How Top Chef's Padma Lakshmi
and Other Celeb Foodies Stay Slim

(Published by Tribune Media Syndicates, March 2008)
by Francine Segan

Surrounded with fabulous foods all day how do female chefs, TV personalities, and restauranteurs manage to stay slim?

A bite of Hung's black chicken, a forkful of Marcel's sea urchins, a taste of Ilan's chocolate ganache with, gasp!, liver----Padma Lakshmi, co-host of Bravo's Top Chef, whose 4th season premiers on March 12th, has eaten it all, along with alligator, boar, chicken feet, frog legs, squab, and pork belly! She and the other judges evaluate the contestant's culinary creations and that means sometimes munching multiple helpings of dozens of rich and exotic foods.

How does Padma cope?

"Because I know I'll be eating so many different foods during each episode of Top Chef, I try to limit what I eat off set, unless it's a day off," says Padma, who was voted one of the 100 most beautiful people by People magazine. "In addition, when a season of Top Chef ends or when I finished writing my cookbook (Tangy Tart Hot and Sweet, Weinstein Books, 2007) I go into a food detox. I eat very simple foods for awhile," she continues.

Donatella Arpaia, famed New York City restauranteur and judge on Food Network's The Next Iron Chef also follows a periodic detoxification routine, " Every season, I go on a raw vegetable juice fast for three days. It cleanses and gives my digestive system a needed break," explains Donatella.

How else do these two beauties stay slim? For Donatella, the key is portion control, " American portions are just so out of whack. I detest large portions. In fact, if I eat out, or in my restaurant, I will order two appetizers (one as a first and one as a main), or just one main course," says Donatella, co-owner of the popular davideburke & donatella and several other award-winning restaurants in NYC. "I'm lucky that I don't crave sweets, but my weakness is carbs. I love pasta, bread and potatoes. As a rule, I tell the server not to bring me bread because if it's there it will tempt me and I don't want to be tempted," continues Donatella. Padma too eats a nutritionally sound diet, "I cut out as much fat and sugar as possible and eat only complex carbohydrates and lean protein. I try to eat as many fruits and veggies as I can per day, plus at least 2 to 3 liters of water," she explains.

Portion control is also paramount for Jenifer Lang, managing director of the three-star Café des Artistes in New York City. "I've always been thin, but since having two children, I'm especially careful what I eat. Before when I would taste a chef's experiments I would take five bites, now I take just two," confides Jenifer. Donatella too, just nibbles at times, "I eat out a lot, and chefs often send me extra courses. If they do, I simply have a bite, maybe two, and that's it. If I overdo it one day, I try to be extra strict the next day to balance it out."

"I stay slim because I take the time to really enjoy my food!" exclaims Odette Fada, executive chef of New York City's three-star San Domenico restaurant. "I see people eating on the subway or in their cars," bemoans Odette, "Wouldn't it better to wait half hour and eat properly, sitting down at a table?" Donatella agrees, adding, "I wish women would see food as I do: something to respect that can nourish and that can be delicious. I truly respect food I try to eat slowly and mindfully savoring every bit."

Chef Odette maintains a petite size-2 despite preparing luscious dishes all day like San Domenico's signature velvety egg yolk filled ravioli in truffle butter sauce or desserts like panna cotta and rum baba. "Although I taste all the dishes I'm preparing it isn't a real quantity of food... one or two strands of pasta, two or three grains of rice," explains Odette

"A fat chef is not to be trusted!" laughs Jenifer, who runs one of the 10 most successful restaurants in New York City. "Seriously though, in my opinions, a thin chef is much more discerning about what he or she eats and I trust their palate more." "Being around food all day should not be an excuse for being overweight. Everybody is always around food, not just chefs and restaurant owners. We food professionals should set an example on how to eat well," Jenifer continues.

All the lovely women interviewed for this piece start their day with a wholesome breakfast and all agree that the key to a slim figure is healthful eating. Patricia Williams, the willowy executive chef of both the District restaurant and Silverleaf Tavern in New York City notes, "Some chefs don't eat while they are working, so they get really hungry by the end of the day. The key to a healthful diet is to eat meals at regular times." Chef Odette, for example, unlike many chefs whose frig is empty, always keeps homemade soups in small, ready to heat, portions in her freezer, "This way I know I always have something delicious and healthy waiting for me at home after a long day of work," she says.

Padma's diet advice is to limit intake of fried foods, alcohol, and sugar and to snack on healthy foods. "Coming from the east I love to graze on dry fruit and nuts and crudités with Middle Eastern yogurt dip made with za 'ater powder (a spice blend). Other snacks I like are an apple with lo-fat peanut butter or non-fat cottage cheese with rye crackers or celery." Jenifer advises, "Eat only half your entrée when you eat out. Café des Artists and most restaurants are happy to send you off with wrapped leftovers. Also, be selective about between meal eating. I recently got removable adult braces-invisiline---to straighten my teeth a little but because they are rather a bother to put in and take out I stopped snacking. I lost 20 pounds in three months!"

But eating well is only part these women's fitness secret. "I don't think you can loose weight or stay slim without exercising," notes Jenifer, who is an avid gym goer and walker. Padma exercises 12 to 15 hours a week, which includes boxing, lifting weights, cardio or roller-skating. Donatella walks everywhere, and works out 3 times a week, focusing on cardio and strength training. Chef Patricia, a former professional ballerina, does ballet or yoga workouts at least three times a week, and walks several miles a day overseeing the operations between the two restaurants in her charge.

