Tuesday, January 18, 2005

GOING OPRAH: Part Five

Assembling the team continues, and it's taking longer than I thought.

The first meeting with the trainer takes place on Friday afternoon, where we'll probably formulate a workout plan and do the initial weights and measures. He'll also consult some on the food, as my chef has either been laid up with a back injury or has fled the chance to work for us.

Yesterday involved a deep-tissue massage, but I don't have a "Masseuse" category because I consider that outside the realm of normal spending. In theory I could point out that the Nevada School Of Massage Therapy is always looking for subjects, much like long hair at a barber college, and that would work out in a pinch, but my pain-relief theories tend to lean towards stretching beforehand, and if you still hurt, grit your teeth and get some Advil. People who get regular massages strike me the same as people who get regular manicures-nice if you can do it, but not essential.

Onward.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

GOING OPRAH: Part Four

And it all sounded so easy, didn't it?

I get a call this morning from Chef Jodi. She says she won't be able to cook for us next Wednesday because she's injured her back and had to get an MRI. She wasn't sure when she'd be able to start cooking for us, and she returned our check.

This troubled me. She'd already sent the first menu, we thought we were ready to go, and poof. All of our money back, but no chef, not sure until when.

Tomorrow I set out to find a trainer, as I've scored myself a five-day weekend. More to come.

Monday, January 10, 2005

GOING OPRAH: Part Three

The personal trainer hasn't come along yet, as that will involve going to my gigantic health club, Las Vegas Athletic Club, and finding one. and this weekend didn't present the proper time. Most people like to choose a trainer based on whoever they find when they first walk in, like they're buying shoes. Not me. I've been through this before and don't want the following:

1. A guy who's got arms the size of tree trunks and looks like a nightclub bouncer. The goals are twofold: one, to drop 100 pounds, and two, to finish the Accenture Chicago Triathlon in August. He may very well know the substances, exercises, and food I need to eat to have a 19-inch neck, but I don't want everything he knows about cardiac training to come from the magazine article he read at lunch. I would rule out most large people for exactly this reason.

2. A guy far beyond my own abilities. There was a very popular trainer at my old health club who used to do pull-ups with his legs in front of him, like an "L" and who would practically hold himself upside down on the dip machine-and this was when he wasn't working with clients. As I pointed out to a fellow regular, "I've got shoelaces that are less flexible than him."

3. Anyone dumb, mean, habitually tardy or more sarcastic than me. If I don't like going I won't go. I'll already be overcoming soreness, fatigue, overscheduling, and (if I do it the way that I've had the most success with) two-a-day workouts. Why put up with a caustic person, or more accurately, one more caustic than myself?

I thought I'd found a trainer around the middle of last year. Her name is Jennifer Kakita, and not only did she know triathlons, she ran a triathlon club in the Bay Area before moving down. The issues that I had-trouble with open-water swimming, my lousy performance on the bike, the overall windedness-she not only could help with these things, she'd been through them herself. Plus, she finished in the Top 100 of the Las Vegas Triathlon in September, and seeing that was about 120 places better than me, she was qualified.

However, her club hours were very limited, and it was $50 a session to meet with her. I may be calling her in towards the latter phases, but not soon. Spending $200 a month seems to violate my regular-guy ethos in putting the project together.

HOWEVER...

For me to get a trainer at Las Vegas Athletic Club is a part of my membership. So, technically, it cost me what I already paid for it, which was $900 for 3.5 years for both me and the Long-Suffering Spouse, which averages out to about $5 a month, or $60 a year for weekly sessions.

MAJOR CAVEAT HERE

I signed up at Las Vegas Athletic Club while it was still a construction site. My name is on the wall as a "charter member." (First plaque, first column, about midway down.) Seeing as it was January and I wasn't going to be able to work out in the club until May, I got some deep, deep discounts. As I'm setting up my team that's hopefully going to carry me toward my goal, I hope no one reads this initial part and says, "Hey! He cheated! A trainer costs ten times as much!"

I'm not saying that this is what it costs right off the bat, but that this is what it cost ME. If you're evaluating this as something that you want to do yourself, you have to be smart about it. Compare the price of an Extra Value Meal to the cost of something that's actually good for you. Compare fresh veggies to canned ones. Buitoni fresh pasta to Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. There's a tradeoff for everything. I could lose 50 pounds tomorrow if I wanted liposuction and had several thousand dollars to spend on it. And the point of this is not Get Fit for Cheap; if it was, there's the road, there's your shoes, run.

