Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Skinny

img_2815At least once a week I’m asked, “How do you stay so skinny?”

When you look at Mario Batali, Paula Dean or Nigella Lawson, they look like chefs. You believe them as honest to goodness food people. You can tell they eat, and that they love eating.

But when I tell people I’m a chef, they seem suspicious. They seem to be thinking, “You don’t look like no chef.” And I grant them that. Upon first glance, I may not look like the archetypal foodie. But if you’ve eaten with me, you know I’m legit.

Not only do I eat with gusto, I eat a lot of fatty foods. Cheese is my much-touted favorite food, and chocolate, cream and pork belly are close seconds. I could live on pasta, and cook it for myself most nights when I’m eating alone at home. I’m not a huge fan of salads, which I think are often little more than vehicles for processed dressings, but I pine for vegetables in a way that is the equivalent to Celest’s love of coffee and Erin’s candy cravings.

If pressed, I’d actually go so far as to suggest that I like eating more than cooking. There’s an unadulterated pleasure that comes from indulging in dining, whether that means gathering round my coffee table, venturing out to a neighborhood two star, hitting up some seedy late-night grease pit, or getting decked out in a black dress for an evening among white linens. I often applaud the food I’m served and have been known to squeal upon first-bite of a particularly good dish.

Cooking on the other hand comes with considerable barriers to success. First off, as a self-taught, untrained cook, I make a shit-ton of mistakes in the kitchen…some of which have even been caught on tape! So just as eating can sometimes leave me disappointed (read: dry fish, mealy chocolate mousse, mushy vegetables) so too can cooking. It’s less common that I actually make a bad dish, and is more often the case that I make something that isn’t perfect, isn’t memorable, or is just sorta mediocre. That’s frustrating because the remedy to fix mediocrity isn’t as obvious as giving a menu a complete makeover. And that’s the other thing about cooking that I grapple with now that I do it for a living. These days, I cook for strangers more often than I do for friends, and that process can threaten my joy for preparing a good meal if I’m not careful to stay inspired and continually write new and intriguing menus that keep me guessing. Of course, that guesswork is where cooking can get tricky, but I suppose I find a great deal of reward in that very challenge. And when I nail it, there is simply no better feeling than having fed mouths and filled bellies with the love of a homemade meal.

These dual passions for eating and cooking triggered the transition I jumped into headfirst some two years ago, upon deciding to quit my tenure track position as a professor of writing at a local community college in the toughest ghetto I’ve ever known, to commence a food life and make my living cooking and writing about it. It’s the best decision I’ve ever made, and I’m the happier for it. However, almost no one believes me when I first reveal my trade. Or worse, they take me at my word, but they doubt my skills.

Like I said, I’m okay with that fact. I get it, I look too skinny to be a chef and I’m not convincing as a real-deal eater either. But the truth is, I’m really mindful and a little bit snobby about what I put in my mouth, and I’ve been blessed with a killer metabolism that helps relieve some of the fried food guilt I’ve known many a girlfriend to succumb to. And who can blame her? There’s so much pressure on women to be skinny, and very little in the processed American diet that supports this proposition. But to be clear, I don’t mean to suggest that any of us should eat with an ideal toward skinniness. In fact, I think curvy is much sexier than skinny, and often healthier to boot. But since so many people, mostly women, ask me about my own diet in an effort to better consider their own, I thought it might be welcome to serve up “the skinny” on eating with joy.

I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I am willing to share what I’ve come to regard as the key components in my life as a healthy, devoted eater and cook, or as the Italians would say e’ una buona forchetta, a “good fork.” With any luck and a little willpower, I’m hoping these tips might help others to have a more delicious diet that they can enjoy sans guilt and con triple crème.