Everyone also agrees that the wonderful smells of food cooking is very satisfying and actually causes them to eat less. "Perhaps if people cooked more, they wouldn't eat so much," muses San Domenico's Chef Odette.

Padma's elegant tea sandwiches and wildly flavorful salads from her latest cookbook, Tangy Tart Hot and Sweet are great recipes to try. What's especially exciting about them is that they introduce several interesting ingredients all of which are available online or at gourmet shops. Tea Sandwiches with Lemon, Honey and Ginger includes preserved lemons, which are lemons that have been pickled in salt and their own juices. Often used in Moroccan and North African cuisine preserved lemons add a tangy freshness to any recipe where you might use lemon juice. Chopped they are perfect in salad dressings, and on steamed vegetables, fish and lamb dishes. A little turns an ordinary tuna fish sandwich into a gourmet feast.

Basil and Blood Orange Salad dressing has a hint of yuzu, a delicious Japanese citrus fruit that's in season right now, and Sichuan peppercorns, which provides a smoky flavor and delightful aroma. You'll find that once you try Sichuan you won't return to ordinary black peppercorns.

It's well worth a trip to a gourmet grocery or online search to find the za'atar seasoning that Padma adds to her Carrot and Cilantro Salad. Za'atar is an aromatic mix of herbs and spices including roasted sesame seeds, marjoram, thyme and sumac, which perfectly complement the carrot salad making a good salad truly great. Za'atar is a popular seasoning in the Middle East and Mediterranean. Sprinkle it on steamed veggies or cooked rice or mix it with olive oil or yogurt to create an unforgettable dipping sauce. Once you taste it, it'll become one of your pantry staples and you'll wonder how you ever lived without it. Another wonderful surprise ingredient in the Carrot and Cilantro Salad is orange oil. A brilliant addition to any salad dressing, orange oil, which is the natural essential oil from the rind of an orange, adds a delightful tang and wonderful aroma.



Adapted from:
Tangy Tart Hot and Sweet, by Padma Lakshmi (Weinstein Books 2007)

The happy marriage of lemon and ginger gives a lovely, gentle flavor to these sandwiches. The peppery taste of pecorino is balanced nicely by the sweet taste of honey.

2 preserved lemon halves*
2 teaspoons honey
1 teaspoon crushed dried red peppers or red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon freshly minced ginger
10 slices of good white bread, toasted
10 thin slices of a hard Italian cheese like pecorino or caciotta

Chop the preserved lemons, being sure to remove any seeds first. Place them in a processor or blender with the honey, red pepper, and ginger; make a smooth paste.

Arrange the toast on a platter.

Spread the paste on the toast and top with a slice of cheese. Diagonally cut each slice to make equal triangles from each slice. You can serve as is or heat in a 350°F oven for a few minutes, just until the cheese melts. Either way, these are wonderful with tea or, even better, a glass of sherry.

Any left over lemon-honey paste will keep in the fridge in an airtight jar for weeks.


Preserved lemons* are lemons that have been pickled in salt and their own juices, and are often used in North African cuisine. Available in specialty stores or online.


Adapted from:
Tangy Tart Hot and Sweet, by Padma Lakshmi (Weinstein Books 2007)

The salad is not only glorious to eat but beautiful to look at. The glistening oranges, jeweled with dried cranberries, sit regally in a luxurious bed of dark green spinach that's laced with the spiky fragrance of basil.

The nuttiness of the pepitas (pumpkin seeds) completes the odyssey of taste and texture. It never fails to be a hit.

1?4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon yuzu* or lime juice
1 teaspoon crushed Sichuan peppercorns *
Coarsely ground rock salt

4 blood or naval oranges, peeled, seeded, pith removed,
and sliced into semicircles
1 small red onion sliced into thin rings
5 ounces spinach leaves
3 cups fresh basil leaves, stems removed
1 cup dried cranberries
1 cup pepitas (pumpkin seeds), roasted and salted

Mix all the dressing ingredients in a large bowl.

Toss the oranges, onions, and cranberries in the dressing, and stir to coat well.

In a large salad bowl, mix together the basil and spinach. Just before serving, toss in the orange and onion mixture, and mix well (adding the onion mixture too soon will make the salad soggy).

Sprinkle pepitas on top and serve immediately.


RECIPE NOTES* Yuzu* is a Japanese citrus fruit.
Sichuan peppercorns* have a smoky flavor that gives a distinct aroma to dishes but you may substitute regular peppercorns.


Adapted from:
Tangy Tart Hot and Sweet, by Padma Lakshmi (Weinstein Books 2007)

Orange oil gives this salad a luxurious taste and the aroma of a thousand tangerines. A great alternative to cole slaw, it is delicious summer or winter.

1?4 cup olive oil
4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1?4 teaspoon pure orange oil*

2 pounds carrots, shredded
2 1?2 cups cilantro leaves
1?4 cup white-hulled sesame seeds, dry-toasted
in a frying pan until golden brown
4 hot green chilies, minced
1?3 cup dried cranberries
1?4 teaspoon za'atar powder*
1?2 teaspoon sea salt

Combine all the ingredients for the dressing together in the bottom of a salad bowl.

In the same bowl, toss together all the salad ingredients except the za'atar powder and salt.

Sprinkle the za'atar powder and salt on top of the salad just before serving.


* Orange oil, a by-product of orange juice production, is an essential oil from the rind of an orange.

*Za'atar an aromatic mix of herbs and spices used in the Middle East to flavor meats, salads, and vegetables.