The point is to get fit like rich people on a moderate budget. I am the sole guinea pig for my approach. We'll see how it goes.

The trainer session's next.

Friday, January 07, 2005

GOING OPRAH: Part Two

Our first step was to find, and hire, the chef. I really didn't have much of an idea what this would entail. I knew it would involve cleaning the house; any time you hire help you want to look as if you somehow can afford it. I know people who do their most intensive and detailed cleaning one day before their maid shows up. That way she can do the light dusting and scrubbing of a house that's obviously immaculate. What can I say? People are goofy.

During my time at the hotel, I've known culinary people. Chefs, sous chefs, food and beverage managers, front line, line cooks one, two and three, patissieres, and people whose whole job was fish. I expected the woman at the front door to be built like a tank, as every hard-core line cook I ever met was fast, mean, and armed with a gigantic set of knives.

I found Chef Jodi Sabal through the hireachef.com website, and had gotten a look at her plans and menus. She had a couple icons next to her name-"family oriented" and "weight management." Score. I went to her own website and everything looked great. I knew that most of what we'd be getting wouldn't look like this; this was more her dinner-party food, and I don't think her weight-loss program and the entire glazed ham they showed were compatible.

I got a call back asking for an appointment this evening at 6. Most people would shudder as this would be the dinner hour. Not us. This is normally when we're trying to decide the merits of Chili's versus Applebee's versus Taco Bell. No wonder I weigh three bills.

Working alongside culinary people, you realize that this is a mirror alternate of the life that I led. It's a little like deciding to be a piano player. You'll go to school, but it's culinary school, typically not a university. There are meccas for your work in Italy and France, but really all over Europe. It involves slaving away in a kitchen in clogs on rubber mats for years. Dicing onions. Cooking demi-glace. Computers were for other people.

Ultimately, I got along with "F&B types" because I came to realize that their work was a commonplace but misunderstood art, and they were artists. They had a very specialized skill set that everyone claimed to understand. It was a lot like my work, in a parallel universe. Things like the word "Chef." Don't think of it as just a job title; it's a form of address. Like "Doctor" or "Professor." I've known my doctor for six years and the one before him for twenty; I wouldn't call them "Johnathan" or "Bill." They earned that title. Same with "Chef."

Second, I don't even pretend to know enough about what they do to make judgments. I stand back. I have a general idea; I know about stock and how to shop for citrus and marbling on steaks and what's so special about Beaujolais, and I could grill something for you to within an inch of its life, or a couple inches beyond if that's what the recipe calls for, but that's like you thinking you could do my job because you know Microsoft Word.

So when Chef Jodi showed up, after we'd deftly sorted the toys in the playroom, cleaned up the living room, and generally did our damndest to look like successful human beings, we were ready.

Chef Jodi was not built like a tank. She looked exactly like she sounded; peppy and professional. Anyone who talks as fast as I do is at home in our kitchen.

We told her what we were looking to accomplish. We explained that we wanted low-fat cooking that tasted good.

She asked, "How do you define low fat?"

I'm thinking of the nights at White Castle, the chicken wings at Hooters, the char-cheddar dogs from Gold Coast, every meal I've ever eaten at Giordano's, the lunches at Five and Diner, the chicken tequila fettucine at CPK, hell, even the cannolis over at Bootlegger, and trying to find a way to say, "Not that."

We explained we were big fans of taste, we were just looking to eat better. We explained we were looking to eliminate eating out. She understood what we were trying to say. Fewer fried foods. Limits on excessive cheese. That sort of thing.

We went through an exhaustive questionnaire. What did we like in terms of meats, poultry, vegetables, spices, beverages, desserts, greens, salad dressings, types of cuisine, favorite restaurants, and the like.

I had a hard time with the question, "What's your favorite restaurant?" I shot back, "Depends on the occasion." I mean, I can give you favorite places by cuisine, by neighborhood, whatever. And the answer can change. I have a favorite place for traditional Italian, contemporary Italian, barbecue, casual Mexican, entree Mexican, bistro French, upper-end French, middle-of-the-road French, et cetera. Remember Bubba in Forrest Gump? I can do that with restaurants. These, and not a good swim stroke or a fondness for the Universal machine, are the types of things that land you at three hundred pounds.

We also explained that we weren't looking for giant steel rings of potatoes propping up steaks with lemongrass poking out of them. I don't need showmanship; I need a meal where I don't have to yell it into a speaker. She said that the day-to-day stuff isn't very fancy. I nod and agree.