1) I love to eat, but I rarely overeat. I do not love the feeling that comes from stuffing oneself “to the gills.” Sometimes I have to check in with myself when I’m halfway through a rib-eye and forced to ponder whether I ought to take the second half home and make steak salad for lunch the next day (keeping in mind I don’t love salad), or just push on through to make it down to the bone. It’s always better to be conscious of this choice, though sometimes, especially when back in Buff eating spaghetti parmesan at Chef’s, I simply cannot resist the urge to clean my plate. But this very notion of “cleaning plates” is one that should be put to rest in a country as bountiful as our own with an equally ample penchant for overindulged portions. I know times are tough, but this is not the Great Depression; most of us can count on our next warm meal and needn’t think of eating as an act laced with the moral compunction to eat everything we’re served. As with almost anything, it’s the quality not the quantity of food that gets consumed that counts. When I’m full, I stop eating.

2) I love to eat, but I don’t eat food I don’t like. Period. I am sensitive to and appreciative of everyone who cooks for me, but if I don’t care for the food put in front of me, I do not eat it. Typically this means processed food, fast food, or particular cuts of meat (often offal), that I don’t feel right about putting into my mouth. Eating fresh foods, real foods, and green foods not only feels right, they taste better and are a healthier choice for my biology, local economies, and our shared ecology.

3) I love to eat, but I don’t eat unless I’m hungry. Eating as habit is dangerous. Instead, eat when your body beckons. I’ve sat at dinners and ordered only an appetizer if I wasn’t hungry enough for a full meal. In fact, I often order a smattering of appetizers and sides as an alternative to the large cuts of protein that take center stage on most entrée menus. The important thing is not to feel obliged to eat by social custom, but rather, to follow your gut (literally) and eat when it growls. Eat in the pursuit of joy.

4) I love to eat, but there are times I eat for my mouth and times I eat for my stomach. Celest first introduced me to this phrase at a time in my life when I felt like I was eating too indulgently and wearing the extra pounds to prove it. Making mindful choices about when it’s time for broccoli (stomach) and when it’s time for bourbon bonbons (mouth), is an essential piece to eating joyfully, that requires not only a taste for healthy foods (so start your kids eating vegetables and whole foods when they’re but babies!) but also the self-discipline to know when to say when. The balance is going to vary for each of us, but great joy can be found in rewards both chocolate and green, and P.S. that nightcap counts as dessert!

5) I love to eat, and I’m fucking lucky that my metabolism loves me. It wouldn’t be fair for me to deny the plain fact that for most of my adult life and all of my childhood, I’ve been a skinny person. I don’t come from skinny people, but my biology has blessed me with a metabolism that makes eating regularly at Fatty Crab an option. That said, I’ve been warned that with age this could all fade away someday, and I’m prepared to battle the onset of a slowing metabolism with good old fashioned exercise. I take twice weekly yoga classes, walk everywhere, and am the sort of person who doesn’t exactly know how to be lazy. I move a lot, I played sports and danced and ran around school organizing as many clubs as possible when I was younger, all of which served as boot camp for the rigors of catering from a 5th floor walk-up in this city. I guess what I’m trying to say is, stop reading and start doing, so you can fully enjoy eating.

How about you? Any tips of the eating trade to share? I think this is a dialogue worth having, and I hope we can have it together. Life’s too delicious not to Eat it Up!

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27 Responses to “The Skinny”


  1. Petal

    I’m sure you’re fantastic in the kitchen but… you may want to be careful about calling yourself a chef. I’ve looked for info on this site to see if indeed you have been to culinary school or apprenticed in a well-respected kitchen and I did not find any reference to either. Perhaps, “cook” or “foodie” may fit better.

  2. sally

    what’s wrong with giving yourself titles you haven’t earned to help inflate one’s sense of self-importance?

  3. Kimberly Belle

    Petal & Sally, I take your point on the “chef” title thing. I myself sometimes feel uncomfortable using it, having not gone to culinary school or apprenticed in a kitchen. That said, I do own a catering company and have worked my ass off for the last two years as its Executive Chef. This means I do everything restaurant chefs do, without the luxury of a properly outfitted kitchen or an army of line cooks. It’s guerrilla cooking at best, and something I doubt many proper chefs would be up for on a daily basis. And hey, since I can’t afford culinary school or the time away from work to apprentice, I figure I’m right where I should be, title or no, cooking and learning in the trenches.

