Born Hungry

Chef Matthew Jennings is out to save his own life.

May 26, 2016 ● 4 min read

Addiction and dependency have always run in my circles.  

I grew up with addiction around me, saw it in my peers. Alcohol and drugs never really interested me that much, and it took me until this year to realize that my addiction manifested in a different form: food.   

Because of what I do for a living, I excused myself. I told myself I was fat because I’m a chef, because I ate whatever I wanted, when I wanted to, and that was ok. While there hasn’t been a day that has gone by in my life when I haven’t thought about my weight, I never considered it anything but...normal. Never trust a skinny chef, right? I was a card-carrying member of the ‘don’t give a fuck’ club, yo-yoing back and forth between diets, trainers, gyms, meal subscription services. I’d lose 15, and gain back 20. 

But it’s not ok. It's not normal.

There’s this hormone, ghrelin, that lives in the stomach, quietly generating feelings of hunger and appetite. Studies have shown it to be up to 10 times more powerful than heroin — and I have a lot of it. My doctors tell me that my over-active pituitary gland (that’s command central for the endocrine system, kids) and low levels of testosterone have formed a deadly alliance where ghrelin production is concerned. Since the chances of me winning against this potent hormone are very slim (no pun intended), I have made the decision to have a sleeve gastrectomy. Surgeons will remove 85% of my stomach, leaving behind a pouch the size of a banana, virtually eliminating the ghrelin build-up from my body.

I will be able to eat no more than two to three ounces at a time.

I’ve had a good run. I've eaten 20-ounce rib eyes by myself. I’ve consumed whole roasted lobes of foie gras, smothered in maple syrup. Giant burgers. Enough cheese to clog the arteries of 10 men. Enough cured meats to pickle and preserve myself from the inside out. Bottles of wine at a time. Beer in excess. 12 packs, 20 pieces, sliders, and combos. I have done it all, from one side of the world to the other; I’ve downed goat and crocodile in Africa, slurped my way through Asian noodle shops, consumed truckloads of pasta in Italy, farmhouse cheeses and ales in the UK, tacos for days in a row in Mexico. I have eaten the world and back.

So the late nights of blowout dim sum feasts and food festival gluttony are over. I already mourn for the significant cultural implications of my chosen profession. Will I still be able to hang out with my chef friends and eat? Will my taste buds change? Will I even have the desire to be around food or to cook? I’ve spoken to chefs who have gone through this, and they assure me there will be many upsides to my new relationship to food; sharper focus, higher creativity, more appreciation. That helps.

What I know with absolute certainty is that I have do what is best for my family—my wife and boys—and ultimately, my life.

People who don’t have this disease don’t realize how it affects your day-to-day life. They don’t think about being forced to buy your clothes at Big & Tall stores. They don’t think about how nerve-racking it is to wait for a plane and wonder if the seatbelt will be long enough. They don’t think about what it’s like to operate on an average of two hours of sleep because their sleep apnea is so bad, and then get up the next day and function at a demanding, high level.

Well, I do. My sickness is consuming. Ever-prevalent. It’s my shadow, and I’m tired of it. I need a change, a jumpstart on a healthy lifestyle. There is still a lot I want to do, and I need the energy, stamina, focus and resiliency to do it. There are restaurants to open, children to watch grow. My entire life has been about me, caught up in the ego-vortex of a young, indestructible chef: it’s time to get real.

This has been the hardest discovery of self I have ever made. It is still hard to talk about, to say out loud, but I know I have to try and make this my new normal. Too often this subject remains taboo, only spoken in hushed tones behind closed doors. That’s not going to work for me. I don’t want it to define me—but I don’t want it to be my secret either. The status quo is changing, and we should be talking about these things.

This surgery is not the easy way out. This is a lifestyle change. A journey. A huge fucking commitment that, at this exact moment in time, I’m not even sure I can make. But I have to try. My life depends on it.

I was born hungry. As a baby, I had feeding issues. I couldn’t latch on my mother. Together we struggled for months at a time. I would scream all night because I hadn’t gotten enough to eat, and my mother would lie in bed and cry herself to sleep, feeling like she couldn’t provide her newborn son the sustenance he needed. When she finally decided to ask for help, I was given formula. That’s when the real feeding began; my mother told me often I would attack a bottle like a wild animal, continuing to suckle long after all the formula was gone. 

This is an opportunity to re-set my internal clock and start from scratch with healthy habits. I hope I can do it. My surgery is tomorrow. I’m terrified, and angry — angry at myself for getting to the point where I have to physically change my body because I didn’t take care of it. Angry because I have no one else to blame and now, no one else to rely on. It’s time.

Live long. Love hard. Thanks for listening.          

Chef Matthew Jennings | Townsman, Boston | Photo via Huge Galdones Photography