The Weight-Conscious Gourmet

Local chefs reveal how they -- and you -- can eat out often and well, without tipping the scales

The preponderance of people who actually bother to make New Year's resolutions -- a dying breed, according to those who survey such issues -- make weight control and getting in shape their main goals. But for a busy urban professional living in the city that Heaven seems to have designated a food pleasure palace, such a pledge can melt away quicker than the ice cream in a Cable Car Sundae at Ghirardelli's.

It's not much comfort when the best advice on (don't act surprised the Web site exists) is pretty pathetic. The site reports that New Year's resolutions were invented by the ancient Babylonians, whose year started a few months later than ours. Thus, "if you had a false start, you can try again in March à la Babylonia!"

"Try, try again" striking us as thin weight-control advice, we went into San Francisco kitchens, both distinguished and down-to-earth, to ask for guidance from the chefs who create the temptations that fatten us.

Hubert Keller, owner/chef of the prestigious Fleur de Lys restaurant, begins by reminding us in a spirited mood that he was once dubbed the "rebel with a Cuisinart." Years ago, he relinquished much of the unnecessary butter and cream that gives French cooking a bad reputation -- in pursuit of a more natural synthesis of flavors. So, he says, his restaurant remains an ideal choice for an elegant meal that won't cause despondence on the scale the next morning.

"I still believe it's everything with moderation," Keller advises. "I think it is a matter of not overdoing it and observing a little bit of what is on the South Beach diet. It does work, believe me. You can even have foie gras or a piece of cheese, as long as you don't have any bread with it. And no sugar or alcohol." And, of course, exercise helps. In addition to a hectic work pace, Keller runs up to seven miles, three to four times a week.

Ted Sandak at Chow, which turns out big portions of family comfort food alongside lighter fare, admits that he hasn't really given the issue much thought; he exercises every day. But he doesn't think that many of his colleagues have heavy workout regimens. Or need to, necessarily.

"When you first start cooking ... you eat everything in sight," the chef says. "You want to taste everything, and then, after a while, you taste what you need to taste. You're around it all day, so you just taste little tiny bites. Generally, you don't really eat much -- you never really stop. The chefs I know all eat, like, once a day."

Chow has several health-conscious salad and pasta dishes that don't sacrifice flavor for reduced fat content, and they can precede a dessert that has a similar philosophy. If sugar at the end of the meal is mandatory, "always stick with a crisp or a cobbler," advises Sandak, who is currently offering apple and pear crisps. "Anytime you get eggs and cream involved, then you start packing it on."

LuLu chef Jared Doob says he, too, does a lot of tasting of his restaurant's hearty southern French food, which is served family style. So he ends up eating only one meal a day. "There's so much to get done in the kitchen that, if you're taking the time to actually sit down and eat, you're doing something wrong," he says.

Let's face it: It's the sweet stuff that is ultimately the hardest to give up after the holiday season food free-for-all. Fortunately, Marika Shimamoto Doob, pastry chef of Hawthorne Lane, knows better than to stick her nose in her mixing bowls and inhale her luscious creations all day. She mainly sticks to salads, and to basics. "You could call it the 'walk-in salad,'" she jokes. "It's a couple of different greens and arugula, organic carrots, mushrooms and celery, and I top it all with no oil and just soy and lime juice. It's funny, because the savory chefs are around their food all the time, so they want desserts, and it's the opposite for me. I always want vegetables!"

Over at top vegan restaurant Millennium, pastry chef Amy Pearce creates light dessert sampler plates like the one she calls "Sweet Endings" (currently, two cookies, two truffles, and a poached pear) to aid the cause of moderation. If restraint proves simply impossible, just follow Pearce's foolproof advice for a no-cal fill-up: "I just drink a ton of water, that's really my end-all cure for everything."

All the chefs emphasize that a patron needs to communicate if he or she is to eat out well and often, and still keep fit. It might seem that a lavish restaurant would not want to be bothered with substitutions or adjustments, but Fleur de Lys owner/chef Keller says he and his staff are happy to go out of their way to accommodate guests. "If you are on the Atkins diet, the South Beach diet, if you're a vegan (or anything else), just mention it to the waiter, and we'll take care of it," he says. "Our staff is really well trained in these directions."

"People who eat at LuLu and are on the Atkins diet often ask for extra meat and no potatoes," says Jared Doob. "And we also have lots of vegetarian options.

"There's always a way to look at something and ask for it without butter or something, too."

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