Rich food, after-hours booze, 3am kebabs - a chef's lifestyle can be full of unhealthy ingredients. Three top professional cooks tell their stories of illness - and recovery
Cheffing is not for the faint of heart or fond of sofa. There are the long hours in hot kitchens, often followed by late-night eating and boozing. As chefs get older, kitchen life can take its toll on body weight, liver and joints. Some adapt, becoming keen cyclists or runners, but what happens when you're a top cook with more serious health problems? How do you reconcile a strict diet to combat, say, rheumatoid arthritis or coeliac disease, with cooking gourmet food? These three leading chefs have learned to do just that, and say they have cooked their way back to health.
Mullen spent his 30s in acute pain. Chatting now to the New York chef about the extreme bike ride he recently completed in Costa Rica, it's hard to believe that two years ago he was at his "absolute low point", under observation for an infection on the brain and suffering rheumatoid arthritis that left him "plateauing at crappiness, with periodic dips into hell". His journey back to health included food supplements, rest, acupuncture, yoga and a radical change of diet.
Mullen began feeling unwell 14 years ago. Then, as he was starting to "dig into" the reasons he felt under par, he was hit by a truck while riding his motorbike. "I broke a lot of bones. Yet the pain of recovery was on top of what my body already going through." Over the next few years, he started getting acute pains in his shoulder and hips: "like someone was smashing me all over my body with a hammer".
Countless trips to A&E followed. At the same time, Mullen was succeeding as a chef. Life was busy. He was opening his first restaurant, and would seek respite from pain in nights out. Eventually, he was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (an autoimmune condition that causes inflammation in the joints). "I grabbed my computer and googled this disease I'd never heard of, but the danger of internet research is you start seeing words like degeneration and crippled. I was terrified I'd never work again." Mullen went on medication, tried to adjust his diet and lifestyle and continued rising up the ranks of his profession.
A few years later, he was filming the final of the Iron Chef TV show in Tokyo when he collapsed. He somehow got up and struggled through the last 15 minutes of filming, before being rushed to hospital. He was flown back to New York for spinal surgery, but developed "36 pulmonary embolisms". "That nearly killed me, my lungs failed." And that's not even his "low point". That came in 2012 with a seizure, leading to a bacterial infection of the brain. Mullen nearly died ... again.
Ready to do "whatever necessary", he was introduced to Dr Frank Lipman, who believed diet had a huge part to play in Mullen's recovery. Following Lipman's advice, he cut out sugar, gluten, grains, and most dairy. Out went wine and pizza, but it didn't mean giving up delicious foods. "I believe that eating healthily and eating well involves eating good fats and vegetables - rather than the carbohydrates that 'health food' has been so dependent on." His favourite ingredients? "Good bacon, avocado, good cheese, eggs, grass-fed beef, pork, fish and a tonne of vegetables." He incorporates his lighter style of eating into his restaurant cooking: "Healthy food and restaurant food are merging. Pleasure is a huge component of eating well." It seems to be working - Mullen slowly began to feel better, and lost 20kg (45lb). In May 2013, he woke up one morning and "felt well". He has been pain-free for 18 months.
'I've lost nearly 10 stone cutting out alcohol and carbs'
TV chef and author Tom Kerridge is chef-proprietor of the Hand and Flowers in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, which has two Michelin stars.
Tom Kerridge isn't half the man he used to be, but he's getting there. The chef has lost 63kg (10 stone) in the past year, and he isn't finished. But Kerridge didn't subsist on cabbage soup or count calories. Instead, he's lost weight while enjoying delicious food, by "cutting out beer and carbs".
"I'd always been a big lad, even from school. I don't really know why," he says. But the weight gain really started with kitchen work, when Kerridge "fell into the trap of late-night pizza eating and heavy drinking". With good reason, he believes chefs have to "work harder at being healthy". "When most people go to bed, that's when chefs finish and go out. Your tea is six pints and a kebab at 3am."
As Kerridge's career went stellar, he continued to party hard, but realised "things were getting out of hand" at Christmas 2012. "I was doing a pop-up in London. Every night was a party night." He adds: "There were incidents." On 6 January 2013, Kerridge "knocked booze on the head". He allowed himself off the leash for his 40th birthday that summer ("a brilliant four-day bender of food, booze and barbecues"), but hasn't touched a drop for over a year.
"It was hard at first, but I realised I was still having a good time without booze. One thing led to another and I cut out all carbs." Kerridge clearly never does things by halves. He can't even be tempted by the Hand and Flowers' famous duck-fat chips and says: "I couldn't eat bread now, it just fills me up."
The chef says his new diet hasn't changed his cooking: "Most of my food isn't carb-heavy. Everything has always been about the main ingredient, whether it's sea bass or a beautiful duck breast." He still tastes most of his dishes - "I don't mind a spoonful" - but also has "a huge innovation team". He's a big apple fan - they help fuel the swims that are now part of his daily routine. Health-wise, Kerridge says he's lucky and got his weight under control "just in time" - "I know my diet has had a great effect." There's only one downside: "It's cost me an absolute fortune in clothes."
'Coeliac disease hasn't held back my creativity'
Anthony Demetre is the chef and restaurateur behind three popular London restaurants - Wild Honey and Arbutus (which both have Michelin stars), and Les Deux Salons.
What do you do when you're a chef renowned for your French-inspired cooking, and you're diagnosed with coeliac disease? If you're Anthony Demetre you adapt and get to grips with new ingredients.
Demetre was diagnosed with coeliac disease (an autoimmune condition which results in an intolerance to gluten) eight years ago: "After years of working in top kitchens and suffering with chronic bouts of IBS [irritable bowel syndrome] and lethargy," Demetre says diagnosis was "like getting hit by a freight train". The chef admits that he was previously cynical about gluten-free - "I thought it was a fad, another Atkins" - and says a lot less was known about the condition eight years ago. At first, he abstained from all gluten for three months, then would allow himself "a little binge - a piece of sourdough or a croissant".
Demetre felt that he was managing his condition OK, until he went on BBC1's Saturday Kitchen and told James Martin about these "binges". The backlash from fellow coeliacs was instant, and intense. "I opened the floodgates," he says. But the chef took criticism on board and realised that, though he felt OK, he was putting his long-term health at risk. "Arthritis, osteoporosis, nerve damage - the ramifications are endless."
Demetre hasn't touched gluten in five years. There are, of course, things he misses - pasta, tiramisu, custard tarts. "It doesn't help being married to a French woman," he says. "The allure of croissants on a Saturday morning is difficult to resist." He starts the day with eggs with gluten-free oatcakes and a smoothie made with kale, blueberries, ginger and flax seed. At the restaurants, he relies on his head chefs to taste the dishes containing gluten, but also creates many dishes that are naturally gluten-free, and works hard to minimise cross-contamination. "Coeliac disease hasn't held back my creativity as a chef. It's made me work harder. I love buckwheat and amaranth - you can create great things with a bit of knowhow."
Demetre is passionate about gluten-free cooking from scratch "because a lot of gluten-free products are laden with salt and sugar". He is particularly proud of his light, fluffy gluten-free scones, which took a long time to perfect, and a wonderful-sounding polenta cake with Sicilian oranges and lemon, garnished with pomegranate. These days, Demetre is free from the IBS and exhaustion, and his weight no longer fluctuates. He says of his condition: "I control it, I don't let it control me."
Getting the recipe right ... chefs Anthony Demetre, Tom Kerridge and Seamus Mullen