How This Philly Chef Lost 160 Pounds

"I don’t like to say I was on a diet, I like to say I eat well."

Chef Mike Stollenwerk before his 160-pound weight loss and after.

Chef Mike Stollenwerk before and after his 160-pound weight loss.

You might’ve seen Chef Mike Stollenwerk’s name floating around in the past few months, probably in regard to his newly opened seafood-centric BYOB restaurant, 26 North, in Old City. But along with whipping up culinary creations on the daily and dealing with the grind that comes with a new restaurant, Stollenwerk has also been working at something else: keeping off the 160 pounds he’s lost in the past few years.

We chatted with Stollenwerk — who, fun fact, studied food science at Drexel — to find out what kinds of challenges he faced as a chef trying to lose weight (we guessed many), what he thinks of the “fat chef” stereotype (a dying breed, it seems) and, of course, what tricks he uses to transform what could be dull food into a delicious meal (hint: he loves avocado just as much as your friends who won’t stop posting avocado-toast Instagrams). Below, see what Stollenwerk had to say about all of the above and more.

When did you start trying lose weight?

About two and a half years ago. And it took me less than a year. I lost 160 pounds in 51 weeks.

What prompted your decision to lose weight?

I was just really uncomfortable with myself, in many ways: my back was always sore, I could never find clothes that fit. I had just really had enough of being uncomfortable.

What kind of exercise did you turn to?

I started off doing Muay Thai with a personal trainer one day a week. By the second week, it was two days a week. After that first month, I was there five days a week. I would actually do Muay Thai three days a week, and weight-training one day, then a workout in the pool one day. I went early in the morning, before work, which helped keep me from going out after work.

As a chef, between the long hours and that fact that you’re in front of food all day, every day, I can imagine the thought of trying to lose weight could be daunting. What was the most difficult thing about being a chef while trying to lose weight?

A couple things were really difficult: When you’re a chef you don’t usually have time to eat during the day. So finding time to eat a good meal was really difficult. Usually, you eat at the end of the night — and at the end of the night, what’s available to you? Junk food. And the other thing was watching other people eat fries and junk food and keeping myself from doing it, too.

I also had to cut back on going on going out after work. I cut beer out completely. I feel like a beer just makes you really full and bloated.

Putting aside your chef hat, what was the biggest obstacle you encountered when trying to lose weight?

The first month, just getting into it and doing it and staying with it. I think it’s hardest in the first month because you don’t really see any results. You’re kind of discouraged. When I started, I couldn’t even do a push-up — and after the first month, I could maybe do two or three. I think that was the hardest thing, getting over that hump.

I can imagine you whipped up lots of healthy eats. Any favorite go-tos?

My one go-to was a raw salad: kale, cabbage, raw zucchini, raw broccoli, raw onion, cooked mushrooms, quinoa or brown rice. I would make it in a huge batch and put it in sandwich baggies. It keeps and you don’t have to cook it. When you’re ready to eat it, just add a splash of olive oil and sherry vinegar or lemon juice.

Any must-try healthy eats around Philly you’d recommend?

Honestly, with the restaurant opening, I haven’t been out.

What are some of your chef-approved tricks for adding flavor to foods without adding tons of calories?

I don’t like to say I was on a diet, I like to say I eat well, because people associate the word “diet” with bland food. But I could eat a 300-calorie meal that has lots of flavor. What I’ve found is, it’s really good to eat really good foods with naturally good flavors.

I like spices a lot. I put hot sauce on everything. There are also a lot of condiments that aren’t fatty, like mustard, and salsa. Soy sauce has a lot of sodium but there’s no sugar or fat, so you can make some brown rice, add a little soy sauce, have some avocado, you’re not adding tons of calories. I use avocado as butter. In the morning, I put a piece of avocado and tomato on bread. But in the end, it’s just everything in moderation.

Have you noticed a trend in chefs moving away from the “fat chef” stereotype and toward healthier lifestyles?

I definitely see it. I think the chefs are changing because customers are becoming more aware of what they’re eating. I mean, some people still look on the Internet and are completely misinformed. But overall, people are becoming more health-conscious. As a chef you have to cater to what people want and people want to eat more well-balanced portions.

Have you been able to keep off the 160 pounds you lost?

I’ve maybe gained like seven pounds back. I went from a size 48 in pants and now I’m a 36.

Last but not least, what advice would you give to someone else trying to lose weight?

First, stick with it. Then, different stuff works for different people. Also, people think cutting out fat is okay, but you still need good fat, because without good fat your body won’t absorb minerals and nutrients. I will spend like three hours in the supermarket and read the labels. There are so many additives and stuff — a lot of stuff has brown rice sugar in it. So know, just because Whole Foods sells it, doesn’t mean it’s healthy.

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