Chef Jeff Tunks has always been a big guy, but he used to be a lot bigger. Several years ago, he weighed in at 375 pounds. For someone who works 70 to 80 hours a week on his feet, that burden eventually became too great to bear and his body rebelled.
"I ruptured a disc in my back while at work and had to have surgery," says Tunks, 54, who -- together with his two partners in Passion Food LLC -- runs more than seven restaurants in the Washington, D.C., area. "That's what triggered the realization that I needed to do something to change my lifestyle and take some pounds off, not only to preserve my career but to be a better father."
The 6-foot-3 Tunks dropped about 130 pounds and has since kept it off. "My motivation now is my wardrobe," says Tunks, a single father with joint custody of two teenage boys, Jordan and Bradley, whom he cooks for -- and sometimes with -- three evenings a week.
"I bought all new clothes, and all my old stuff went to the Salvation Army and Goodwill. For me, it's not what the scale says but how my clothes feel."
Tunks mastered new habits that help him control his weight. He's learned to love exercise. It helps that his fiancée happens to be a triathlete. "I'm not built for running, but I do like cycling," Tunks says. "We try to focus our vacations on biking." This past summer, they two-wheeled through Provence in France.
PassionFish Bethesda, just north of D.C., serves sushi and features an abundant raw bar and several catches of the day. Tunks shares the recipe for the restaurant's most popular dish, the grilled whole branzino.
"Any time you have a whole fish, its flavor is just richer and deeper than a piece of boneless, skinless fish," he says. "It's really simple to do, and the skin keeps it moist, so it's hard to overcook."
Grilled Whole Branzino
Makes 4 servings
1½ lb branzino, scaled and gutted, head on (if you can't find branzino, look for a whole red snapper or small rockfish)
1 tbsp chopped parsley
4 round lemon slices
1 tbsp sliced scallions
1 tbsp fresh chopped thyme
¼ cup julienned fennel bulb
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 tsp extra virgin olive oil plus olive oil to finish garnish: fennel fronds, lemon wedge, coarse sea salt (preferably Maldon) to taste
1. Stuff the cavity of the clean fish with parsley, lemon, scallions, thyme, and fennel. Add salt and pepper in the cavity and surrounding the fish. Drizzle the fish lightly with the olive oil.
2. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Heat a grill pan on medium-high, lightly spray the whole fish with nonstick spray, then sear it on both sides. Transfer fish to a baking sheet and cook in the oven 8-10 minutes. It's done when the thickest part of the fillet around the head feels firm to the touch.
3. After it has cooked through, remove fish from the oven and place on a serving plate. Garnish with fennel fronds, a big wedge of fresh lemon, and a sprinkling of coarse sea salt. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and serve.
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