Celebrity chef Devin Alexander is bringing a new form of luxury to Royal Caribbean cruise ship passengers: a chance to eat like a King but come back lighter and healthier than you left.
If Devin Alexander’s name isn’t quite on everyone’s lips outside her native USA just yet, her food certainly ought to be. For Devin is on a mission to make the world a slimmer place, one forbidden food at a time.
She’s not one of those formidable boot-campers or irritatingly earnest diet gurus, but an eminent and highly-personable chef who had the deceptively simple idea of taking the types of food people most want to eat and producing a healthier, lower-calorie version they’d enjoy just as much.
Which is easier said than done, of course.
But necessity is the mother of invention – in the kitchen, as in life – and Devin certainly felt the necessity so strongly as a young woman that she reinvented the world’s favourite fattening foods. Then she reinvented herself. That’s because Devin, to put it politely, was something of a human double-helping. She was walking around, or more likely waddling, with 70 pounds of excess weight. That’s like having a 10-year-old child strapped to you, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
And she wasn’t happy.
I was horribly bullied as a teenager,” she told Luxurious Magazine from her home in California. “Most girls in high school weighed about 100 pounds, but I was 200. It was like the weight of another child… I’d twinned myself!”
That seems incredible if you’re lucky enough to be able to look at Devin now. She’s slim, looks 15 years younger than she is, and is celebrated from coast to coast in the USA as a picture of health and a transformer of lives.
If you’d met her on the inaugural sailing of the Anthem Of The Seas where her new restaurant Devinly Decadence was the honeypot attraction for so many of the passengers, you’d wonder how a woman this beautiful, so full of vitality, could ever have turned into such a pudding in her youth.
“I had two Italian grandmothers who taught me how to cook when I was really young,” Devin recalls. “I literally started at four. Then I lost a few people who were close to me. I’m one of those people who is wired to turn to food. To this day I still have that instinct. Some people turn to alcohol, but I’ve never been a big drinker. I can have a whole liquor cabinet in my house and I don’t think twice about it. But if I have a cheesecake in my refrigerator, forget about it!”
She laughs at the thought, forever conscious of the battle that must be fought – a battle that began in her childhood.
“While I wanted to be active – I was a cheerleader in Little League – I went on to junior high and found there weren’t as many cheerleading spots and I didn’t make the team, which got me ostracised from my friends because they were all cheerleaders.
So while my girlfriends were cheerleading, I was home on Friday nights baking cookies. It was one of those spiral things. One tiny little thing led to another and the next thing I knew I was a great cook and I weighed 200 pounds,” she laughs, though you can sense a trace of the pain behind that laughter.
Interestingly, one of the grandmothers who taught Devin how to cook was a former Miss Pennsylvania, was in the Miss America pageant, and had won a string of other awards. Everyone told Devin she was going to be like her, adding to the pressure, and she was used to people telling her: “Oh, you have such a pretty face…” The “but” was never sounded, but Devin heard it loud and clear, nevertheless, and knew it meant “but you’re too fat”.
Devin’s pronouncements on obesity tend to be confined to the health implications – the heart attacks, diabetes, infertility – rather than the visual aspects.
“From an aesthetic standpoint I’ve never been one to care,” she says. “Some people only date guys who are ripped. I don’t really care, though I couldn’t date somebody who wasn’t living a healthy lifestyle. That’s because of what I know about disease and death and all that. Plus you want to be able to run on the beach with your kids.”
The desire to lose weight became an obsession but, like the vast majority of people’s, Devin’s efforts proved to be fruitless.
“I wanted to lose weight but I just didn’t know how. I used to go out with friends to dinner and I would be like ‘I can’t have a piece of bread, I can’t, I can’t’, and my friends would be having a real conversation while I’d be talking about bread in my own head. I’d tried dieting and all of that stuff but I was never going to give up my Italian family favourites and I was never going to give up some brownies that people are now enjoying on the Anthem Of The Seas.
