On the evening of January 3, 2012, Rocco Whalen marched into his Tremont restaurant Fahrenheit, where he was greeted by a packed house of family, friends, staff, and colleagues. As Food Network film crews taped the proceedings, Whalen stepped onto a floor scale for a final weigh-in.
Half a year earlier, the 34-year-old chef weighed north of 400 pounds. He suffered from high blood pressure, type-2 diabetes, and sleep apnea. Despite his outwardly fun-loving demeanor, Whalen was miserable.
"I was just too fucking fat," he readily admits.
When Fat Chef begins airing on January 26, it will expose Whalen's less-than-lithe physique to millions of television viewers. The show will follow 12 obese chefs (including Cleveland-based Kimberly McCune Gibson) as they attempt to shed weight by working alongside fitness experts.
"It's humbling to take your shirt off in front of everybody," Whalen says. "But I had nothing to be afraid of. All I had to lose was the weight."
Though the show began taping in September 2011, Whalen's journey actually began in July. That's when he filmed his audition tape, a video confessional that lays bare the chef's hopes, dreams, embarrassments, and failures. In that tape, Whalen describes the humiliation that comes with waiting in line for a roller coaster, only to be turned away at the ride because you just don't fit. Asking for a seatbelt extender on an airplane, says the well-traveled chef, "is like wearing a scarlet letter." So he purchased his own from a catalog that caters to the "XL lifestyle."
At times in the video, Whalen makes light of his situation, as is his nature. But he also turns deadly serious: "I want to know that I'll be around to take care of my family," he utters at one point.
Whalen describes his issues with weight as a lifelong struggle. He's tried Jenny Craig, Richard Simmons — you name it. The most weight he had ever lost was 50 pounds — "only to put 70 back on." But it was the untimely death of his mother Rose Marie six years ago that seemed to send him in a food-obsessed tailspin.
"Everybody has a vice, and Rocco's was clearly eating," says Alexis Dankovich, Whalen's supportive wife of almost two years. "He never really dealt with the emotions of his mom's death."
Dankovich says the newlyweds had numerous heart-to-hearts about Whalen's weight, but there was one in particular that seemed to stick. Fahrenheit's newly installed security system streams a live video feed to any computer. Watching Whalen work in the restaurant kitchen from her home, Dankovich took note of all the food that made its way into the chef's maw.
"He really didn't recognize what he was doing all day," his wife explains. "That was the turning point. He said, 'I really want to get healthy.' And he found the courage and commitment from within to do so."
For the show, Whalen was paired with Brett Hoebel, a Los Angeles-based fitness expert who regularly works with celebrities and supermodels. The two had never met before the taping began, but based on glimpses of Whalen on local TV, the trainer had a good feeling about working with the Cleveland chef.
"I could tell he was a very energetic and charismatic guy," recalls Hoebel, who was a featured trainer on The Biggest Loser. "My gut instinct was that we would be a good match."
Hoebel has made a niche for himself dealing with morbidly obese clients, and while no shrink, he has enough experience to know there's usually an emotional reason why people engage in self-destructive behavior. Clients who recognize that up front, says Hoebel, will be more successful down the road.
"The more emotionally invested a person is in their goal, the faster they will get there, and the longer they will hold on to it," Hoebel explains. "Those who gain the weight back probably didn't choose the goal for the right reason or they weren't emotionally invested in it."
For his part, Whalen says that he fully bought into the program. "I treated the words of my trainer like they were gospel. I wanted to be his best student. I was going to hit my goal."
The workouts started slowly. Once-a-day balance and stabilization sessions gave way to twice-a-day strength and endurance sessions. As Whalen got stronger, the team added metabolic resistance and high-intensity interval training. Workouts took place at 4:30 in the morning and 9:30 at night. For lunch, Whalen would spar, do mixed martial arts, or take a run on the beach.
Working out three hours a day, Whalen was burning between 3,000 and 7,000 calories daily. During the first 50 days, he averaged a pound of weight loss every 24 hours. Combined with the 40 he had dropped in the lead-up to taping, Whalen was one of the few contestants on Fat Chef who seemed destined to reach his goal.
To help get there, Whalen and Hoebel came up with a saying — a personal mantra that powered the team through the grueling workouts: "There are three things that will get you out of bed in the morning: love, debt, and fire in your belly." Whalen now had all three.
But even as Whalen melted away like Frosty the Snowman in Phoenix, he remained reluctant to express even the slightest bit of joy. "Every time I tried celebrating a milestone in terms of his weight loss he would say, 'I'm not happy yet,'" says Dankovich. "He was incredibly focused and driven."
Along with the grueling workouts came a wholesale change in diet. Gone are the pizzas, pastas, cheeses, and sweets that are the hallmark of Fahrenheit's menu. So, too, are flour, butter, cream, salt, sugar, and even relatively high-calorie veggies like beets and carrots. Whalen hasn't had a beer or glass of wine in five months. For him, a total splurge is one ounce of low-fat cheese.
"Not a day goes by that I don't dream about pizza and pasta," says the chef. But these days, he eats only steamed fish, chicken, and pork loin, accompanied by greens like kale, spinach, and broccoli. Quinoa, lentils, and black beans stand in for potatoes and rice.
Whatever Whalen is doing, it's working. When he stepped on the scale on January 3, his weight was 256 pounds — almost 150 pounds shy of his peak. He lost 85 pounds during the four-month period that the show taped — and he says he isn't stopping until he hits 220. The diabetes is gone, and he's off his blood pressure meds.
"Weight loss has given me a new lease on life," says Whalen. "Once you get to the top of the mountain, you never want to go back down."
Whalen, who previously had refused to shop for properly fitting clothes — going so far as to punch new holes in his size 44 belt — finally agreed to let his wife take him shopping. The pair went to Nordstrom on New Year's Day to scare up a new outfit for the Fat Chef finale.
"He grabbed a shirt and tried it on," recalls Dankovich. "He started to smile, and I started to cry. It was the first time he was able to try something off the rack and have it fit. Then he was encouraged to try on more clothes, and before you knew it, we spent $1,000!"