At his heaviest, chef Dan Raia weighed 441 pounds. He’d worked in kitchens since junior high school, where the tasting, the grazing, the post-shift nocturnal Chinatown feasts were part of the gig. And as chef-partner at the Fenway’s Sweet Cheeks, the guy was constantly surrounded by delicious barbecue.
But then a varicose vein popped in his leg. Twice. The first time was during work on Marathon Monday in 2012. He was rushed from the kitchen, blood gushing, to Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
“I was told to take weight off the leg, off of my body,” he says.
In 2015, the vein popped again, while he was at a wedding in Las Vegas. Another trip to the emergency room. It was time to make a change. At first, Raia tried a weight-loss program at Mount Auburn Hospital, but he was kicked out for missing meetings. Ultimately he opted for gastric sleeve surgery, a stomach-reduction procedure covered by his insurance plan. He missed about nine days of work, he says.
This week, Raia celebrates his one-year anniversary from surgery as well as his 34th birthday. He has lost 200 pounds in total: roughly 60 pounds to prepare for his surgery, and an additional 140 over the past 12 months.
“My goal is to be 240 — 200 pounds less than my highest weight — this week,” he says.
He’s just about there, thanks to the surgery, carefully logging his caloric intake on the MyFitnessPal app, and regular trips to two gyms (Planet Fitness in Medford, which has chef-friendly hours, and Boston Sports Club in the Fenway, close to work).
It hasn’t been easy: Gluttony is part of the kitchen culture, propelled as much by hedonism as it is by mindless snacking. Downing 8,000 calories per day — between shoveling in food between busy shifts, tasting dishes before they go out to the dining room, and letting loose after work — was not unusual, Raia says.
“I lied to myself for so many years. ‘I’m not that bad; I’m not that bad.’ It catches up with you,” he says. “But [eating] fulfilled me. It was enjoyment. I enjoyed gorging on food. It was my comfort. At the end of the day, I enjoyed eating two entrees’ worth of Chinese food at two in the morning.”
Chef Steve Postal from Cambridge’s Commonwealth and the upcoming Revival cafes at Alewife and Davis Square has a similar story. He also underwent gastric sleeve surgery.
“Eating used to be cannibalistic,” he says. “No talking. Just eating.”
Taking home leftovers, he says, was a mark of shame.
“It was like weakness, defeat,” he says. “We can do this!”
Even civilians feel the pull. As anyone who’s ever stared down a plate of nachos, vowed to eat just a few, and then put away the whole thing could tell you, indulgence is liberating. Time, calories, and consequences take on a certain weightlessness while in a restaurant, like dancing on the moon.
I eat in restaurants for work several times per week, and I know how tempting it is to lose all sense of proportion and control when beguiled by Instagram photos of luscious meals and floridly written menus promising foods draped, smothered, covered, and awash in cheeses, sauces, and fat. Am I overweight? Not exactly. Am I dreading my upcoming cholesterol test that coincides with my 39th birthday? You bet.
Moody’s Back Bay, a (very tasty) place I recently supped on assignment, just advertised a near pornographic photo of a walnut sticky bun, awash in dewy glaze. A few photos later, there was a portobello sandwich with the caption: “Why not eat a little healthy since, let’s be honest, you haven’t been eating that well due to the holiday season.” No kidding.
At Cambridge’s new Highland Fried, another recent outing, there’s a come-hither photo of a fried chicken thigh sandwich with mashed potatoes and chicken gravy. At the Friendly Toast, a pre-holiday assignment, feast your eyes on fries coated in a Jackson Pollock-like splatter of cheese sauce.
Yes, yes, it is also easier than ever to dine out healthily, and nobody is being force-fed lard. There are stylish vegan emporiums such as By Chloe. There are honeygrows and Sweetgreens and Dig Inns on every corner. There are juice bars and grain bowls. There is brown rice sushi. Oh, yes, there is kale.
But let’s be honest: For every kale salad and faro-avocado-almond bowl, there are plenty of menus ready to melt your New Year’s resolutions like a puddle of Velveeta on a pile of Tater Tots. Especially in January, when willpower is fragile.
How to cope?
“The sauce! The sauce on everything! Just stay away from the sauce!” urges Davio’s CEO Steve DiFillippo, whose restaurants offer free spring rolls when the winter temperatures dip below 15 degrees. “Do you know how many calories are in béarnaise sauce?”
He runs seven miles each day and opts for steak without sauce, or fish. He sees many customers doing the same, especially in January.
“Most people like steak a la carte,” he says.
The Seaport’s Legal Harborside began serving weekday lunch on its second floor this month with a healthy focus, like salmon burgers and grilled tuna.
