You Must Be Hungry

A food critic grapples with her daughter's eating disorders.

Foodies With Issues

Why choose to work in the industry that tortures you?

Writing about people who make their living in food preparation, I started to notice that many of them had serious issues with eating, if not outright disorders. There were stapled stomachs, anorexics, and chefs who jumped on every new diet or exercise regimen. (Like the rest of us, though, food people more often look to food than sweat to solve their health problems.) Yet they chose to work in kitchens. I had to wonder if they were perhaps testing, curing or punishing themselves. Because whether the issue is binging, restricting, or merely sharing the average American's acute sensitivity to weight, why put yourself in jeopardy every day? Why use your hands to knead bread or cut butter when you could tap on a keyboard, like everybody else?

My contact with chefs and restaurant owners normally is limited to talking on the phone. As a reviewer requiring anonymity, I attended very few restaurant openings or events, and kept very much in the background if I did. To give a fair assessment of someone's work, you don't get to know them socially or share personal information. In the midst of a phone interview, I never asked, "By the way, do you have an eating disorder?" Yet the subject kept coming up, which makes me suspect there are a lot of people out there who have other reasons for working with food than pure love of making other people happy.

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I remembered the first person I met who had the sharp hipbones and shocking see-through skin of anorexia, a woman who cooked and baked constantly but was never seen eating. She was the roommate of a friend of mine from college. Walking into their apartment, we often were greeted with the welcoming aromas of fresh-baked cookies or spaghetti sauce. Most people in their early ‘20s used their ovens only on special occasions. This was the ‘70s, but it seems still to be true. Back then, the first celebrity anorexic fatality, Karen Carpenter, was still singing, "We've Only Just Begun" and "Top of the World." There may have been whispered worries about Carpenter and my friend's roommate, but I hadn't heard them.

Later, when I became a restaurant reviewer, Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution and its carbohydrate phobia swept through restaurant kitchens as it had through teachers' lounges and insurance offices. Chefs and proprietors of Italian restaurants caught the anti-pasta virus even though the restaurants' very names are anathema to Atkins: names like La Pastaia, the pasta maker, and Il Fornaio, the baker.

It sounded like irony, the reporter's favorite attitude, to me. I wrote a story for the Mercury News: "Low-Carbohydrate Diet Weighs In, Even at Italian Restaurants." My experience had been that Atkins devotees tended to lose their sense of humor with the weight. Not La Pastaia founder John Ardizzone. At one point he had taken off twenty-four pounds, and many of those had returned, but he still told me, in cheerful self-knowledge, ''I think Italian cuisine is the easiest you can have on the Atkins diet. Look at all the things -- cream, butter -- he tells you to have. There's no need to be alarmed.''

Chef-owner Carolyn Allen had lost seventeen pounds on the Atkins diet. Allen's father founded Paolo's (motto: "Fresh pasta made by hand in-house daily") in downtown San Jose in 1958. When customers presented with a menu headlining Penne di farro con sugo d'agnello made their Atkins requests, Allen had no problem adapting. ''I do for customers what I'd do for myself,'' she said. ''It's pretty easy. I always start with a protein, then put a low-glycemic vegetable on the plate. You can lavish it with lemon butter and herbs, or olive oil.''


She maintained that she could still taste dishes as she cooked. But during her time on the Atkins diet, her partner-husband-sommelier checked the pastas.

Italian chefs on carb-free diets struck me as odd, but not disordered. Then I started running into anorexics who not only loved to cook, like my friend's roommate, but had gone so far as to make food service their careers. In future posts, I will introduce them and their reasons for keeping so close to their enemy - food.

 

Sheila Himmel is an award-winning food journalist. She and her daughter, Lisa, wrote Hungry: A Mother and Daughter Battle Anorexia.

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