PORTLAND — Tom Cote, daytime sous chef at David’s Restaurant in Monument Square, is trying to drop 41 pounds in 90 days. So far, he’s lost 17.

No one ever said it would be easy.

“I am starving to death half the time,” joked Cote, 49, who now makes extra trips to the trash can to spit out the leftover french fries he puts in his mouth on autopilot.

It’s the time of year at David’s when sales of things like meatloaf, steaks, pasta and other comfort foods go up, and sales of salads go down. So imagine what it’s like to be around that food all day.

Working in the restaurant industry can be hell on the waistline.

“It’s very, very hard,” said Rob Spencer, 36, the night chef at David’s, who would like to lose 60 pounds. “You’re constantly catching yourself with food that you probably shouldn’t have, especially when you’re tasting all day.”

David Turin, the owner of David’s, noticed his staffers’ girth increasing from year to year, and decided to do something about it. He started a 90-day weight-loss competition at the restaurant and will be rewarding the “biggest losers” on his staff with lots of cash.

Chefs, waiters, bartenders and other staffers who want to lose 25 pounds or more will receive $500 when they reach their goal. If they can maintain their goal weight for another month after reaching it, they’ll win another $500.

Employees who have less than 25 pounds to lose receive a bonus of $15 per pound after they reach their goal weight.

There are also weekly prizes, such as a $25 gift certificate to Trader Joe’s or the movies, for the person who loses the largest percentage of their body weight each week. Turin holds weigh-ins in his downstairs office every Friday morning.

The contest is also open to employees at David’s 388, Turin’s other restaurant in South Portland, so 35 people are eligible. Seven people altogether have chosen to participate.

Turin himself is fairly slender, but empathizes with his employees’ struggles with weight because “every year by about January, I’m ready to go on a diet.”

“Trying not to eat what you cook is always a challenge for me,” he said. “I’ve been trying to limit myself to just a taste. If I wasn’t super active, I’d probably weigh 900 pounds.”

THE PIZZA FACTOR

Avoiding temptation has been particularly hard since September, when the restaurant started using artisan bread flour and a vintage French yeast in its breads and pizza doughs. David’s daily pizza buffet lunch, already responsible for weight gain among new staffers, morphed into a caloric landmine because people couldn’t keep their hands off it.

“The quality of our pizza dough and the quality of our bread just went up 300 percent,” Turin said. “Guess who wore it?”

Turin’s own weight-loss goal is 21 pounds, and about a third of the way into the challenge, he’s already dropped 15.

The most anyone has lost in a single week, so far, is about 9 pounds. Turin said he’s keeping an eye on everyone to make sure they don’t use starvation methods to meet their goals.

Why such generous payouts?

“I didn’t think $100 was going to be enough to really get people to change something,” Turin said. “But honestly, I think the reason that it’s caught on so – and I can say this from my own perspective – is the sense of support, knowing you’ve got everybody else you work with on a day-to-day basis in on it, and there’s a lot of competition and camaraderie. And so you are having a struggle one day, and someone’s cheering you on.”

Kathy Halpin, manager of clinical nutrition at Maine Medical Center, agrees that it’s the supportive environment that tends to make such competitions successful. Halpin was part of a team at the hospital that won a similar weight-loss challenge a year and a half ago. Three members of her team were chefs.

Halpin said it is also important to maintain an atmosphere of mutual respect. ” I think that’s really key, not to be judgmental,” she said. “Some people might lose 5 or 6 pounds one week and then other weeks they’d lose nothing.”

Exercise is key to weight loss, so another important factor is finding a form of exercise that works for each individual, whether it’s walking, working out more at the gym or some other activity, Halpin said.

Rob Spencer, the night chef at David’s, said he and his co-workers “pull food out of each others’ mouth” to help each other stay on track.

Spencer’s weight-loss goal is the largest. He’s not sure he’s going to be able to lose all 60 pounds in 90 days – he’s lost 9 pounds so far – but he hopes to get rid of most of it. He got off to a slow start, and then about the fourth week suddenly dropped a lot of weight and won the weekly prize.

NO MORE NIGHTLY ICE CREAM

Spencer, who started at 290 pounds, said he’s just been cutting back, choosing more low-fat options and eating more salads.

“My nightly ritual of a bowl of ice cream before bed is gone right now,” he said.

Spencer bought an elliptical trainer for his home, and is playing table tennis and other games on his Xbox Kinect. “Plus, going up and down the stairs here a hundred times a day is pretty good,” he said.

Spencer says he felt better after losing a little weight, and has noticed he has more energy and is not as tired. He’s also noticed it’s easier for staffers to squeeze by each other in the kitchen.

Tom Cote, who started at 221 pounds, was not the biggest fan of the Biggest Loser challenge when his boss announced it.

“I didn’t really feel like going through it because I didn’t want to be miserable and hungry for 12 weeks,” Cote said. “Then, once I got into it, I decided if I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it right and get it over with. The challenge is going to be to continue eating healthier.”

Cote (whose weaknesses are Doritos and whoopie pies) has switched to salads. He also eats the low-calorie, low-fat and low-carbohydrate entrees David’s has been putting on the menu every day as the “Biggest Loser Special” so customers can join in the waste-watching.

His biggest problem is psychological. Cote can eat a “giant, beautiful salad” but when he’s done he automatically thinks “OK, where’s the ribeye?”

“Until I get the meat, potatoes and gravy,” he said, “I’m not quite happy.”

Cote’s hardest day came two weeks ago, when he was home, “starving to death, laying on the couch, miserable.”

“Five o’clock at night I wanted something to eat,” Cote said. “If I go to 7-11, I’m going to get something I shouldn’t. So I ate a one-pound bag of peas with salt and pepper for supper.”

David Rosenthal, 42, is a bartender and server at David’s who is one of the “little losers.” He has already achieved his goal weight by losing 13 pounds.

DOING YOUR HOMEWORK

Rosenthal’s strategy has been to research foods and read labels. “I started looking up what I ate,” he said, “and I realized that I didn’t think I had a sweet tooth, but everything has sugar in it, all the processed stuff.”

Now Rosenthal tries to control the amount of added sugar in his food, and instead of grabbing for a bag of chips to quiet his growling stomach, he’ll choose a piece of fruit. He also drinks yerba mate every day and is convinced the South American drink has helped rev up his metabolism.

“I think it’s been great team building,” Rosenthal said of the competition. “It’s given us something to talk about and all work together for. I didn’t know if I could do it because I have never tried to lose weight on any level, but it’s been great. And it’s something I can sustain.”

For his part, Turin has a home gym and has been working out more there. He also bought an app for his iPhone that helps him keep track of how many calories he’s consuming and burning.

The leftover pizza at David’s now goes to a local teen center.

The weight loss challenge has changed the way the restaurant’s chefs think about food. They’re trying to be more aware of the fat and calories that go into each dish. The restaurant is in the process of writing new menus, and the new lunch menu will have calorie counts listed on it. The new dinner menu may have them as well.

One thing that will definitely be lighter in the months to come is David Turin’s bank account, as his employees cash in on their weight-loss success. Spencer says he plans to use the money for the down payment on a new car. Cote says he’ll probably use it to pay some bills.

“I like to put my money where my mouth is,” Turin said. “And as a business owner, I kind of feel like (the contest) is a selfish move too, because I know that if I can have healthier people I’m going to end up enjoying more energy and better attitudes and better work ethic and all that. We’ve been at it for four weeks now, and I can’t even tell you how much change there’s been in the spirit of people who are getting a little lighter.

“It’s been really quite surprising.”

 

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: [email protected]