Fine Food and Fat: Are Chefs to Blame for Obesity?

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Anthony Bourdain is among many in the food business who have joined the debate on obesity in the U.S.

Obesity — or fatness, as it used to be called — is the touchiest of topics. From Michelle Obama to Anthony Bourdain, when you talk about America's weight, you talk at your own risk. And a lot of chefs, restaurant chains and food manufacturers face the same quandary. Our feelings are mixed-up at best. Fatness is a thing to be loathed and a condition to be accepted; a medical contagion but also a lifestyle choice; a condition defined by body mass index, or self-esteem, or coercive fashion magazine editrixes, depending on your point of view. At the very least, it is the specter and shadow of eating in the U.S., and as complicated as the great, conflicted, hungry nation that is its natural habitat.

The facts of obesity are well known to everyone. By some estimates, roughly two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese, and over 25% of American children are. There is a corresponding epidemic of heart disease, diabetes and various other life-threatening ailments to go with all this weight gain, to the point that obesity has been called the No. 1 health problem in the U.S. by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the National Institutes of Health.

For Bourdain, having made the transition from chef to food personality, obesity has risen to the level of a public-health problem — or so he said on Nightline last week. "I think that if you're at the point that you need help getting out of the car, if you're raising kids that are morbidly obese by the time they're 5 or 6, or if you're clogging an exit, now it's not a lifestyle choice: it's a problem that others will have to deal with." In fact, the svelte former chef was much less guarded in 2008 with Ted Nugent, a noted fatty basher: "If you're leaking over into my seat on a plane that I paid full price for, you're paying half my seat, jumbo."

Bourdain speaks plainly what a lot of people in the food business think themselves. At the same time, we've seen culinary trends that aren't exactly a formula for manufacturing Audrey Hepburns: the past few years have seen a major embrace of animal fats, offal, bacon and the like. That's part of the energy of the all-potent marketplace, in which better-tasting, more explosively delicious food crowds out its more pallid rivals in a Darwinian race to the bottom of your large intestine. Any number of food personalities have tried over and over to combat obesity via low-calorie cooking — from Rachael Ray to Rocco DiSpirito to Rozanne Gold to Jamie Oliver and innumerable others. Some have even tried to teach kids to eat well, which is invariably an uphill battle. I've written before about Oliver's monumental failure to get children to not like processed chicken nuggets on Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution. If the most likable man in food can't gross out kids with blendered bones, what hope does anyone have of getting them to eat healthily?

Thankfully, it's not on me to answer the question. I just observe trends in gastronomy. As the immortal Paul Bocuse once said when asked about all the gouty feet and engorged livers he had left behind him, "A chef is not a doctor." I've spoken to a lot of chefs about obesity and just how responsible they feel about it. Their responses vary widely. Some merely shrug, taking the Bocuse party line. But Zak Pelaccio, of Fatty Crab and Fatty 'Cue in New York City, stresses that people don't need to "fear salt and fat, but understand how these ingredients can be used" and has started a nonprofit called the Cooking Room that teaches kids to cook to that end. The most interesting of the responses I solicited from chefs was from Chipotle's Nate Appleman, who is in charge of the culinary program at what is arguably the healthiest of all the major quick-service chains in the U.S. (Disclosure: Appleman is a friend and Chipotle a sponsor at my big food event, Meatopia.) Though buff and fit now, Appleman used to be 90 lb. heavier (a lot on his 5-ft. 9-in. frame). "I think people need to take responsibility for their own actions instead of blaming others," he says. "I know, because I used to be obese and always had an excuse. I have since lost 90 lb. and changed the way I eat. However, I did not change the way I cook: use fresh ingredients, sourced responsibly with minimal manipulation. That said, a chef's job is to make food delicious. If that means it is decadent and indulgent, so be it." For Appleman, the stress is on fresh food rather than low-calorie food, echoing what a lot of food professionals say. They would rather have Americans eat a little butter or bacon than what Appleman calls "prepackaged, preservative-ridden food that is shelf-stable at room temperature for a minimum of four years."

It would be nice to believe that freshness, by itself, will help keep America thin; and there's no doubt, as nearly every important culinary figure not named Sandra Lee will attest, that fresh food, even when you eat a lot of it, will make you a lot healthier than its ultra-processed alternatives. But the attitudes toward weight will continue to be ambivalent at best — ranging from Bourdain's acerbic take to Appleman's almost Calvinistic sternness about his own body. With all due respect to the cucumber farmers of America, good food is going to tend to make you fat, and the better our chefs and recipes become, the more we are going to eat. It's a problem that will come and go, back and forth, like the 10 lb. you picked up when your foot was broken, or like the fashion for plus-size figures. Or, wait, that's right: there never was any such fashion. In the U.S., to our endless distress, thin is always in.

Ozersky is a James Beard Award–winning food writer and the author of The Hamburger: A History. You can listen to his weekly show at the Heritage Radio Network and read his column on home cooking on Rachael Ray's website. He is currently at work on a biography of Colonel Sanders.