“I have this conversation a lot with chefs who want to develop something — there’s a propensity for foie gras, pork belly, very rich foods. As I get older, I always caution them: ‘Remember your guest base. Make sure it’s balanced. I’m not saying it’s bad; it’s wonderful. But the whole menu doesn’t have to be rich and over the top,’ ” says chef Rich Vallente, who’s currently on a “reset” eating plan that eliminates sugar, wheat, and alcohol.
In Concord, Kristin Canty at Woods Hill Table offers a dedicated Whole 30 menu for January diners participating in the eating plan (herself included). The plan restricts alcohol, sugar, grains, legumes, MSG, dairy, and sulfites, among other things.
“We also see a lot of ‘dry January’ customers,” she says. She sells turmeric juice and non-alcoholic Bloody Marys instead.
At the Liberty Hotel’s Scampo, chef Alex Pineda has gone from selling up to 70 pounds of short ribs per week during the holidays to 20 pounds. Now he’s making cauliflower couscous with sautéed onions, carrots, raisins, and chopped parsley.
“And forget about truffles and foie gras in January,” he says.
But this restraint is usually temporary, chefs say.
“It only lasts a couple of weeks — less burgers and fries, more salads. We don’t sell as many Mudslides; we’ve been selling more wine. It’s funny, the resolution thing. It’s predictable. It tapers off every day, and it’s back to normal by Valentine’s Day,” says Dave Cagle, who runs the Automatic in Cambridge, where popular dishes include skillets of baked gouda and fries with bone marrow, parmesan, and “meat debris.”
“Sometimes we joke around. ‘Oh, God, we’re going to hurt people with this food!’ ” he says, laughing.
Suzi Maitland of Trina’s Starlite Lounge in Somerville (and now in Amesbury) sees a shift in ordering, too, at least temporarily. Her restaurants are decadent — at Trina’s, you’re likely to find French fries topped with blissful rivers of gravy and hot dogs with melted cheese, candied jalapenos, and sour cream.
“People fade away with the fried foods a little more. At Starlite, that’s what we do, but we also have a haddock with sautéed spinach and sweet potato hash. We do more veggie burgers instead of regular burgers. For a couple of months, people eat healthy,” she says.
But around March, she says, diners slide into their old ways. In fact, sometimes they fall off the wagon immediately.
“No time like the new year to try new things! Come on in and discover why our peanut butter burger has a cult following,” trumpeted an Instagram post from Boston’s Bukowski Tavern a few days ago. Chef Brian Poe, who runs a Bukowski branch in Cambridge and also the Lower Depths (known for tater tots) and the Tip Tap Room (wild game) sees the dichotomy first-hand.
“Kale salads take on a remarkable spike in sales the first few weeks,” he says. And yet: “At Bukowski, we take a whole broccoli head, deep-fry it, and cover it in beer cheese sauce with fried black quinoa to ‘make it healthy.’ ”
Surely your cardiologist wouldn’t approve. But who can blame these chefs? These dishes look good, they taste good, and they play to our latent desires to be naughty. Deep in the (healthy, unclogged!) heart of every smoothie-drinking diner lurks a yearning to devour a plate of poutine.
“Regardless of what they say or read about what they should and shouldn’t eat, when you sit down and get a menu in front of you, people just want to have fun and let go a little bit,” says Mark Romano, who runs Somerville’s Highland Kitchen as well as Highland Fried. “Even with the way things are going in the world today, they just want to escape. I know that’s how my family is. Us and our kids, we eat good at home. When we go out, we let loose. That’s what I’m seeing and feeling.”
His biggest seller is fried chicken.
“People love fried food!” he says.
So how to maintain a healthy sense of balance all year long?
Postal has little tricks to stay on track.
“I keep a toothbrush in my kitchen because you don’t want to eat after you’ve brushed your teeth,” he says. He eats small meals every few hours to stay full.
He doesn’t completely punish himself, either. Instead, he practices what he calls mindful eating — slowing down to enjoy the food.
“Mindful eating seems a little hokey, but it’s about getting in touch with your body, understanding and knowing [that] when you’re full, you stop. Now, I don’t take the first bite. Normally, I’d be fork and chopsticks in hand — boom! I slow down and let everyone else go first. If something doesn’t look amazing to me, I don’t eat it,” he says.
But Postal doesn’t totally deprive himself, either. Because eating is fun, and it should be. It just shouldn’t be sickening.
“You don’t want to white-knuckle it. It’s not a sustainable balance. For me to never eat fried chicken again, it would be a horrible lifestyle. Live 10 years longer? It wouldn’t be worth it,” Postal says.
Raia, meanwhile, recently went on a work outing to Peach Farm in Chinatown.
“I had a tiny bit of everything. Mentally, I miss it. Physically, not so much,” he says.
As for me, I’m fresh off a work trip to Highland Fried. There were Brussels sprouts on the menu. They were fried in buttermilk. And they had bacon. Romano will probably never remove them from the menu, he says. They’re too popular.
I opted for his nachos, and I took half of them home.Kara Baskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.