Food Network’s Fat Chef, which debuted Jan. 26, puts the spotlight on 12 chefs with serious weight problems. One of those chefs is Cleveland’s Rocco Whalen, a Restaurant Hospitality Rising Star and owner of the popular upscale restaurant Fahrenheit and a food truck and creator of a food kiosk at a local sports arena. He spoke with us about his experience on the show and his 124-pound (so far) weight loss—and the broader impact both have had on his life.
RH: How did you land on the Food Network’s Fat Chef?
Whalen: I answered some casting calls in New York in the last few years, and nothing panned out. But one of the casting directors of this particular show took a liking to me, really liked the energy I brought to the table, and I told her my goal was to be on The Biggest Loser. This show came along, and it’s their rendition of Biggest Loser, with 12 chefs. The biggest difference is with Biggest Loser you go to a camp in Rancho Cucamonga and you get to eat, drink, sleep and work out on their regimen. Well, I used Cleveland as my backdrop for this show, and I ran up and down the bleachers at Cleveland Browns Stadium, or at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I didn’t take myself out of my comfort zone, which is the restaurant. I took myself out of the eating and nibbling zone and got myself into the gym every day and started balancing out my life and stopped filling everyone else’s cup up and starting filling my own cup up for once.
RH: What kind of time commitment did you need to make for the tapings?
Whalen: We had a camera crew of four with us three days a week for 16 weeks. There were two stationary cameras set up in my house at all times, very much like MTV’s The Real World, with the confrontational/confessional cam. You talk to it whenever you want, when you’re feeling good, bad, up down, before a workout, after a workout. My wife was very pleased to see the cameras exit the building. The crew followed me everywhere: at work, at play, during my workouts, after my workouts. They know if you’re cheating. They want you to cheat. They want you to wash out.
RH: In exchange for your participation, what did the show provide?
Whalen: A nationally recognized trainer, a local trainer, two gym memberships and they built me a gym in my basement at home. So there was every opportunity to work out. They had a nutritionist on staff, and the trainer they provided was very geared to a healthy lifestyle. So they broke down my diet from point A and brought me to points B, C and D.
It changed my whole thought process on how I eat and how I cook things for my customers. It’s like running into a brick wall. We started counting my calories initially, then we worked towards eating right, making better choices and a few different diet stipulations that my trainer set down for me.
RH: And has this crossed over into your menu?
Whalen: Absolutely. The Fahrenheit Light menu rolls out this week. It’s six calorically analyzed dishes. They have wonderful flavor without the ingredients that you often use to get flavor, such as butter and salt. These are truly six dishes that got me through this journey. There are two appetizers, two entrees and two desserts, and nothing is over 410 calories.
RH: In the past you have said customers are responsible for their own food choices. Do you still feel that way?
Whalen: No. At the very least it’s my responsibility to educate people on what they’re eating. I certainly don’t want to be just a special occasion restaurant. I think people need to understand that calorically you can do a lot of damage in five minutes or a two-hour dining experience. It gives me an opportunity with this menu to satisfy my creative side to coincide with the healthy lifestyle, but also give people a chance to see truly what is in restaurant meals. There’s a lot of calories in butter and cream and the things that chefs go for as trigger ingredients to promote flavor. You can cook cleaner. You can eat cleaner and healthier; there are ways to do it. And you’re not giving up a lot of the flavor profile.
RH: What do you get if you win this show?
Whalen: Ultimately, I get good health—that’s the number one prize. Number two is the opportunity to expand my brand through the Food Network. Number three? My wife gets to wrap her arms around me. There is no monetary value to winning, though.
RH: Now that the taping is over, how will you maintain?
Whalen: On the show they taught us that there would be a refeeding period once it ended. You get on the scale for the last time, things are good, you’re destined to be a superstar on the Food Network—and you want to reward yourself. And that can get you into trouble. So I have avoided all that completely. I haven’t broken off the chain yet, and I’m not so sure I will. The diet I’m on now is really rewarding in the sense that I feel good. Some of the things I ate before made my body feel not as good: sausages and peppers, white flour, refined sugar—they really slow down your system and give your body a chance to be lackadaisical. Whereas the diet I’m on now is refreshing, gives me a hop in my step and gave me the ability to lose 124 pounds.
I don’t want to be that guy who loses 124 pounds and gains 70 of it back. I’m still going to the gym every day, religiously. I eat, drink and sleep the knowledge that the trainers passed on to me.
RH: Speaking of workouts, how do you fit them into your schedule, which is already packed?
Whalen: It’s not so much picking and choosing the time to work out, it’s guaranteeing yourself the time to work out in any given day. Giving yourself that hour to go box during lunch as opposed to sitting here and eating a high caloric lunch because it’s the easy way out. You’ve got to get it in when you can: situps, pushups, chinups, going up and down the stairs 40 extra times. Not sending cooks up and down the stairs.
RH: What have been your weak spots?
Whalen: Emotional eating and stress-induced eating. Pork belly, pizza or pasta. I am first and foremost a chef. Having all these foods at your disposal every day can kill you. You need to have willpower and discipline to push away those foods and pull romaine lettuce, and tomatoes and chicken breasts into your life. I love the flavors of my past. I still can remember what they are, except I’ve made some new friends now.