  4. Beth

    To me, this is pretty clear. Kim is a chef. I’m a writer and classically trained to be one with the degree in journalism to prove it. But if you’re doing the work of a writer and having success at it, you’re not less of a writer than I am. Same with a fashion designer or any other creative field you can name. This isn’t an M.D. situation where legally you HAVE to have a certain degree to practice your craft. If you have the skills and do the job, you are the title. End of story.

  5. pauli

    Anyone that has had you cook for them should have no problem calling you chef. Maybe you should apprentice for The Dinner Belle for a while, I hear they prepare gorgeous and wonderfully delicious food and have been for quite some time. Let the nay-sayers try your chicken curry, or any any of inventive, fabulous dishes you prepare,and say you are not a chef. Let them say what they want, I have worked with plenty of “chef”‘s that can’t hold a candle to your food. YOU CAN”T TEACH PASSION

  6. pauli

    from Webster’s dictionary

    Main Entry: chef
    Pronunciation: \?shef\
    Function: noun
    Etymology: French, short for chef de cuisine head of the kitchen
    Date: 1840

    1 : a skilled cook who manages the kitchen (as of a restaurant)
    2 : cook

    — chef intransitive verb

    — chef·dom \-d?m\ noun

    Ahhh…the proof is in the DEFINITION (as well as the pudding!)

    Peace Out CHEF Belle

  7. Erin

    As Kimberly’s business partner, I can attest she has more than “earned” this title of Chef, though at the end of the day, it is just a silly word we’re debating here. I don’t think someone trying to “inflate” their sense of self-importance would admit to no formal training or take on as much grueling and thankless work as she does. I don’t care if she studied at the world’s greatest institute, at the end of the day, the product (her cooking) speaks for itself and we have countless clients who will undoubtedly agree. I believe that hands on experience and hard work are the real ingredients that can earn anyone a “title” in their given line of work, and for Kimberly, this is one she wears humbly and deservedly.

  8. Eileen

    A quick internet search for the definition of “chef” came up with the following:

    1. the chief cook, esp. in a restaurant or hotel, usually responsible for planning menus, ordering foodstuffs, overseeing food preparation, and supervising the kitchen staff.
    2. any cook.
    3. a cook, esp the principal cook in a restaurant[from French, from Old French chief head, chief]
    4. A person who prepares food for eating
    5. a skilled cook, especially the main cook in a hotel or restaurant:
    6. A professional cook

    Clearly Belle fits the definition of a chef.

  9. sally

    Beth, while i do agree with your argument that you are what you do, i don’t agree completely and Kimberley brings home my point.

    My problem with your argument is how you compare an M.D. to this. Sure, the food Kimberley makes is good, but as she says, she does everything without a properly fitted kitchen. What would the health dept say to that. Has she taken classes on food prep, sanitation, proper cleaning and hygiene? (It’s not all common sense) I am not trying to say she has a dirty kitchen; i doubt she does but in this industry there are rules and regulations to hope insure public safety.

    So in that sense, a proper chef would have a proper kitchen that was legal and legit to run a business out of. There is a reason that city doesn’t let people just make food in their apartment and sell it. I don’t know the law in and out but maybe, in a sense, you do legally have to do things a certain way to be a proper chef if you are running a business as opposed to showing up to work for someone else.

  10. sally

    Paul and Eileen, brilliant arguments. In addition to my job title, i now realize that I am a chef too and I didn’t even know it. I’ll make sure to add that to my resume.

  11. Holli

    So many people will try to knock you down in this life, and, unfortunately, when you’re a female, those people are usually other women. Ignore the naysayers, and keep doing what you love. You obviously do it well!

    However, since you’re intelligent, successful, and gorgeous with a knockout bod, expect those claws to come out once in a while. It’s a sad fact of human…or, at least female, nature.

  12. Cynthia

    Kimberly can definitely be called “Chef” in my opinion. She has plenty of on the job training and real success that is perfectly valid experience in her field. Culinary degrees and high profile apprenticeships are traditional ways to learn a trade and earn a title, but certainly not the only way. In every artistic profession there exists the talented savant/self-taught artist. You’d be surprised, more often than not!

