Life

For one half of The Saturday Paper’s food editing team, the gruelling hours and stressful conditions of cooking for others eventually took its toll – both mentally and physically. Then she decided it was time to regain control.

By Annie Smithers.

One chef’s battle to rebalance the scales

A young Annie Smithers at work.
Credit: SUPPLIED

Never trust a skinny chef, the saying goes. This was never a problem for me in the past, but now – a few months after changing my eating habits – it’s becoming one. I’ve started tipping the scales in a less trustworthy direction. I wonder whether my customers will be more inclined to question the food I cook.

To be clear, weight hasn’t always been an issue for me. I was a slim teenager. In photos from my days as a young cook I am whippet thin and slightly sallow, showing all the hallmarks of the sunless, godless environment that is the world of an aspiring chef. Yet skip forward some 14 years to the start of the new millennium and I’m sitting in a doctor’s office, having finally found the courage to speak to a medical professional about what feels like a progressive and insidious breakdown of my mental ability to cope.

In my first 15 years as a chef, my relationship with food had changed. As an apprentice, I worked in a caring and nurturing kitchen, where staff dinner was a meal everyone was expected to attend. Cast out into the bigger, wider world of hospitality, food morphed into something I provided for others, not for myself. Coffee at one end of the day, alcohol at the other. In between was a kaleidoscope of textures and flavours as I tasted my way across my mise en place or ate scraps while plating up. Somehow there was never enough time to eat properly; somehow food had become something that didn’t matter.

I finally faltered after a six-month stint in a kitchen that was not only godless but also hell on earth. I was physically and mentally broken, and a great deal bigger than I used to be. “I think I have become depressed,” I ventured, sitting in my doctor’s office. The doctor dismissed my quaking admission with a sharp no: “You have put on 14 kilograms in the past 14 years since I’ve seen you.” “That’s not too bad; one kilogram a year,” I quipped. The doctor didn’t see the humour: “You’re obese, not depressed.” A diet followed. A severe diet. I took myself to the country, secured a job that was more nurturing than my previous post, lived a monk-like existence and reached, over the next few months, my coveted healthy body mass index (BMI).

I pushed the question of the “other” weight out of my mind. In the following years, however, the old patterns returned – but instead of gaining 14 kilograms, I put on 28 kilograms, at times perhaps even more, though I daren’t quite remember. I always found ways to rationalise my weight gain: I can work a 16- to 18-hour day, day in, day out. I never get sick. I’m fine. Yes, I carry a bit of extra weight, but I’m fine with my body image. I’m fine. I wasn’t fine. I was depressed, anxious and obese, a state that too many of us find ourselves in as we grapple with the pace and complexities of the modern world. And with work–life balance. And with food options and time constraints. And with the pressure of feeling that we have to turn up to life every day. I could still work consecutive 18-hour days, but eventually it was not my body that broke, it was my brain. What followed was a trip to a more compassionate GP, and subsequently a series of psychiatrists until I found the right one. It took a great deal of “ work” to sort out “stuff” in my grey matter, but finally I made the progress I needed to be able to deal with things. But I was still fat. No, not fat, obese.

Turning 50 can force you to look at your health more closely and subject yourself to a raft of check-ups. So, there I was, half a century old, too fat and a prime candidate for diabetes, heart disease and cholesterol issues. Strangely enough, I wasn’t as bulletproof health-wise as I had thought. I discovered there are a lot of pharmaceutical remedies available for poor health – prescription and non-prescription panaceas are everywhere. Things to alleviate the symptoms. Things to mask the symptoms. Things that just make you feel tolerably better. But they are not actually making you better. At the end of the day, I was just too fat, and no tonic was going to change that.

One day my GP gently explained that I would have to start taking cholesterol medication, because over the years my cholesterol – like my weight – had kept rising. I had become what I’d never wanted to be, another statistic in the obesity epidemic facing the developed world. I knew I had to take action.

So where did I find a diet that would ultimately work for me? I found it on Facebook. Where else in 2018? In turn, I plunged headlong into the curious world of multilevel social marketing. Think Amway and Herbalife, rebooted for the 21st century. Companies that build their own wealth by encouraging individuals to harass their friends and colleagues into buying things. It was a simple enough premise, a husband-and-wife team lose weight with the help of a dietitian. The dietitian suggests a reputable brand of supplements and lifestyle products, originating in the Mormon belt of Utah. The diet gains followers, then a website, and then, one supposes, a lucrative deal with the supplements company. In a short amount of time the founders have the fastest-growing diet plan in the country. I can’t help being sceptical but search the internet and you will find a plethora of success stories.

When I subscribed to the diet, I requested not to be added to multiple chat pages, fearing that my guilty secret of being a fat chef adhering to a very restricted diet may hurt my image. However, the inevitable algorithms of Facebook clicked in and my feed started to be flooded with stories of the gifts the supplement company showered on successful mentors. And, while the diet was working, I became more and more saddened by what seemed the inevitable human frailty of encouraging individuals to make money not only out of their friends but out of the aspirations of others to be something that they weren’t – thin and healthy. I always presume a company must be making way too much money when it starts giving away “luxury” items. Maybe I’m just a killjoy, but the motivational videos just seem so saccharine and fake.

Thankfully, my months of temperance and the sense of disquiet I had about my Facebook diet have been supervised and discussed with my erudite psychiatrist. We have discussed that most diets have some positives, but our basic problem is that many of us eat too much, too often. We eat at the wrong time and eat for the wrong reasons. There is evidence that there are links between gut health and mental health. And there has been a sense that having done enough work on my head, there is room to start work on my body.

The whole exercise has thrown up endless questions about my relationship with food and my relationship with my professional self. My diet has consisted of limited calorific intake, a great deal of water and foodstuffs limited to a regime of protein and, for the first month, one vegetable at a time. Basically, in my case, that means meat, poultry or fish with cabbage, cucumber or cauliflower. I have been hungry often. I have learnt what happens if you drink too much water. I have learnt why I used to eat too much. I look forward to eating much more intensely than I used to. I eat more slowly, savouring every mouthful, if only because there are fewer mouthfuls than there used to be. I have become a dab hand at structuring three meals around a 500-calorie maximum. Most importantly, with sheer will and abstinence I have crippled the addiction to sugar that propelled so much of my eating. In just over four months I have dropped nearly 20 kilograms. I am no longer obese, just overweight. Everything feels clearer and a little easier. My health has improved. Strangely enough, and not without a sense of evolutionary thought, my love of both food and my job has been enriched. There have certainly been endless challenges in breaking 30-odd years of kitchen habits, and like any addiction it is only ever one day at a time. The most important part of each day is to cook and eat my three meals a day. They matter and the care of myself matters.

Food is necessary for us to function, just not too much food, or food of the wrong kind. Celebratory food is not for every day, it’s for the days you cook up a feast or come to a restaurant and entrust the likes of me to cook it for you. So believe me when I say, I might not be as rotund as I used to be, but more than ever I treasure the opportunity to feed you a special meal.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 14, 2018 as "Kitchen scales". Subscribe here.

Annie Smithers
is the owner and chef of du Fermier in Trentham, Victoria. She is a food editor of The Saturday Paper.