Goodbye Joe Bartolotta

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Several news outlets are reporting that successful Milwaukee restaurateur Joe Bartolotta  died in his sleep at the age of 60.

Bartolotta wasn’t a chef. He opened and operated a variety of restaurants. It’s well documented that chefs and others in the restaurant industry have been plagued with being unhealthy. Most often the culprit is obesity.

In my weekly Culinary no-no blog that’s been posted since 2007 I don’t believe I ever devoted an entire segment to this issue. Quite possibly I linked to a related article on the problem that is rather serious. Even Bartolotta admitted as much.

“Weight has always been a problem for me,” he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel just a few years ago. “I have very few vices in my life. I don’t drink. I don’t gamble. I don’t smoke. I don’t do drugs. I do love food.”

Bartolotta suffered from diabetes and neuropathy along with heart and kidney issues. Despite constantly being surrounded by scrumptious he desperately fought to lose weight.

In 2012 FOX News called being a chef “dangerous.”

Dr. Fred Vagnini, a heart surgeon and medical director of Heart, Diabetes and Weight-Loss Centers of New York, based in Lake Success, N.Y., said he treats many trained chefs – and it’s an unhealthy profession.

“Some of them say to me, ‘No one trusts a thin chef,’” Vagnini said. “That’s just another excuse for being fat.”

Vagnini pointed to all the dangers of working in a kitchen all day – chefs have to constantly taste food for flavor, multiple times a day, leading to high-caloric intake.  They also use more salt than the average cook, which leads to cravings for more salt – and they don’t stop there.

“Look at restaurateurs – typically, they go out after hours, consume alcohol, which leads to more calories and wanting to eat again,” he added.

This way of living can lead to heart disease, obesity, high cholesterol and diabetes, Vagnini said.

In 2010 Anthony Bourdain wrote Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook.

I am frequently asked by aspiring chefs, dreamers young and old, attracted by the lure of slowly melting shallots and caramelizing pork belly, or delusions of Food Network stardom, if they should go to culinary school. I usually give a long, thoughtful, and qualified answer.

But the short answer is “no.”

Am I too fat to be a chef? Another question you should probably ask yourself.

This is something they don’t tell you at admissions to culinary school, either—and they should. They’re happy to take your money if you’re five foot seven inches and two hundred fifty pounds, but what they don’t mention is that you will be at a terrible, terrible disadvantage when applying for a job in a busy kitchen. As chefs know (literally) in their bones (and joints), half the job for the first few years—if not the entirety of your career—involves running up and down stairs (quickly), carrying bus pans loaded with food, and making hundreds of deep-knee bends a night into low-boy refrigerators. In conditions of excruciatingly high heat and humidity of a kind that can cause young and superbly fit cooks to falter. There are the purely practical considerations as well: kitchen work areas—particularly behind the line— being necessarily tight and confined . . . Bluntly put, can the other cooks move easily around your fat ass? I’m only saying it. But any chef considering hiring you is thinking it. And you will have to live it.

If you think you might be too fat to hack it in a hot kitchen? You probably are too fat. You can get fat in a kitchen—over time, during a long and glorious career. But arriving fat from the get-go? That’s a hard—and narrow—row to hoe.

If you’re comforting yourself with the dictum “Never trust a thin chef,” don’t. Because no stupider thing has ever been said. Look at the crews of any really high-end restaurants and you’ll see a group of mostly whippet-thin, under-rested young pups with dark circles under their eyes: they look like escapees from a Japanese prison camp—and are expected to perform like the Green Berets.

If you’re not physically fit? Unless you’re planning on becoming a pastry chef, it is going to be very tough for you. Bad back? Flat feet? Respiratory problems? Eczema? Old knee injury from high school? It sure isn’t going to get any better in the kitchen.

Bartolotta significantly changed the restaurant landscape in Milwaukee. His wonderful contributions will never be forgotten.

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