Good evening, friends and neighbors! Hope everyone's holiday season is underway with lots of food, festivity, and fun stuff!
I've hestitated to talk about tonight's topic for a while. Initially because I was uncertain what qualified me to speak on body stereotyping and shaming. I didn't want to write another vapid, rambling, whiny post like so many on this topic- lots of words, lots of pain and questions, but no real answers.
Then I just decided to change how was going to write it. Less as a complaint, and more as a testimonial.
Less questioning, more examining.
First of all, let me share something with all of you- I was not always lean. Those of you out there who have known me personally for years are well aware of how I used to look, but for the rest of you:
This was me just as I was starting culinary school, in the fall of 2010. I was working as an EMT. I had bad knees and a back that would cripple me nightly after work. At my heaviest, I weighed 270 lbs (122.5 kg.)
In May 0f 2012, I made the decision to lose weight and get fit once and for all.
I knew exactly what was stacked against me:
- the habits of a lifetime: stress eating, inactivity, poor diet.
- genetics: my family has a predisposition to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and more.
- time constraints: I was then working at a hospital as well as going to school and starting up the Black Hat Bakery. My time was at a premium.
But I also knew what I had going for me:
- genetic predisposition to a strong metabolism.
- cheap access to a gym.
- the support of a friends
- the knowledge that nothing good lay ahead if I stayed as I was.
With the support of friends and family, I set myself on a fitness regimen. I used a couple of free apps on my phone, MyFitnessPal and Fitocracy, to help me keep track of my eating and exercise and to motivate me along.
This is me, May of this year:
When this photo was taken, I weighed 163 lbs. (just shy of 74 kg)
There is a common joke maxim: "Never trust a skinny chef." The joke is that the guy obviously doesn't eat his own food.
Joke this may be, I have met several people that hold it to be true. I regularly hear that I'm "too skinny" or "too fit" to be a pastry chef, followed by the question "How do you DO it?! Surrounded by all that sweet stuff, I'd turn into a blimp!" The general conception is that I either A. don't actually eat what I make, or B. I'm on some crazy diet/ diet pill.
How do I do it? Simple.
1. Yes, I try everything I make. A chef that isn't CONSTANTLY tasting what's around them or what they are working on is like a typist working with one hand, or a driver with an eyepatch. What these inquistive people don't seem to get, however, is that you know when to STOP. If you are a baker and you have done your job well, you don't need to eat a dozen cupcakes to know how ONE tastes.
2. Being a professional baker is a VERY physical job. You are constantly bending, lifting, and moving. You are on your feet at LEAST 8 hours a day, and most bakeshops won't hire someone who isn't capable of physically lifting at least 75 lbs. The exercise is exhaustive and nigh- constant. You are NOT just standing in place and cramming icing down your throat- you do not have the time.
3. Incredible as it sounds, you lose your desire for sweet stuff VERY quickly. After spending a day surrounded by the smell of sugar, butter, and flour, the smell nauseates me. All I want when I get home is meat and vegetables.
4. I exercise intensively, and regularly. Not just to burn calories, but stress. I wake up at 4:30 every morning so I can exercise for at least an hour before I go to work. Exercise relieves stress and tension, boosts energy and metabolism, and triggers endorphins which improve your mood. All of which can make the difference between a happy baker and one that holes up in the walk-in fridge with a bottle of whiskey and a rolling pin.
5. My diet is very simple- I DON'T. I can eat whatever I like, and I do- but I am very picky about WHAT I choose to eat. This is where MyFitnessPal comes in handy. I know what a serving looks like, and I know when to stop. I know how many calories I can consume in a day, and I can look at that last piece of chocolate cake and say "Am I going to enjoy that enough that I won't mind just having a salad instead of a hearty stew tonight?" Nine times out of ten, the answer is no. As a result, my tastes have developed and my palate refined. If I am going to blow calories on something sweet, it is going to be WORTH IT.
