Vancouver chefs share their secrets to staying in shape
Like many people, pastry chef and chocolatier Thomas Haas will be making some changes in January.
For the past three months, he’s been too busy to do his regular workouts. While working 80 hours a week at Thomas Haas Chocolates & Patisserie, he’s put his exercise routine on hold. But now that the high season for chocolate truffles, macarons, stollen, cakes, and tarts is over, it’s time to get back on track.
However, he has no intention of cutting back on his daily indulgence.
“I eat pastry every day, all year round,” he tells the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “I have a weakness for a hazelnut croissant in the morning.” He also sits down to sweets every afternoon at 4. It’s a ritual he half-jokingly describes as an exercise in quality control. “I pick anything that my 4 o’clock inner desire tells me,” he says with relish. “And it comes with a cappuccino.
“I have zero feelings of guilt about it,” Haas adds. “I look forward to it.”
Despite being surrounded by chocolate temptation, Haas remains in admirable shape. He’s one of a handful of Vancouver chefs who are dedicated to their fitness routines and practising healthy eating habits. And although it’s their job to constantly taste the dishes they cook, they balance their love of good food with a healthy lifestyle.
An avid cyclist, Haas likes to have a goal, so for the past six years he’s competed in an annual seven-day race in Europe near summer’s end. From January to September, he ramps up his activity level, riding anywhere from 700 to 1,800 kilometres a month. His fitness level peaks in September, when the 5-10 chef weighs about 150 pounds. Then, during his fall exercise hiatus, he gains about 10 pounds. “I joke that I go from top shape to pear shape,” he says.
In addition to cycling, the 45-year-old chef likes to go cross-country skate-skiing on Cypress Mountain, participate in spinning classes, and pedal his stationary bike in his basement while watching a hockey game. He’s also a fan of the Grouse Grind: his personal best is 30 minutes, 47 seconds.
Clearly, this is a man who can metabolize a few pastries.
The exercise keeps him trim, but so does his regular diet: home cooking based around fresh vegetables. “I do not eat junk food. I eat very little, if no, processed foods,” he explains. During his busy months, he enjoys a glass of red wine when he comes home late at night, exhausted. But as he increases his training regimen, he cuts back on alcohol.
This annual exercise ebb and flow works for him. Hopping on a bike releases his stress, and he likes the social aspect of riding with local clubs. Plus, he loves getting out on the road. “There’s no better way to see the country and the world,” he adds.
Ned Bell, executive chef at the Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver, makes the point that chefs aren’t known for leading particularly healthy lives. “We’re surrounded not only by rich food but by food in general, as well as poor sleeping habits, too much alcohol, the list goes on,” he tells the Straight. Chefs work long hours and tend to get off work late, unwind with a few drinks, and hit the hay around 1 or 2 a.m. “That cycle can repeat itself for years. And then all of a sudden it’s a decade, and sometimes two decades.”
Three years ago, when he got the opportunity to work for the Four Seasons and was inching closer to 40, Bell decided it was time to give his career his all. For him, that meant taking his health more seriously. “The reality is, when you work for a company you don’t have time to get up and start your day at 11 in the morning,” he says. Not only that, “chefs are teachers and mentors, and you need to be sharp for the team.” Bell also needed to balance his duties as owner of Cabana Bar and Grille in Kelowna.
“I decided to really try to make a permanent change,” he recalls. “I made a decision that I’m going to get as fit as I can and work as hard as I can.”
The first step was to stop drinking alcohol completely. He explains that his family has a history of alcoholism, and he calls alcohol a “gateway drug to many other issues that food-and-beverage professionals struggle with”. Along with that, he changed his diet by watching his portions and eating less pasta and more vegetables, quinoa, lentils, fish, and chicken. He also cut out late-night dinners, eating before service instead.
Although Bell had always been fit, exercise was “feast or famine”. He’d train to run marathons, but when they were over, he’d slide into inactivity.
He’s since made exercise part of his daily commute, running the 10 kilometres from his home to downtown at least four or five days a week. Often, he runs or cycles home too. The morning run gives him energy for the day, and the evening run helps him wind down. “It acts as the same release as sitting down and having a glass of wine or beer,” he explains, and it helps him “sleep like a log”.
