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Chefs bear some weight of responsibility for obesity

September 30, 2009|By LAURA REILEY / St. Petersburg Times

I've been stewing.

Recently I was in Orlando, Fla., for the American Culinary Federation convention. One night I had an absolutely wonderful meal at Seasons 52, a Darden upscale, healthy/seasonal concept. And then I went to the ludicrous Ice Bar for a drink. Yes, a bar made of ice in which you try to look suave in a huge zip-up snowsuit in a 27-degree room.

These are not the reasons I've been stewing.

Now with 22,000 members in more than 230 chapters, the culinary federation is a professional organization for chefs and cooks founded in 1929. Its aim, at core, is to promote the professional image of American chefs and to offer educational options, certification and apprenticeship opportunities to young folks coming up in the industry. It seems like a great organization, more than 1,000 chefs convening to talk shop, compete a little and brush up on skills. Wandering around meeting folks, it seems like many of the members are culinary educators, many work in hotels, resorts and country clubs. Some are chef-owners of independent restaurants.

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But one thing that seemed all too common in the group was obesity. On the second day I started counting, just ticking off numbers on the back of my notebook as I sat in the breakout sessions. In each session, the majority of attendees were morbidly obese, even among the culinary students in their late teens and early 20s.

Obviously, in a hot and sweaty job in which one is on his or her feet all day in a pressurized environment, packing on a lot of extra weight is hazardous. But it worries me for another reason. These are the people who feed us, who make choices about portion size, about ingredients, about the direction of American food.

Self-control is hard, maybe especially at conventions, but at the table for the Florida chapter, I watched chefs snarf an absolute mountain of free Butterfingers as if it were foie gras.

The New Yorker offers a review of books about obesity by Elizabeth Kolbert (read it at tinyurl.com/l8m43v). In "The Evolution of Obesity," the theory goes that because humans used to live a hand-to-mouth existence, the ability to pack on fat against future lean times was adaptive. Now, there are no lean times. "We evolved on the savannahs of Africa," the authors write. "We now live in Candyland."

In "The Fattening of America," the author links our growing waistlines to decreasing costs (the real cost of soft drinks dropped by more than 20 percent between 1983 and 2005, which may explain why 7 percent of the calories consumed in this country are from sodas). In "The End of Overeating," author David A. Kessler sees food scientists as the evil Svengalis, tinkering with food's construction to maximize "craveability." Brian Wansink, director of Cornell's Food and Brand Lab and author of "Mindless Eating," describes experiments in which, in the presence of excessive quantity, humans fail to experience satiety. They'll just eat and eat.

My question: Don't professional chefs bear a responsibility? If they're cutting-edge experts in the field of meal preparation, don't they owe it to the public to produce dishes that are delicious without being reprehensibly caloric, huge and fatty? Obviously, a case could be made for simple supply and demand. People want huge quantities of high-calorie, cheap food, so give it to them, or someone else will. But shouldn't the buck stop here? Day in and day out, these chefs are sampling their own handiwork. If the upshot is rooms full of people with a BMI over 40, something needs to change.

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