There's one surefire way to get a chef to change his diet: tell him he has to be rushed to the hospital because his cholesterol level is through the roof. It's what happened to the the Fairmont Olympic Hotel's Gavin Stephenson, and the reason he started running in 2005. A husband and doting father of 7 and 13-year-old boys, the busy chef (who commutes from DuPont every day) is currently recovering from back surgery by slowly upping his mileage so he can run the Seattle Marathon this fall. In this week's Counter Balance, chef Stephenson talks about how the threat of dying forced him to diet.
Chef Stephenson and his family post-race.
Tell me about your marathons. How long have you been doing this?
I've been running for probably 10 years or so. It's a funny story actually how I started running.
I was at a health and safety fair here at the hotel and I had my cholesterol checked. The nurse who took my blood turned white! I was the one who was supposed to turn white. And she said, "You have to go to the hospital right now," and I said, "What?" and she said, "You really need to go to the hospital right now," and I thought she was kidding. She said, "I'm a nurse. I don't kid." I asked her how high my cholesterol level was and she said it was off the charts. She said I was a heart-attack victim waiting to happen. I was just sitting there going, "Well, you know, I had pizza last night. Do you think that's why it's high?" Of course, you start going into denial. Sure enough, I had to go to the hospital. My cholesterol had always been a little high but it had just really exploded. My wife's a runner and so of course I got home and said, "Honey, we have a little bit of an issue here" and she said I should start running with her. At that point I started running...about 100-yards, and I was like, "Okay, where's the tequila?"
Were you heavier back then?
I was. By about 40-pounds. I started running and then I got the bug and then I really started in on the nutrition side of it. Being a chef is the perfect playground to train because you work a lot, but you can carve out an hour here and there to do your training runs. And then nutrition, it's all there for you. You get to play with things and get everything you need for fueling your body. I tried to do my first marathon without any supplements--no gel packs or any sort of extra energy. You can't do it. You can't physically eat enough calories to get through the run. I hit the wall a few times.
My first half-marathon was 2007. Most recently I had a back injury so I'm coming off of that.
How many races have you run?
I've done about 7, including half-marathons.
And your last one?
I did the Rock and Roll marathon in 2011.
What were you eating before you started running?
Foie gras and ice cream.
What's a typical meal plan for you these days?
Food is everything to me. I'm one of those people who don't give up easily, so I thought I could just work out twice as hard and still have the foie gras. It really doesn't work like that. It's about moderation. I started counting my calories. It sounds so funny, but I started writing everything down because I got so frustrated; I was running five days a week and I wasn't losing any weight or seeing any gains in my running. I went and saw a nutritionist and she asked how much I was eating and I told her I was eating three meals a day. She says, "Well, you're a chef. Don't you taste things?" and I said, "That doesn't count!" So, I started counting my calories and I was consuming between five and seven-thousand calories a day.
Even the little tastes? You were counting those, too?
Yes! If you had to taste a lamb chop, that's 106 calories. Not the whole thing, just a taste. You start adding all those things up and it adds up!
A great thing happened in 2009. Fairmont Hotels & Resorts did a thing called a Chef's Conference. I was a part of the team that put together a Fairmont Lifestyle cuisine for the company. And what that is, it basically addresses people who have food allergies or have to keep to a certain diet, and so I got to work with a woman who's a nutritionist for a whole bunch of really great athletes. I got to spend some time and develop these menus with her and understand whole grains and complex carbohydrates and how proteins react with carbs and how your body burns them. She really put it into a context that helped me understand it. I was getting ready for a race so I figured I'd try the Fairmont diet and see how it went--and it was awesome! I picked a very clean, very simple diet. The food was not boring at all.
It was just plain chicken rubbed with Kalamata olives and served on tomatoes with farro. You cooked the farro in the juice from the olives. It tasted very Mediterranean. Training for a marathon I was consuming about 2,800 calories a day.
And how much were you running a week?
About 30 miles. The longest week was 41 miles. You realize your body...you think you need all of these calories, but really we don't. I had to convince myself I didn't need 5,000 calories a day and that was pretty tough.
It's a lifestyle being a chef.
It is and you have to taste. I don't believe that you can be a chef and not have to taste things because you need to know how much salt to add or how much sugar to add or whatever the ingredient may be.
Running, especially long distance, anything over two hours--that was the magic number for me. Anything over two hours you can't consume enough and load enough, or at least I couldn't, before you hit the wall. That's where you start seeing funky things. During my first marathon, I was running along the Sound and I saw little dancing bears. I'm serious.
You were delusional!
I was and it was because I hit a carbohydrate wall. It was just weird. It was the first time it had happened and so I didn't notice the signs beforehand. And then your legs turn into 100-pound buckets of concrete and you just can't go any further.
What's your next marathon?
I had surgery in February so I'm hoping to do the Seattle marathon in November.
What did you have surgery on?
I had a herniated disk in my back.
How did that happen?
Who knows. I play golf, I run, I like the outdoors a lot. I've never taken care of myself until recently and, you know, guy complex--you think you can lift anything. I herniated my disk somewhere along the way and it finally let loose and I had to have surgery.
Do you have a trainer?
Here at the hotel we have what's called Fairmont Fitness. It's pretty cool. Every Friday we go running and it's just a good way to get out of the kitchen for a couple of hours. So, we hired a run coach.
Never. I drink coffee every day and espresso whenever I can.
So you don't have a typical breakfast or lunch?
I have my favorites, but it changes. Right now, my favorite breakfast is Greek yogurt. I eat a lot of that and local strawberries right now are amazing.
Do you eat on the go?
I eat on the go and I rarely eat at home. On my days off, my wife will usually make something or we'll make something together or my kids will decide they're going to be chefs for the day and we have to eat it no matter what it is! I've had some salads that have some really weird stuff in them. I love sweet things, I have a sweet tooth. I try to trick my sweet tooth. We had some white peaches come in the other day that were great. I have a weakness for chips. I like chips. My wife, I ask her to hide them in the house, but she's not a very good hider. It's like, "Really? In the cupboard?" For the most part, I don't eat a lot of red meat. I love it, but I don't eat a lot of it because I know it's not good for you. What we've done to the beef industry is just terrible.
Has your diet affected the hotel's menus?
Absolutely. I'm a little more conscious on what we put in the dishes. I never sacrifice flavor, but I have learned, because I'm so picky, that what we do in the restaurant--it doesn't always have to be cream and butter and saturated fat. There are no trans-fats in my restaurant. If I can make it, I will. I make all the granola and jam. All the breakfast pastries I make in-house, so at least I know they're made with whole flour, real butter, real eggs and not processes stuff your body can't break down. If you look at the obesity rate of the 1940s, it has just skyrocketed. If you look at the kids now, they're the ones who are really suffering because they're hooked on junk from the get-go.
How has marathon training affected your job in the kitchen?
I just did a kitchen remodel here at the hotel last year. When you're a runner, your mind is all about conserving energy and really staying focused and every time I'd go on long training runs or races that I was nervous about, I'd always tell myself to quiet my mind. It would just tell me that I couldn't do it. You just get kind of crazy upstairs. And then I thought about how crazy you get in the kitchen and so I said, "How am I going to quiet my mind in the kitchen?" and so when I built my stations--they are just so synergistic. You don't have to run to get anything. It's all right there. I have a state of the art mat that you stand on. It's so cushy. You never get sore feet. Running kind of drove my design on my kitchen. I spent two-and-a-half million dollars on a running dream.
When I run, I see things that give me inspiration. I live on the Sound and it's gorgeous--except for when bears are dancing across the water.