“Then I heard that if you cut just 100 calories from your diet per day, on average you’d lose 10 pounds in a year. By that point I was desperate to lose weight – I really, really wanted to, and believed that I was doing everything I could, even though I knew I had no willpower.”
Then the eureka moment arrived in Devin’s life.
“I realised that I knew a ton from cooking and a ton from trying to diet,” she recalls. “I knew all about calories and all about cooking technique, so I thought, wait a second… that could be easy. And so instead of trying to throw everything I cared about and knew about out of the window, I just started turning it into a game, like where can I cut 300 or 400 calories? To this day, that’s what I do with other people. It takes a little longer that way, but you’re happy doing it. And then you’re able to maintain it.”
“I lost somewhere between 20 and 30 pounds in the first year – I wasn’t calculating it scientifically because it was never going to be my career. I had so many different aspirations,” she giggles. “We’re used to watching TV shows like The Biggest Loser, and we’re creatures who want instant gratification, so a lot of times if I have a client who’s only losing a pound a week they get frustrated.
I just have to remind them that if they set out on this diet on 1 January and wake up on 31 December, thirty pounds lighter, how excited are they going to be? They’re always like ‘Oh my God, that would be amazing’. And I say yes, that’s just a half a pound a week.”
“That’s what’s really empowering about my work. I can help anybody find out how to lose weight and how to take away the obsession. That was the biggest struggle in my teen years. I was so very competitive and always wanting to be my best. I was so angry that I was being ruled by food. How can I have no willpower, how can I do all these things and I can’t get in control of it?”
“It’s so upsetting, Then you beat yourself up and you feel bad and you look bad and you start wearing men’s flannels. If I eat before bed I can’t sleep, so then I’m sleep-deprived and binge at night and would try not to eat for half a day.
It was just a horrible, horrible vicious cycle. There were literally times when I’d see how long in a day I could go without eating and not pass out. But when I got older I realised that was the sumo wrestler diet: don’t eat all day, and eat at night. And that’s how you pack on the pounds!”
Devin says her own experience enables her to be a lot more compassionate with people and helps them feel more confident in her because she knows what they’re going through.
“Some of the contestants on the TV series The Biggest Loser were Olympic athletes who got heavy. For me, that’s a big difference to someone who’s been heavy their whole life losing the weight. It just feels it would be so much easier for the athlete.”
If Devin Alexander has a secret – and it’s hardly a secret any longer, thanks to her eight cookbooks, her one thousand TV appearances, and the thousands of articles she’s either written or been written about in – it’s taking the fattening foods that everyone enjoys and producing a lower-calorie, far healthier version that they will really want to eat.
Her books sell like hotcakes (low-calorie versions, of course) and she’s in demand all over the States and beyond as word spreads of her abilities to make any menu’s no-nos into yes-yesses and mmm-mmms. Especially for the privileged passengers on Royal Caribbean’s Anthem Of The Seas.
“I’d heard that the average person gains seven to 10 pounds per week on a cruise and I sort of felt needed,” says Devin. ‘I sometimes call myself a food fairy as a joke. I found a consultant to cruise lines and asked him to come to a tasting in my kitchen. He got Royal Caribbean interested.
Then I discovered that not only did they have a giant wellness programme within their organisation for employees, both on the ship and off, but the man who was spearheading putting these new restaurant concepts on the ships was a winner of Food & Wine Magazine’s Best New Chef award. I knew he would definitely care.
To have someone with that kind of pedigree overseeing your food on the ship means you know they’ll go that extra distance to get ingredients that make sense for your brand and so on. The staff were amazing and totally got it.
I showed them pictures of people who had lost 140 pounds or 200 pounds and told them this is what you have the power to help with. I’ll spend enough time on the ship to make sure it’s right. I feel that every person who walks into that restaurant is an opportunity for me to show them a new way of living.”
Devin was delighted with the feedback she received face-to-face on the Anthem.
