn't like running. Jogging wasn't for him. Neither were weights. But he loved cycling as a teenager. After using P90X to lose 40 pounds, he got back on the bike, changed to a vegan diet, cut his calorie count to about 2,200 a day and dropped another 60 pounds. His weight now hovers between 210 and 215 pounds.

Cook rides as many as 200 miles a week on the Upper Tampa Bay Trail in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. He also rides in 80- to 100-mile time-trial races at Fort De Soto Park as well as other places in the southeast.

“Whatever [exercise] you do, it has to be something that you love,” he said. “Find the thing you love and stick to it. Once you feel a lot better, you become more conscious of what you eat.”

His lifestyle now influences his professional choices as well. As executive chef, he is part of the committee that decides Carmel Café's menu.

“I represent the vegetarian and vegan lifestyle,” Cook says. “I try to sneak it in there whenever I can.”

Brett Gardiner, executive chef at the Renaissance Tampa International Hotel, doesn't think of himself as a gym rat. For exercise, he draws on his childhood in Hawaii by heading to the water to do some stand-up paddle boarding or ride the wind on a kite board.

This is the peak time of year for kite boarding, when winds along shallow-water shorelines in north Pinellas County or south along the grass flats off Fort De Soto and the Sunshine Skyway bridge provide outstanding conditions.

“There are world-class areas for kiting around here,” Gardiner says.

He started stand-up paddleboarding 20 years ago in Hawaii, when the sport was just emerging. He raced for a time, but now does it for fun on a 12-foot-6-inch racing board and a 10-foot-6-inch “goof around” board.

Gardiner has to be disciplined about his food intake, especially with a job that includes taste-testing menu items for the hotel's Pelagia Trattoria Italian restaurant, as well as the hotel's other food operations. To stay on track, he brings his own snacks and eats small meals every two hours. Gardiner doesn't smoke, so in lieu of pausing for a cigarette, he'll take a yogurt or fruit break.

“It's the kind of job where you're on your feet for hours and hours, and then when you get off work late at night, you eat before bed,” he says. “It's a horrible cycle and everyone in the industry does it.”

For Richard Gonzmart, the decision to add exercise to his busy regimen almost 30 years ago was a continuation of his athletic life as a student at Jesuit High School, where he was a sprinter on the track team.

After gaining weight in the mid-1980s, the president of the Columbia Restaurant Group started his road to fitness at age 32 by riding a bicycle. That led to running. The running led to triathlons and then to marathons. In 1990, he was training up to five hours a day and competing in his age group in national championships. He once ran three marathons in six weeks.

“Then I realized I'm not going to make the cover of any Wheaties boxes,” Gonzmart said. “And it sure wasn't paying the bills.”

At age 60, he has to be more measured in his training. He tore an Achilles tendon while training for last year's Boston Marathon — an injury that kept him from being on the course when the finish line was bombed.

In preparation for this year's race on April 21, he's nursed the injured foot with gradual increases in mileage that began in November. When the tendon gets tender, he goes for massage therapy.

Modulating his weight is also important. His ideal weight is around 240 pounds, but he gained nine during the holidays. When your family is known for sangria, Spanish food, Cuban sandwiches and the 1905 Salad, food is always a temptation.

“Right now, I need to lose about 20,” Gonzmart said. “But if I'm at 200 pounds, I look like I'm dying.”

His routine also includes swimming twice a week and riding a stationary bike. He used to run early in the morning before work — he once ran 20 miles at 2 a.m. — but now says the roads are too dangerous for runners. This from someone who twice ran with the bulls in Pamplona.

“It's better to run a marathon than it is to run with the bulls,” he says.

Marissa Wyant says fellow bartenders know how grueling the job can be when you're standing for eight to 10 hours straight, lifting cases, moving kegs and bending every which way in a narrow workplace while serving customers.

“People who have never done it, they don't get it,” said Wyant, a bartender at Datz restaurant in South Tampa for four years.

“Servers think bartending is the easiest money in the world,” she said. “When I train people behind the bar, they say, 'I thought all you did was pour beer and B.S. with people.”

Wyant, 33, stays in shape by going to a gym five times a week, using exercises that isolate her upper body, arms, legs, back and abs. Two days a week, she hops on an elliptical machine to burn calories. She does this while studying at USF St. Petersburg for a liberal arts master's degree with an emphasis in political science.

Bartending until about midnight means exercising in the mornings, depending on her class schedule.

“At midnight, you don't feel like getting out and exercising,” Wyant said. “And after being in a bar all day, the last thing I want to do is hang out in a bar.”

Although active her entire life, she got serious about her health two years ago.

“I figured out that I was in my 30s,” she said. “You can't just eat fried chicken and biscuits and gravy all the time. I'm from Arkansas. That's what we live on.”

Two years ago, she wore a size 6. Now she's a lean size 0. Wyant's diet includes mostly fish and low-fat proteins mixed with vegetables. She doesn't restrict her diet — “That's how you fail,” she says — but does resist taking cheat days to eat whatever she wants.

Being around the comfort food at Datz is a temptation. Customers ask how she stays trim when plates of chicken and waffles and fried green tomatoes are going by. She points to the healthier menu items and also notes that Datz will make substitutes when possible. Eating at home before her shift reduces the temptation.

“I believe in eating a little bit of what you want when you want,” Wyant said.

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