Chefs compete in a 'Biggest Loser'-style weight loss challenge

Professional chefs aren’t generally shining examples of good health. Grueling hours and their proximity to rich food make it hard for culinary stars to stay in shape.

But starting next week, 12 pre-eminent Miami chefs and one Washington, D.C. all-star are going scale-to-scale in a weight loss battle royal. Dubbed Fit to Fight, the challenge will pit culinarians, led by Mike Isabella of “Top Chef” fame, against each other, “Biggest Loser” style – and all for a good cause.

“We work a lot of odd hours. Nights, weekends, holidays. We’re around food and beverages, alcohol. If you work a long shift – 12, 13, 14 hours – you don’t always have time to work out.”

— Chef Mike Isabella

The contest is modeled after last year’s Fit for Hope challenge in Washington, where more than a dozen chefs, including Isabella, worked to lose weight for 12 weeks. Their efforts raised more than $30,000 for the American Cancer Society. Isabella didn’t win, but he was inspired to bring the challenge back and join the throwdown again – this time in Miami.

Click through the slideshow above and get to know the chefs.

“We raised a lot of money for a great cause and helped chefs get in shape, and we were looking to do it again,” says Isabella. “I lost a bunch of weight by really watching what I was eating, exercising, going to the gym to work out, riding my bike to go to work instead of my scooter – pushing myself a little more.”

The soon-to-launch Miami installment is collecting funds for Live To Fight, a non-profit started by martial arts enthusiast Kristen Brown, a cancer survivor. She and her board of directors (which includes Anthony Bourdain’s wife, MMA fighter Ottavia Bourdain) offer support to those in the martial arts and mixed martial arts communities facing life-threatening illnesses. Each chef is asked to raise a minimum of $1,500.

On Monday, participating chefs and foodies gathered at Tongue & Cheek, the chic Miami Beach eatery owned by chef Jamie DeRosa, the Miami regional challenge host. Contestants had an initial weigh-in, shot a series of “before” photos and indulged in what DeRosa called a “last night of gluttony.”

So why Miami and not, say, New York?

“It seemed like something we could do here. Miami is really starting to be a serious player,” DeRosa says. “We have a community now, we have chefs that support each other, we have restaurants that look out for each other.”

The competition kicks off on July 7 and will run for 12 weeks. (You can follow the chefs' progress at and on their site.)  On Sept. 29, a winner will be named at the closing event. In addition to bragging rights, the champ will receive a yet-to-be-decided prize and, even more importantly, a healthier approach to life, as the challenge is designed to help chefs find ways to incorporate healthy habits into their tight schedules and hectic lifestyles.

“We work a lot of odd hours,” Isabella says. “Nights, weekends, holidays. We’re around food and beverages, alcohol. If you work a long shift – 12, 13, 14 hours – you don’t always have time to work out.”

“You’re really doing things for other people all day long, whether it’s your staff or your guests – you kind of forget about yourself,” DeRosa adds.

Chef Dena Marino, who runs Miami’s MC Kitchen with her husband, Marcus Wade is the only female competitor. She works six days a week, 16 to 17 hours a day, and has a 7-year-old son. Between mom duties and working, she says she barely has time to drink a cup of coffee in the morning, much less eat breakfast.

“I’m probably at least 30 pounds over the weight that I should be and completely eat the wrong foods at the wrong times and never sit down and have a meal,” she says. “Always running and picking. We’re around amazing foods all day, but we never eat.”

Now she’s looking forward to the competition.

“I was thinking, being the only female, these guys are cocky, they’re already going back and forth on Twitter: Who’s going to kick whose butt. I’m going to take them all!” Marino said, laughing.

Isabella’s brother Ben, a certified strength and conditioning coach who owns a gym in New Jersey, is overseeing the program and working with Miami trainers and facilities to provide opportunities for the chefs to get moving.

In keeping with the charity of choice, mixed martial arts will definitely play a role. “It’s fun, it’s engaging. It’s something different all the time, versus a treadmill or bike,” Ben says.

All competitors will receive nutritional guidelines and counseling. “We’re basically putting together a smorgasbord of options so they can select and do what’s most comfortable for them,” Ben says.

But the competitors will decide how to use the assets they’re given.

“The one thing I want them to do is really have fun with it, just really enjoy the experience,” Mike says. “Bringing all the chefs together, doing something special for a good cause and losing weight – it’s really fun. I don’t want them to be too serious.”