Master Chef's Joe Bastianich on the Challenges and Benefits of Quitting Smoking

Photo Courtesy of Joe Bastianich
It's the New Year, and like many people, you may have a few resolutions in mind. Quitting smoking and eating healthier may seem like cliché's because they get the most hype, but the truth is they are probably the hardest goals to accomplish. Just ask renowned restaurateur and co-host of Master Chef, Joe Bastianich. Like many people in the restaurant industry, he was a heavy smoker and even got to the point where he was smoking more than two-and-a-half packs of cigarettes per day. But the good news is that he successfully quit and is now focused on treating his body well to live a full and healthy life. Here, he discusses the challenges and benefits of quitting and how it has encouraged more healthy habits in other aspects of his life.

JL: One of your objectives is to obtain a healthy balance in your daily life; what are the most important ways you do that?
Joe Bastianich: It’s all about moderation and being sensible. Eat less processed food and more natural foods. And, make a commitment to an active lifestyle. It helps if you find a form of exercise you love to do.

JL: Why do you think it is that so many in the food industry smoke when it's been shown to dull taste and make food less palatable?
JB: It’s a combination of factors– the late nights, the long hours, being around triggers like food and wine. Smoking becomes a crutch and a reward for so many people. And when there is such a high percentage of people smoking, it makes it hard to quit when you’re surrounded by it. It becomes part of the workday norm.

JL: Like many in the restaurant industry, you were once a heavy smoker, though have now successfully quit. Did you find your taste buds and sense of smell were affected by the habit?
JB: I did. It was significantly dulling my sense of taste and smell, and it was getting worse the older I got. When I quit smoking, these senses started to come back almost immediately.

JL: Has any ingredient surprised you by tasting differently or perhaps more vividly since quitting smoking?
JB: Everything was much more potent.

JL: Was quitting smoking difficult for you? What was the hardest part and what helped you maintain motivation?
JB: It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done- if not the hardest. They say nicotine is more addictive than heroin- I'm not sure if that is true but I can’t imagine enduring worse cravings than what I felt for cigarettes in the past. For me, NicoDerm patches really helped with the physical urge. Being open about wanting to quit to my family, friends, and co-workers also helped kill the habitual addiction during social situations. The pressure was on to not cave and let everyone down.

JL: What words of advice can you give to someone— particularly a "foodie" or chef of any level— in terms of the "how" and "why" of quitting?
JB: If you love food, taste and smell are essential whether you’re in the restaurant business or not. For those in the industry, preserving your palate is key. When you quit, you’ll notice these senses become sharper almost immediately. Also, the decision to quit can be overwhelming. My advice would be to approach this in digestible bites of time. Thinking about never having a cigarette again is not encouraging for most people. I really like what GSK and Walmart are doing with the Blueprint to Quit program, and I’m proud to partner with them on this.

JL: You say that the world is comprised of two different types of people: those who are Italian and those who want to be Italian. What is it about Italian culture, food, and wine that people are so drawn to?
JB: Italians have been getting it right for a long time, and here in the U.S. we are just starting to catch on to Italian sensibility regarding food and wine. The idea of using only the highest quality of ingredients prepared as simply as possible and celebrating what is local is nothing new in Italian culture. Italians respect and emphasize quality in their food, which sadly, we have not always had here in the U.S.

JL: What are your favorite ingredients to make a healthy Italian meal with?
JB: I’m a big believer that pasta can be a healthy and satisfying part of a healthy diet.

JL: What are the staples of your kitchen, both tool and ingredient-wise?
JB: Wine is a must. I also have this great old super heavy cast iron pan that you can cook just about anything in- I love it. Be it a steak or finishing off spaghetti pomodoro, that pan is perfect. I also have this great antique Berkel slicer which we use for charcuterie. It looks beautiful and slices everything perfectly.

JL: Besides gastronomy, what other passions do you have?
JB: My two greatest passions aside from food and restaurants are winemaking and music. I’m fortunate enough to have incorporated both of those into my life. I have three wineries in Italy and also play in a band: the Ramps.

JL: Tell us what you have coming up in your life for 2013 and what your next major "health goal" might be.
JB: I’d love to compete in the Ironman World Championships in Kona again. I finished the 2011 race in 12 hours and 31 minutes, but I know I’ve got under 12 hours in me!


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