When Fat Chef premieres tonight on the Food Network, viewers will be able to bask in a show perfectly timed to the controversy surrounding Paula Deen’s recent diabetes revelation. Its six episodes will explore what happens to chefs who’ve gotten dangerously fat from the food they love, and the difficulties of losing weight and learning how to eat in moderation.
Michael Mignano is one of two chefs appearing in tonight’s episode. Mignano, the 36-year-old owner of a Long Island bakery and café, has appeared on the Food Network before, as one of the contestants on the smackdown series Sweet Genius. In anticipation of tonight’s premiere, Mignano talked with CHOW about Deen, if food TV bears any responsibility for America’s bulging waistline, and whether he can keep his weight down now that the cameras are gone.
So how much do you weigh now?
I weigh 396. I started at 509.
And did you lose most of that over the course of filming?
Yep—the show’s true to editing. It was four months of blood, sweat, and tears. What’s good about that is it’s real. Not to put down other weight-loss shows, but with [Fat Chef] you’re doing it in your own environment. You’re not going to camp or some kind of bubble where the food is prepared and trainers are at your beck and call. [Instead,] they lay it out for you and say, “This is what you have to do, here’s your trainer, here’s your gym membership.” Basically, it’s you wanting to do this.
How did you get involved with the show?
I was in the casting office for the show and it turned out the people at the Food Network were trying to get in contact with me. They asked the casting people to ask me to reach out because they thought I’d be great, and the casting people said, “He’s in our office.”
Did filming affect your work at all? Did the customers know what was going on?
They didn’t know. I mean, they’re going to see cameras in your place and you’re losing weight, but [the Food Network] said I couldn’t openly blog or put anything on Facebook. Once I lost 60 pounds, that’s when it became noticeable.
Given that you were surrounded by the desserts all the time, was it difficult to stay away from them while the cameras were on?
Because I’m working with desserts all day, [that’s not what I want to eat]. To me, it was mainly food that was the issue, whereas you have line cooks who want sugar because they’re cooking food all day. It’s the opposite with pastry chefs. We’re a café, so we do food here, and for Sunday brunch I make a really kick-ass hollandaise—it’s like Frank’s hot sauce, I put it on everything. So I’m eating like I’m a teenager, but I’m not 12 anymore and can’t have candy bars and Slurpees. It’s about taking responsibility for your own body and living a healthy lifestyle.
Do you feel like the industry encourages mindless eating?
No. I have many friends who are chefs but they’re thin and fit. It’s hard: You’re on your feet all day and working long hours, and you don’t think about food. You just work and whenever you have two seconds, whatever’s in front of you, you put in your mouth. Every chef knows what’s bad and what’s good. Every chef has access to a professional kitchen; it’s just how you use it. I knew better.
What about food TV? Paula Deen has been criticized a lot lately in part because she’s seen as encouraging unhealthy eating with her food. Do you think that’s a valid criticism?
No. Just because they sell guns at Kmart doesn’t mean you have to buy them to kill people. It’s what you choose to do with it. I don’t think the network promotes bad eating; I think it’s about exposing people to different foods. As an individual you have to have self-control. With myself, I had no self-control. No one drove me to that.
Did you find that losing weight was more challenging physically or emotionally?
The hardest thing for me is being consistent. So I go to the gym and have a great workout—it doesn’t mean that I can take off five days. I have to go the next day and the next day. So after I left the doctor’s office [when the show ended filming], the doctor said, “I want to see you in January and February, because that’s when it’s going to get hard for you. You’re not going to have the Food Network or a trainer, and you’re not going to feel accountable.” He’s absolutely right. That’s where continuity comes in. A workout and eating a breakfast of high protein and low fat should be automatic.
Now that the cameras are gone, do you find it harder to get motivated?
I would say no because on the last day of filming, I didn’t eat all day. We got done at 8:30 or 9 p.m. and I was famished. I could have had anything I wanted—I was done with the weigh-in. I went home and had a bowl of whole-grain cereal with rice milk. It was automatic. I said to myself, “Wow, I did this without even thinking.” People said, “Do you want to go out to dinner, have a steak?” I was just, “No.” I have two small children and a wife and they count on me for support and love. I can’t be selfish and take that away because I think a cheeseburger is more important.
What does your family think of all of this?
There was this instance where I had picked up my kids from school. My youngest said, “Daddy, I’m hungry.” So I said unconsciously, “I’ll go to the drive-through and get you a burger.” My older son yelled at me and said, “Daddy, what are you doing? If you go to that drive-through you’re going to get something to eat and you’re going to be fat again, and I don’t like my fat daddy, I like my skinny daddy.” We went to the deli and got a piece of chicken and whole-wheat bread. That’s something you can’t make up.
Image source: Health consultant Robert Brace, left, talks with Michael Mignano / The Food Network