Alton Brown, writer, director and host of the Food Network show Good Eats, and culinary commentator on Iron Chef America, was not always his svelte and “cut” current-day self. In fact, you can go to his third and most recent cookbook, Good Eats 3: The Later Years(Stewart, Tabori & Chang 2011), and turn to page 284 to learn the truth.
There, Brown describes “Live and Let Diet,” episode 221, season 13, of the show, and shares revealing video stills of his former self—which show a decidedly larger man: “Gaze, if you will, on this behemothic form,” he writes. “At first you might mistake this as a candid shot of Marlon Brando waddling onto the set of Apocalypse Now, circa 1978. The truth is, it’s me, waddling around a Louisiana crawfish farm, circa 2009 (the horror . . . the horror). The day after I viewed this hideous image, I stepped on a scale for the first time in several years and was shocked to find the number 213.5 staring back at me.”
That was the moment Brown decided things had to change. His goal was to shed 50 pounds. It took him 9 months, but he was successful. And he has kept the weight off. In addition, under the guidance of his Atlanta-based personal trainer,Roger Scott, a NESTA-certified pro and Brown’s trainer from 2003 to 2004 and again from 2008 to now, he has put on 15 pounds of muscle.
Looking lean, fit and snappily dressed in tweed, red (plaid) bow tie and other artfully mixed plaids from chapeau to toe at the 2011 Food Network New York City Wine & Food Festival in early October, Brown shared some observations about food, exercise and the absolute need for fitness pros to “get into your kitchen—and into your client’s kitchen.”
After such dramatic weight loss, eating more is actually his biggest challenge with diet. “My trainer is constantly nagging me to eat more,” says Brown, 49. “Obviously I’ve been a big eater in my life, but I get fixated on weighing too much, and he’s always fixated on food and muscle. We’re constantly going back and forth on it.
“The nutrition part of the fitness equation for me is amazingly important. You can beat up your body all you want, but if you’re not rebuilding it properly and giving it all the chemicals it wants and needs, then you’re really missing the point.”
Their trainer-client partnership is a good match, as Scott, whose background studies in college had a nutrition emphasis, focuses about 70%–75% of each client’s program on nutrition. Scott feels it’s essential to know your clients and their daily routines so you can see what their strengths are as well as any possible stumbling blocks to maintaining a solid exercise and food regimen. Once you know the patterns, you can fine-tune your plan.
“Nutrition is key because trainers get only about 5–10 hours per week to spend with clients—usually on the cardio/resistance training side—so that leaves 100-plus hours per week when they’re on their own with nutrition,” observes Scott. “If you know clients consistently travel and don’t spend much time cooking, giving them a shopping list of the right foods to cook is not going to work. Instead, focus on teaching them what foods to order [and what to do] when they’re dining out (eat half the plate, take the rest home). Then, when they have time to cook at home, have them cook for the week or order in bulk from healthy, prepared meals at the supermarkets.”
Brown, a well-versed cook with a strong science background, has an advantage over most because he knows so many tricks of the trade and understands the chemistry and nutritional make-up of most foods. But again, he emphasizes, cooking does not have to be complicated. In fact, less is more, especially when you’re using seasonal, fresh ingredients such as those found in autumn that have a long shelf life into winter.
Brown works closely with Casey Lewis, MS, RD, at Welch’s® to spread the gospel about the magic of autumn’s food bounty, but their message goes well beyond the nutritional properties and versatility of the Concord grape.
“Everything we do together is about seasonal foods,” Brown says. “We’re big believers in it. My partnership with Welch’s is greatly based on getting people to understand seasonality. One of the reasons we’re focusing on the fall harvest is because, to my mind, it’s the best time of the year, nutritionally speaking. Now is the time you see the most depth of color in foods, which Casey and I are big proponents of. You know—deep oranges, deep greens and deep purples. So this is really one of the tastiest and most nutritious times of the year when you get right down to it.”
As to what cooks of all stripes—novice to expert—can do to capitalize on the season’s food treasures, Brown’s default answer is to cube up these gorgeous fruits and vegetables and roast them. “You can take almost anything that comes out of the fall harvest and roast it,” he says. “You can slow-roast it; you can fast-roast it. There are a lot of sugars available in the plants that ripen at this time of year, be they fruit or vegetable. And you can heighten those flavors by driving out some of the moisture, caramelizing some of those natural sugars and intensifying those flavors. For root vegetables and greens, I tend to head for the roasting pan. Or a quick sauté over high heat tossed with a little seasoning and olive oil. My whole thing is let the food taste like what the food can taste like. If [it] already has all the elements that are necessary kind of locked into it, get out of the way.” (Download roasting recipes and other ideas on how to extend the bounty of autumn fruits and vegetables at www.welchs.com/zagat.)
Brown says he and Scott have often gone into his home kitchen postworkout to cook or to make a postworkout snack. He feels that type of trainer-client interaction is crucial.
“You need to see what your client’s kitchen is like. See what’s in the pantry and refrigerator,” he says. “Try to understand what the client’s life is like so you can tailor a plan that fits. In some ways, if you’re going to be a personal trainer you’ve got to take responsibility for being a multidisciplined professional. Yes, you should know your way around a gym, but if you’re really going to be good, you’ve got to know your way around a kitchen. You can’t just say, ‘Go eat a banana,’ and call it a day. Well, you can do that, but you’re not going to make a permanent impact on that person’s life.”