  13. pauli

    Sally, actually it’s not a brilliant argument, it isn’t even really an argument at all. If you choose to think the title “Chef” should include an apprenticeship for a certain amount of time,or a culinary degree of some sort, than perhaps you can work on getting the definition of that word changed. As it stands in the real world, Kimberly certainly meets the criteria to place that title in front of her name. If she were claiming to have a culinary degree I would agree with you, but she is not. To say that she places the title in front of her name to inflate her sense of self importance is both rude and ignorant. I suppose starting one’s own business and making it successful through hard work and a quality product is not enough to have earned it in your mind.

  14. Beth

    Now, now, everyone. Be nice!

    sally: I see what you’re saying, and I think you have a point as far as running a legit business is concerned. I do! But the simple fact is, those codes have to do with operating a restaurant or catering business legally, not whether or not she can call herself a chef. There’s a big difference there. I think what I take issue with is, you’re clearly saying she needs some sort of outside validation to deserve to use the word. And that’s just factually incorrect. That might be your own “chef code,” which, hey, if you did all that training I can see why you’d feel it necessary for others to go through it to keep up on a personal level. But there are no actual guidelines that say “you must do this in order to call yourself a chef.” Those things exist for doctors. They do not for chefs. I refer you again to a fashion designer. A classically trained fashion designer will know how to do his/her own sketching, how to sew every way possibly, how to create patterns in fabric. And hopefully he/she will know how to go about marketing, copywriting his/her work and running a business legitimately under the law. But just because you don’t have those elements doesn’t mean you aren’t a fashion designer if you manage to make a living without those things. You can be a fashion designer and not have a legit fashion business. Same thing. It’s NOT the same thing with doctors. If you don’t see the different, I wonder if you’d let your friend who dabbles in medicine for fun operate on you. Probably not. Because that’s not only illegal but scary as hell. But you’d probably let a non-trained designer sew you something. And hopefully you’d let Kim cook her meals for you and your friends. Because she’s a talented chef.

  15. sally

    Pauli, you got it all wrong. i said i agree that real world experience counts, i just thought it was stupid to cut and paste a dictionary definition as proof; especially one so generic that 75% of the world can say they are a chef.

    To say it’s not an argument just makes you sound stupid too since you put it up to prove your point that she is a chef. I’ll write to Merriam-Webster and ask them to put your face next to jackass so people know what to look for. Keep drinking the kool-aid pal.

  16. sally

    Beth, i am not saying she needs outside validation, unless by validation you mean a license. I was trying to say that if you are running a catering business, there are health codes that have nothing to do with calling yourself a chef, but have a lot to do with running a business.

    You need a license to sell and serve food which is factually correct. It’s for health and safety. It’s not my own “code”, it’s called the health code and it’s very easy to find. So yes, there are guidelines that say in order to cook and sell, your kitchen must pass inspection regularly.

    I’d let kim cook a meal for me and my friends but i tend not to buy food made in illegal kitchens that skip over dealing with health code. i think kimberely would agree that with all the problems of food processing and outbreaks that following the rules is important to safeguard people.

  17. Courtney

    Long ago, before the days of universities, colleges, and institutes, people learned through a variety of sources…oral tradition, books, experimentation, and good old fashioned hard work until getting it right. To imply that Kimberly is not a chef based on her lack of a culinary school education only begs two questions, in my opinion: what credentials do you have to judge who is and is not a chef, and why do you care? Some of the most brilliant minds in history were self taught and had little to no formal training, relevant or otherwise. Being a chef is an art and a science and kimberly tackles all aspects of her job with creativity, passion, and ingenuity. One does not have to go to art school to paint a beautiful painting, or go to juliard to compose a symphony. If more people in this world followed their passion and desire with as much enthusiasm as Kimberly does, this world would be a very different place.

  18. Beth

    sally: Perhaps you’re feeling attacked, and that’s not cool–healthy debate is a good thing! But I’m just not seeing that what you’re saying is relevant to the larger issue at hand.

    Of COURSE there are health code regulations to operating a business, but that still has no bearing over whether or not someone has the right to call themselves a chef. What you’re saying is correct–you have to follow laws to legally run a business. But nothing in those laws says “At this point, one is allowed the title of chef and may market themselves as such.” That’s why they’re separate issues. Legally running your own company is not a criterion for the title “chef.” It’s just not. Neither is going to culinary school. Or working in a kitchen. These are simply ways one becomes a chef. But there are a lot of self-taught folks out there who work as chefs and are paid to do it.