Bell also cycles for pleasure; last June, he pedalled almost 1,000 kilometres across Vancouver Island in four days to mark his 40th birthday. On his days off, he plays hockey with his four-year-old son, Max.
At his heaviest, Bell weighed 220 pounds. The 5-9 chef now weighs 165 pounds.
Bell links his healthy lifestyle directly to his success on the job. “Being fit makes your mind clearer and your body happier, and you stay focused,” he says. “Being sharp makes your life a lot easier.”
Quang Dang laughs when the Straight asks if he cycles with Ned Bell. “I like to play a little game called ‘keeping up with Ned’,” he answers.
The executive chef at West restaurant sometimes hits the road with Bell in his spare time. Dang is modest about his athletic ability but has always been fit; he was once a member of the junior national field-hockey team. He gave that up to become a chef, but he remains an avid cyclist, averaging two long rides a week (one about 40 kilometres, the other more than 100). He doesn’t ride specifically to stay in shape: “It’s just fun to get out there,” he says.
As it is for Bell, fitness is part of Dang’s daily routine. The 33-year-old chef doesn’t own a car, and he cycles or walks the five kilometres each way to and from work. He believes that small spurts of activity really do add up. Plus, getting around by foot or bike is relaxing. “You’re not in traffic being stressed.”
Dang also points out that the physical nature of his occupation keeps him active. “The average chef is on their feet for eight to 12 hours straight,” he notes. “You’re putting a lot of miles in your shoes.”
As well as exercise, eating a healthy diet helps keep him in shape. This includes the staff meals at West, which the cooks make from scratch. “There’s very little processed food, so that keeps your diet fairly well-balanced,” he explains. “Not to mention, kitchens are hot. You have to drink water just to cool down. It keeps you hydrated. Those are a lot of the key elements to having good health and managing your weight.”
His greatest weakness? “I love beer,” he admits, with no hesitation. “If I go for a bike ride and burn too many calories, I have to have a beer to put them back on. It’s about balance, right?”
Dana Hauser loves chicken wings. “They’re my greatest temptation,” she says. “I’m a deep-fried-chicken junkie.”
The executive chef at the Fairmont Waterfront treats herself to hot wings when she’s had a good week. But the 37-year-old balances those with a regular diet that otherwise avoids deep-fried food. Her go-to meals include quinoa, cauliflower and kale, egg-white omelettes with spinach, and fruit shakes.
At 5-9 and 130 pounds, Hauser considers herself to be in good shape. “My challenge is making sure that I’m eating regularly,” she explains to the Straight. “My job is to take care of my staff and make sure that the guests are eating. When you’re so focused on that, sometimes you forget to take care of yourself.”
Because her job involves constant tasting, she’s careful about how much she’s eating both on and off the job. At mealtimes, she watches her portions and follows a strategy of eating until she’s not hungry rather than eating until she’s full.
Hauser grew up playing sports, which she credits with her becoming an active adult. “I try to work out at least four days a week, everything from cardio to weightlifting,” she says. She’ll get up at 5 a.m. before her 8 a.m. shift to do a home muscle-development DVD program called P90X.
But she’d rather go to the gym for an hour in the middle of her day. “You clear your mind and come back refreshed,” she enthuses. That’s why she also likes to garden in the Fairmont’s rooftop plot.
Hauser notes that it’s not just chefs who can benefit from a midday workout. “A lot of people who are in stressful jobs need to have that outlet.”
Indeed, every chef interviewed stated that many of their challenges with diet and exercise aren’t unique to their profession. “Chefs aren’t the only ones who work their tails off, and they’re certainly not the only ones who keep off hours,” Bell says.
Haas notes that it’s difficult for most people to change ingrained habits. “I do a slow transformation with whatever I want to change,” he explains. “Then it’s sustainable.…You make it part of your life.”
That doesn’t mean you have to give up what you love. For Haas, it’s pastry. For Bell, it’s gelato from Bella Gelateria.
“I get to eat whatever I want, I just eat less of it,” Bell says. “I really enjoy eating food.…I just control what I consume. If I’m hungry, I’ll have some nuts and celery and an apple instead of a bowl of French fries, rich pasta, or a burger. It’s just choices, right? Like anybody.”