The child of two professional bakers, Joel Gargano, 28, a chef from Clinton, Conn., seemed destined to be in the food business. But in addition to fueling his future career, the unlimited access to sweets and pastries set him up for a childhood full of the teasing, shame and humiliation suffered by overweight children.
By the time he graduated high school, he tipped the scales at 300 pounds. “Being overweight, you’re kind of an easy target for bullies,” says Joel, who competed on a special May 30th weight-loss edition of Chopped, the Food Network cooking competition. “You are the most self-conscious person in the room. You may be large, but you still feel like you’re not there.”
Sick of feeling lousy about himself—and eager to break out of the “fat kid” mold—Joel was determined to make over his lifestyle. When he went off to pursue a culinary degree at Johnson & Wales University, he used it as an opportunity to reinvent himself.
Joel admits that his motivation for losing weight also stemmed from a desire to impress a girl—his current wife, Merica Gargano. “I had my eyes on this girl who is now my wife,” he says with a laugh. “I wanted to look better.”
Joel quit smoking and tweaked his eating habits in small yet effective ways. “I started eating better and exercising more,” he says. “I focused on being mindful and eating foods in moderation.” Over a period of four years, he gradually shed 105 pounds and whittled down to a svelte 195 pounds.
In spite of his remarkable weight loss transformation, you won’t ever hear Joel utter the word “diet.” The self-described bacon and pork belly lover doesn’t put any sweeping bans against high-fat or “decadent” foods. “I don’t swear off any foods,” the chef says. “I’ve tried diets, but I don’t think they particularly work for me.”
Instead, Joel practices portion control—if he’s craving potato chips, for instance, he’ll treat himself to a handful—and just a handful. He credits this balanced, sane approach to eating as the secret to his long-lasting weight loss success. “It’s all about everything in moderation,” he says. “What works for me is being consistent. Keeping myself busy and immersed in projects so I don’t fall off track.”
Competing on “Chopped” gave Joel the chance to prove to former classmates that he is no longer the self-conscious, overweight kid he once was. “I want to prove to my former classmates that ‘the fat kid’ made it,” he said on the show.
Although Joel didn’t take home the grand prize, he says he has no regrets about his performance on the show and is proud of his personal and professional accomplishments.
“It was about proving to myself that I could accomplish something,” he says. “If people from high school were happening to watch it, that’s just a plus. They’d see I really did something with my life—that I’m no longer the mopey, unmotivated kid they remember me as.”