    And I would argue that all this talk of having to have a legal company clearly shows that you do, in fact, have your own set of criteria that one must meet to be allowed to use the word. Which is fine as far as what you consider Kim in your own mind. But doesn’t bar her from freely using the word correctly. Which is really the issue here.

    And the example of letting Kim cook for you, I wasn’t suggesting she cook for you out of an illegal kitchen. So let me ask you this: If she rented an industrial space (which by law adheres to the health codes) to cook your meal, that would make her a chef, right? I mean, that’s really what your argument is shaping into at this point. One has to rent an industrial kitchen in order to be allowed to call him or herself a chef? Because, again, that may be your personal feeling, but it’s just not factually accurate. It’s factually accurate that there are laws one adheres to in order to run a business. But nowhere in those laws does it dictate what a “chef” is. Survey says, you can consider Kim whatever you want to. But she has every right to call herself a chef.

  19. pauli

    Lol…I Love kool aid! Sally, go ahead and put Chef on your resume too, but I’d guess most of what you make is too bitter for my taste. God Bless

  20. Amber @ Native Food and Wine

    Courtney makes a nice point.

    I must say though, I have been to culinary school, and I have worked in restaurant kitchens, but I am still very uncomfortable referring to myself as a “chef”. I guess it was drilled into my head that the title just doesn’t come easily.

    It’s all semantics anyway. It sounds like Kimberly works very hard and is great at what she does. Keep up the good work Kimberly.

  21. Brian

    Chef is the job title, you earn the title when you attain the position. Kim is the executive chef for her catering company, therefore a Chef. Even when going to Culinary school they don’t give you a Chef degree, you get an associate degree or a bachelors degree in culinary arts. Many people who work their way up through the kitchens become Chefs, and some of them don’t even have High school diplomas.
    I think Courtney said everything that needs to be said above.

  22. Mercedes

    Jebus Murphy! Give the woman a break, she is the owner of a successful catering company in NYC (remember NYC? its the centre of the fracking universe). Obviously the elite and everyone else agrees that Kim’s cooking is worthy of eating and Kim herself has admitted to not being entirely comfortable with the title.

    People need to put their time and energy into what they love to do, not into putting others down who are passionate and driven.

    Keep atter Kim, you are an inspiration to all of us, “Chef” or not.

    Sincerely,

    Mercedes

  23. puja

    this has little to do with the “chef” titling debate, and more to do with being skinny and/or being a chef: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1945362,00.html (TIME magazine article for next monday). if any of you compulsively check for replies to your own comments, sorry to disappoint.

  24. Eileen

    Kim, in regards to your blog post, I thought of something else you probably do that helps keep you skinny that you didn’t think to mention. You probably eat slowly, savor your food and don’t rush through meals. This is something I really need to start doing as I often myself scarfing down my food.

  25. Kimberly Belle

    Oy! It’s been an exciting weekend in Kimberly Belle land with all these comments flying back and forth. Thanks everyone for lending a voice in the dialogue. And thanks especially to Puja and Eileen who have attempted to steer us back toward a conversation about Skinny Chefs. The Time magazine link Puja posted was a fascinating read, and Eileen is absolutely right…taking the time to savor food and enjoy eating is a mealtime ritual that typically leads to consuming less and appreciating more. XO

  26. Bells & Family

    Eileen — good point. As a mother of a toddler, I often find myself rushing thru meals so I
    can be attentative to her needs and ensuring that she is eating all she needs to. Excellent point.

  27. mama

    Well well! My little bambino has caused a ruckus with the title of chef. I must say I never considered myself a chef but my kitchen is very clean. Just cause I use Clorox wipes doesn’t make the food taste any better. I have watched Kim cook and she is very careful with all the preparations and I look forward to her trips to Buf for her inventive dishes. I am also happy to read all the comments. Keep the ovens lit and the fire burning for the next Belle tale.

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