Here's how it works: A week or so before she shows up, she E-mails us a menu. We go, "Sounds good," "How about this?" or "Naah, let's do this instead." Chef Jodi will then show up at our house around 9 AM. She will bring everything she needs, including groceries, knives, bowls, mixing tools, the works. All she needs from us are the oven, the sink, the fridge, and the freezer. She makes five entrees with four servings apiece, with side dishes, and the servings are, apparently, pretty big. These go into containers. Three of the meals go into the freezer. Two of them go into the fridge. One of them may consist of prepare-tonight stuff that we mix in a wok and serve. So we get 20 meals. On the table from us is a check. On the table from her is next session's menu and reheating instructions for all the food she made us.

When asked what we wanted her to make, we said, "Surprise us." She already had a list of things we liked and things we couldn't stand. That's more than any restaurant knows about me. What could go wrong?

HOW THIS MIMICS THE RICH AND FAMOUS APPROACH

"Dude, I've hired a personal chef." Use that quote a couple of times and you'll feel like you're worth at least seven figures.

HOW YOU'RE DOING IT ON THE CHEAP

This isn't, "Could you whip me up some pancakes?" on the bedside speaker upon waking. I'll only be seeing Chef Jodi every two-three weeks. During the days, I'm still in charge of eating right; I just have the right foods to do it.

NEXT: Finding a trainer.

GOING OPRAH: Part One

I sauntered back into the house following the holiday trip to Chicago and noticed a terrifying number on the scale.

Three-oh-five.

Good Lord. I didn't think that was possible. I mean, even in the chicken-wings-at-eleven-and-go-to-sleep years, I never hit that particular number. Now it was there, staring me in the face. The triathlon was nearly nine months away, but more importantly, this meant the news was bad. I've known people who've weighed that much and they all had pretty much one unifying characteristic: they stayed that way for a damned long time. Much longer than I was willing to do.

I looked at the smoldering ruins of previous attempts to get in excellent shape. The closest I came was Body for Life, where I lost 38 pounds, worked out nine times a week for about an hour apiece, took an astonishing number of chemicals that said "These Statements Not Approved By the FDA" on them, and generally did well. However, with a wife who's three months pregnant and a two-year-old, it's not easy to say, "I'll be at the gym for nine hours this week, working for forty, and sleeping for about fifty; we can work in anything else around that."

Last year I tried the South Beach Diet, a preposterous thing that featured some relatively good food. In Phase One I lost weight. In Phase Two I maintained it. In Phase Three I did a distance running event and a sprint triathlon and realized that carbohydrates were an important part of life. In Phase Four, I stopped working out and let everything go for a very, very long time, about eight months or so. I think I'm still in Phase Four now.

I also managed to lose a lot of weight once when I had bronchitis, when I joined a food-rehab program run by a hospital, when I swam like a maniac before knee surgery, and when I took a jogging unit in high school.

I've had personal trainers and couldn't keep the appointments. I've done diets but couldn't follow the recipes. I've been willing to take dangerous chemicals but then realized they were dangerous. And that's when I decided to look at the weight loss techniques of the rich and famous.

I'm not talking about Atkins or Zone or South Beach. I'm talking about the fact that celebrities have a small flotilla of people who are in charge of various aspects of their personal well-being. When somebody on TV comes up to Sarah Jessica Parker and says, "You have two kids and you look FAAAB-ulous," there ought to be an asterisk and a screen-crawl that says, "This woman employs a personal assistant, a nanny, a chef, a housekeeper, and a trainer to keep her looking like this, and wouldn't think twice about violently expensive plastic surgery if their efforts failed."

So about a week after I got back and saw that terrifying number up above, I saw an article in Las Vegas Life magazine about personal chefs. They made it sound downright affordable. It's when they mentioned for what you spend at Chili's or Applebees, when you average it out, you could hire one of these people, I was intrigued.

Then, I thought a little more about the idea of teaming this with a personal trainer. I already belong to Las Vegas Athletic Club, which has them, and I have it as part of my membership. Then I started thinking of some of the people I'm working with already; a psychiatrist, a babysitter, and next thing you know, it's "Meet My Staff."

This gave me an idea for a book, provisionally titled (until the Harpo lawyers chop it up) "Going Oprah: How You Can Get In Shape Like the Rich and Famous on an Average and Anonymous Salary."

The team members:

PERSONAL CHEF, PERSONAL TRAINER, PSYCHIATRIST, CHILD CARE, LONG-SUFFERING SPOUSE, and MINISTER OF PERSPECTIVE.

I'll fill these in shortly. Stay tuned.