Thin Waist, Thick Wallet
Food Network chef George Stella tells how slimming down expanded his career.
Story by KATE STOREY
The Stella family has come a long way in the past six years, since 467-pound dad, George, was confined to a wheel chair due to obesity with mom Rachel and two sons following in his footsteps.
George Stella’s dangerous weight gain worked in circles. He had earned the reputation of an innovative chef in South Florida, but his obesity made it hard for him to keep jobs.
It was his way of looking to lifestyle changes instead of traditional dieting that turned his and his family’s lives around and helped him shed 265 pounds.
The Stella success story has inspired people around the United States.
Today, George Stella is the star of the Food Network’s “Low Carb and Lovin’ it,” and author of the books “George Stella’s Livin’ Low Carb: Family Recipes Stella Style” and “Eating Stella Style: Low-Carb Recipes for Healthy Living.”
Food has always been a huge part of Stella’s life. He got his start in restaurants at the age of 13 as a dishwasher in Deerfield Beach. He quickly began work in the kitchens of some of the best-known restaurants in South Florida.
In the early ‘80s he worked as an executive chef for the Philips Petroleum Company showcase restaurant, Windows on the Green, located in the Hyatt Regency Pier 66 Hotel in Ft. Lauderdale. At the age of 21, he and Chef Mark Militelo opened Café Max in Pompano Beach.
“Back then we were young guys just starting out,” Stella says. “But the best chefs are always the young guys. They’ve got the stamina and the passion.”
Stella credits the early success of his Florida restaurants and cooking style to going to the source, California, for inspiration. In the late ‘70s, cooking trends started in California, traveled to New York, and then filtered down to the rest of the United States, Stella says.
“We copied California and started what is now Floridian cuisine, which is new world cuisine with Californian and Caribbean flair,” Stella says. With a laugh he adds, “To quote my friend [fellow Food Network chef Emeril Lagasse], we ‘kicked it up a notch.’”
While Stella was working his way up the cuisine ladder and creating influential Florida dishes, he was taking dangerous shortcuts when it came to his own diet and cooking for his family.
Stella says he would go into work early in the afternoon, stay late into the night, and then come home and make himself easy, quick foods like macaroni and cheese.
“When [my wife] Rachel and I were struggling with money, we would get cheap, filling, convenient foods,” Stella says.
The weight kept him from working because he was too large to move easily in most kitchens. But mobility wasn’t his only problem.
At his highest weight, 467 pounds, Stella found himself on Social Security with congestive heart failure and was forced to use a wheelchair to get around. He had doctors telling him his weight was life-threatening and that he needed to get his act together and fast.
Stella had always been convinced that diets don’t work. What changed his life, however, was a friend leaving Dr. Robert C. Atkins’ “New Diet Revolution” book at his house.
“Rachel and I laughed about it at first, but then she started thumbing through it,” Stella says, laughing as he remembers.
The Stellas liked that Atkins gave suggestions that still allowed them to eat as much as they wanted by using fresh, healthy alternatives. George used Atkins’ diet as a guiding tool to create a lifestyle that would work for him and Rachel. When his two sons saw them shedding pounds they made the decision for themselves to change their lifestyles.
“You can’t make anyone lose weight,” Stella says. “It has to be a personal decision. That’s how you lose the weight for good.”
In 18 months, Stella lost an astonishing 265 pounds and Rachel lost 75 pounds.
The low-carbohydrate choices were guidelines, not rules to live by, for the Stellas.
“What the low-carb phenomenon did was make us, as a country, aware of what we were putting into our mouths.” Stella says. “Even though the trend is fading out, what remains is a health-conscious country, which is a good thing.”
Stella’s years in the kitchen came in handy for his lifestyle change. Although he was a well-known chef in South Florida, the only taste he ever got of his own dishes was picking at ingredients behind the cooking line.
“I could eat the things I was making at work but was not taking the time to make them for myself,” Stella says. “I was starting to take the time to make those delicious meals for my family.”
Stella began “shopping on the outside aisles of the grocery store.” Specifically, he was buying green vegetables and fresh meats, the ingredients he had been using in Florida kitchens for years. Stella says the key to eating healthy is to make the goal attainable.
“You find one culprit and give the person an alternative,” Stella says. “If they’ve got a thing for soda, tell them to switch to diet.”
Stella tells the story of his family’s weight-loss and gives low-carb recipes in his books and on his Food Network show. Stella says it’s his non-intimidating, inspirational approach that works for his readers and that makes him different from all of the other cooks.
Stella says that when he talks to people about weight-loss he doesn’t go into detail about why some foods are better for you than others, he simply has a conversation with them. He tells them about his family and himself to motivate them to want the same healthy lifestyle for themselves.
Stella credits his Food Network show to his passion for his new lifestyle choices and his great timing.
“We are a regular family that stands for a whole country,” Stella says. “This country has an obesity epidemic and my family changed.”