All of this came about with a lot of hard work, self-control, and willpower. Implying that I got to where I am because of a miracle diet or pill- or worse, that I'm a poor chef that doesn't try his own work- ignorantly cheapens and denies all of that.
I am a pastry chef, and a damn good one if I say so myself.
I also now weigh 170 lbs, now that I have lost the weight and am looking to build muscle.
I exercise at least 6 days a week.
My knees and back no longer bother me.
I regularly deadlift 250 lbs kettles in the kitchen.
And just last Saturday, I ran my first 5K. I completed the track in a shade under 22 minutes, at a pace of 8:14 minutes per mile.
Good evening, friends and neighbors! Hope your Thanksgivings were full of friends, fun, and tryptophan!
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.” - Mark Twain, "The Innocents Abroad"
Several times before, I have mentioned my personal love of traveling and the desire to do more. I have also mentioned the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia and how such places are absolute windows to the world.
James Beard, one of the fathers of American gastronomy, famously said "Food is our common ground- a universal experience." Placing this bit of wisdom alongside Mark Twains, one can reach a simple conclusion- food is the gateway to cultures around the world. It is the single greatest commonality we have, and perhaps the greatest way to start exploring distant lands.
Very recently, I attended an event at my old school, the Academy of Culinary Arts at Atlantic Cape Community College, Mays Landing, NJ. The event was a yearly celebration of the Beaujolais Nouveau (the first release from France of that year's wines), and has been happening in connection with the Chaine de Rotisseurs for the last several years. Ticket prices go to funding scholarships for the school, and the students of the school put their very best work on parade- delicacies, sweets, cold foods, hot foods, all made by the students help wash down the wines.
This was my first time attending a Beaujolais Nouveau- the last one I had been to, I was a student serving foie gras-stuffed ravioli. It was a wonderful time meeting up with my old teachers and friends again, and trying to choke down the amusement and awkwardness when a student not much younger than myself called me, "sir."
Towards the end of the night, the dessert kitchen opened (to much fanfare and excitement in the crowd.) As a pastry chef, I can't help but be excited and intrigued to see what the students of the school have been doing since I left. That night, however, proved to be extra special.
The chef in charge of the desserts (and a former teacher of mine,) Chef McCann, revealed that the nights desserts were all the products of the first International Desserts class to run at the school. In slightly under a month, the students had to master desserts from 18 different countries- Italy, France, Canada, India, China, Morocco, and more.
The products were, of course, sensational- merengue-wrapped ice cream from Italy, butter tarts from Canada, Polish babka, Indian sweet carrots, and more- all masterfully done and deliciously decadent. More than the satisfaction of an overfull belly, however, I felt a satisfaction in my soul.
Here was a class of young men and women who now knew more about the cultures of 18 nations than many of their peers ever will, and they learned it through the medium they love- food.
A culture's food doesn't develop in a vacuum- the geography, the climate, the average lifestyle, the religion and spirituality of the people, and their history all play a part in forging what goes on the dinner table.
How many staples of Eastern European cuisines came from the need to travel quickly and keep food fresh?
How many dishes in the Middle East were born from the merging of native cuisine and that of one-time conquerors?
How many of our comfort foods were born from moments in a country's history when the people were poor and had to find some way to eat?
What can you eat when you are a stranger in a strange land, and cornerstones of the native cuisine are utterly forbidden by your faith?
These students now know how to answer these questions. This class is a force for good in this world. It is a step in the right direction toward destroying the evils of nationalism, ethnocentrism, jingoism, and appropriation. Evil happens in this world when people stop seeing others AS people. This class reminds us that not only are we all people, but the people sitting across the dinner table from each other, with stories and histories to share with every bite.
We open our country's eyes and minds by first opening their mouths.
Bon appetit, and bon voyage.
About the Author
The Black Hat Baker, a.k.a. Matt Strenger, lives in SE Portland, Oregon as a professional baker. Here, Matt bakes, cooks, exercises, and explores, returning to his wife and their hobbit hole up Mt. Tabor to write about all of it.
Email the BHB at blackhatbakery(at)gmail(dot)com
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