I found Fat Chef, the Food Network’s new reality show about, well, fat chefs, surprisingly hard to watch. But I also found that I couldn’t stop watching it. It was depressing and inspiring at the same time, an emotional speedball. I can’t say I really approve of it, but I know that I’m going to keep watching for as long as I can. I think it’s truthful about how we eat and cook in America in a way I’m not used to seeing presented so starkly.
Much of my attention tends to be focused on the country’s best and most innovative chefs, who tend to be young, thin and tattooed. But get out into the country, and you find that being overweight is almost a universal hazard in the food-service industry. The chef, plus his or her line cooks, usually works in secret, away from the customers’ view; the kitchen is his or her domain, just as our own kitchens are at home. Now, I don’t know of anybody outside the military who ever became a chef without loving food and eating; and so the compound of stress, skill and authority tends to make these workplaces fat-gaining chambers. Chefs don’t really get to eat the food they make, but they nibble, they snack, and they tend to drink heavily and pig out after work, in a nightly form of relaxation and catharsis that is almost guaranteed to make them fatter still.
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Fat Chef‘s premise, as may be guessed, is to begin with a couple of fat chefs, introduce the audience to them and their plight and then encourage them, with the help of the usual unbearably smug personal trainer, to embark on a ludicrous exercise regimen, combined with the inevitable celery snacks. It’s perfectly obvious that no one with a real job and a deep-seated love of food could sustain the regimen long term, but we don’t really care because most likely we will never see them again after their show-concluding victories.
But that doesn’t mean we won’t remember them. I know I will. Forcing fat chefs to encounter their own bodies is an almost sadomasochistic experience for viewers. The chefs truly loathe themselves, as we fat people tend to do. The fact of fatness shouldn’t be tantamount to an ignominious end; if you’re fat, there’s a sense that you sort of deserve to die — as we found out, in not-so-veiled language, from the recent Paula Deen debacle. I don’t blame Fat Chef; the worst things anyone said on the show about fat people were, as always happens, from fat people themselves. “I hate looking at my wedding photos,” said Kim, one of last week’s two subjects. Each week, two chefs are weighed, while the cameras are rolling, and are given the goal of losing 25% of their body weight in four months. Kim, 198 lb. at the outset, wasn’t on death’s door by any means. But shame equals motivation on all diet shows, and Fat Chef is no different: Kim’s problem is that she doesn’t feel bad enough. She’s full of excuses, and such a person can only be redeemed on these shows by being hectored by some guy in stretch pants.
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The Kim parts of the show were distressing. Kim used to be hot but gained weight because of her successful career as a pastry chef. It’s clearly an occupational hazard, but the show, like all of us, pathologizes fatness to the point where Kim ties her weight problems to vague references to past trauma. Fatness, meanwhile, is so shameful to everyone concerned that even Kim’s husband comes out and says what everybody fat already knows: that the talk about “a healthy lifestyle” is code for getting gross fat people to become less hideous. “Any husband out there knows you don’t talk about your wife’s weight,” he says, “but about a healthy lifestyle.”
That’s for sure! But TV is no less disingenuous. There isn’t really any educational component in shows like this; they focus on the sheer, wheezing physical awkwardness of fat people made to run around and the emotional costs of withdrawal from eating — especially painful for people who have to cook for a living. Shows like The Biggest Loser and Fat Chef couch their contempt in the language of fitness, but it’s really fatness that is demonized, on TV as everywhere else. Healthy lifestyle? Please. What would be healthy would be to lose 2 lb. or 3 lb. a week for a year. But the cameras want to see them sweat that lard out fast.
Kim doesn’t actually lose much of her weight; she still looks pretty much the same and doesn’t seem too convinced that she’s turned her life around. But Rocco, the show’s other subject, who is much fatter than Kim, actually does lose an enormous amount. He’s angry at himself and uses the anger to drive himself, in much the same way that he drives his line cooks. Unlike Kim, he doesn’t complain — he has an iron will, and after 16 weeks, he looks a lot better, i.e., thinner. This leads to the most depressing part of the show, for me, which is the moment when he looks back at the monster he used to be. “You see those movies with people in fat suits,” his wife tells him. “That’s what you looked like.” He cries and tells us that it will never happen again.
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Is this kind of show really necessary? Chefs are not only liable to get fat, they are at the very center of the great web of feedings that all of us are caught in. Like their customers, they use food as a mood elevator, a reward, a consolation and a crutch; unlike us, they find themselves around it more and, in some cases, actually rewarded for their knowledge of it. I’ve known a lot of them who have lost weight and regained it, and who struggle against it every day. The idea that the obese need saving by drastic measures is one felt most keenly by the obese, but anyone who ever went on a diet knows that it’s only a temporary fix at best.
There’s no doubt that neither chefs, nor anybody else, has any business being fat; but to see them treated as odious freaks fit only for the kitchen or the grave is very, very hard for me. And I can’t blame Fat Chef; Kim and Rocco are far harder on themselves than the show is. That, I suppose, is the source of its power. The spectacle of shame — and the possibility of redemption — does it for me every time. I’ll be tuning in Thursday night for sure.