Here’s one of the main focuses of the diet: If it wasn’t here 1,000 years ago, you probably shouldn’t be eating it. That wipes out about 85 percent of what’s out there. Another big thing with my diet: You need to watch how many ingredients go into what you are eating. You try to keep the ingredients under three or four.
RH: How has the weight loss affected you at work?
Whalen: My pants size was 54 when I started the show; it’s 38 today. The truck is a tight space and the kitchen is a tight space. Just to take that weight off my frame and not have my body working overdrive, my organs and joints working harder has been a plus. I’ve always been a natural on the line as far as cooking is concerned; now it’s easier and more rewarding because I don’t need to get out of the way when someone walks by me.
RH: During happy hour, your bar serves bacon strips as a snack. Are they still there?
Whalen: Yes. I tried truffled cheddar popcorn for about six months, but I had a couple of death threats. Fahrenheit is the only restaurant in the city that serves it on the bar, and it’s going to stay on the bar. It’s one of the very great bar snacks.
RH: Your mother died at a relatively young age. Did that have any influence on your decision to lose the weight?
Whalen: Absolutely. I don’t want to die young and have to be buried in a pine box because I was so big. I’ve often said I would love to have one more meal with my mother, and I still have that same sentiment in my heart. But now I would want one more healthy meal with my mother. She was a sweet woman, and a great Italian cook. But in a lot of ways it derailed my thought process about food and I thought I could get away with eating anything whenever I wanted or overindulging in bowls and bowls of pasta and all that good kind of stuff.
RH: Would you call this a life-changing experience?
Whalen: 100 percent. I wouldn’t call it anything less. I wake up with new energy, a bigger appetite for life, but not a bigger appetite for food.
RH: Around the time the show debuted, you also debuted Rocco’s Nachos and Tacos at Quicken Loans Arena, home of the Cleveland NBA team, the Cavaliers. How did that deal happen?
Whalen: Someone from Aramark had a chance to enjoy some tacos from my food truck last spring, and that evolved in a conversation about how to make the food at the arena better. They took a good first step two and a half years ago when they brought (Michael Symon’s) B-Spot into the arena, and Michael, being one of my better friends, guided me through the process, but also gave me ideas of how it worked for him or didn’t work for him. It is a licensing agreement, they have the right to my recipes and my name, and I’m entitled to go whenever I want.
I took a nacho and kind of broke it down: I took the flour tortilla/corn tortilla aspect out of it. I made a nacho out of crispy fried potato chips. We have a special machine that’s trademarked by me that takes a potato and spiral cuts it so it stays together but it’s a thin potato chip that we fry, top with a goat cheese fondue, crispy bacon, fresh herbs and fresh Parmesan. There is also a healthy option, a grilled vegetable taco.
I wrote all the recipes, conceptualized how I wanted the space to look, trained the Aramark chefs and the staff on the recipes and I’ve made every taco since. I’m in the kiosk when I want to be. I don’t need to be, but I’m hands-on. I have one key guy there with me at all times—one of my sous chefs. He’ll stay there full-time. I like to be hands-on, and it’s a great vehicle for me to meet 20,000 fans on any given night.
It’s a good step for me, but it’s also a controlled step, instead opening a brand new full-fledged restaurant in another part of the city, where if I’m not there, what’s going to happen?
RH: Do you see this as a growth vehicle?
Whalen: Sure, with truck-style quick-service food, there is absolutely room for growth. I can see Rocco’s Tacos in other stadiums here and across the U.S., in other venues, at the Cleveland Clinic—wherever it might be.
RH: You often go out in your food truck at lunch. How does the truck fit into the picture with your restaurant, which is upscale and dinner only?
Whalen: It’s a platform to serve Rocco-style food at a street food price—$4-$8, nothing more than that. $7 last Friday would have gotten you two shrimp tacos with crispy fried tortillas, pico de gallo, salsa fresca and fresh lime aioli. We serve Cleveland cheese steaks, double burgers with cheddar—street food. It’s a great way for me to serve some of the food that I’ve always wanted to, that doesn’t always work with the Fahrenheit menu. It’s another way for me to creatively express myself. There is a great novelty to it, and it’s a great way for us to meet and greet people.
RH: You recently bought out your partners. What was your thought process?
Whalen: Collectively, after nine years in business I bought out my partners last November. It was a natural progression for me. I opened this restaurant at 24 years young, and I’d slowly built up my credibility and my reputation to the point where I could cash some people out. It was a good deal across the board for everyone, and it gave me the entities I’ve created, as well as the opportunities to grow elsewhere, to do the things I want to do.
RH: Did you feel constrained before?
Whalen: I wouldn’t say I was constrained, but I was a working chef who worked 85 percent of the time and divvied up the money at the end of the month to people who weren’t spending as much time here as I was. It’s all good on all fronts, it was just time to move on and position myself to do better and bigger things in the future with everything that’s happening with the show, the truck, the arena. It was a move in the right direction.