“People literally said to me at the end of a meal on the ship: ‘Oh my God, I’m so glad we came here – and I have to admit I was completely resistant. My wife made me come here and I was expecting to hate it but this was the best meal we’ve had’. That, to me, is the greatest thing in the whole world because people’s minds are so closed when they hear the word healthy. We see why.
I get mad at some of the television shows where people are making things over. They’ll do a lasagne and be like ‘Oh, we’ve just substituted mushrooms with fennel seeds and called it sausage’ and I’m like ‘I’m Italian and that’s blasphemy! That is not sausage, people!’ So I go the extra mile and I take extra-lean ground pork and I season it and texturise it to make it look and taste like sausage, especially when it’s in a vehicle like a lasagne. It’s pork, not beans!
Somebody was trying to get me to make a lentil taco wrap for a job and I’m like ‘Please don’t make me! Is that what we’re going to give out in a park in the Summer and expect kids to want to eat it?’ What?”
Devin’s approach certainly seemed to go down well in her restaurant on the Anthem Of The Seas.
“A lot of people are like ‘I don’t want to eat diet food, especially on vacation’, and I’m like ‘Have you tried it?’. We have a chocolate flourless espresso cake with a raspberry on it and I make a topping that’s only six calories a tablespoon. It’s all-natural and it’s not like I’m just putting chemicals in instead of real food… it’s real food. For me, it’s what do people love, and how do I give that to them in a way that’s much better? The ‘much better’ is the lack of saturated fats and cholesterol and the fact that I get rid of as many chemicals as possible.”
We couldn’t help wondering if Devin’s success was a form of culinary revenge on the fast-food firms who made her fat, a sort of subliminal fast-feud.
But apparently not.
“It’s not an act of revenge, it’s more of a love affair in a way,” she laughs. “I just loved that stuff as a kid. I got fat on chicken from Burger King and I did love Big Macs. I have a whole book called Fast Food Fix that makes over Big Macs and a lot of those foods. The Big Mac is on the Anthem menu and I call it the Little Dev!”
Whatever she says, perhaps revenge is a dish best served on an ultra-luxurious cruise ship like the Anthem Of The Seas, in a restaurant bearing her now celebrated name…
Devin’s own experience of being super-sized courtesy of McDonald’s, Burger King, and many others, has helped her develop the self-discipline that she communicates so easily.
“I dieted for years and white-knuckled away from things I thought I wanted,” she says. “I know I can still eat something super-indulgent. One of my favourite things in the world is peanut-butter cheesecake. If I’m somewhere where they have it, I have no problem in having a bite of it – a sluice-bite I call it – because if it’s amazingly delicious I’ll eat a relatively decent-sized piece, not a huge one but a serving, and not feel guilty about it.
But if I take that bite and it’s not great then I literally, with every ounce of my being, think why would I want to eat that when I can make it so much better at home? For years it was about deprivation and ‘I can’t., I can’t, I can’t’, but now it’s all about an empowered choice like ‘Why would I want that?’ – and I really believe that.”
But is there, we wonder? A food that even Devin can’t produce a healthier, less fattening version of?
She chews it over for a moment, then responds.
“There are a couple of categories of food that are really tough. Cakes and all that stuff are super-easy. I can deliver them with no problem. I have a naked apple tart that is like a gooey apple-pie filling, but to get the crust exactly like a pie crust is not really possible because it’s basically butter and flour.
I can make some cookies, but a traditional chocolate chip cookie? Every time I see somebody else make a, quote, low-fat cookie, I always try the recipe and think really, do they know how to do it? They don’t! So I always call them ‘cakies’, because you can make something in the shape of a chocolate chip cookie, but they’re always cakier. You can’t get the density right. I could do it if I added a lot of sugar, but that’s not what I’m about. You need butter or sugar to get the crispiness of a cookie.
Fried food is another category. I make buffalo wings that are delicious, but you’re not going to be tricked! I make a potato chip crusted chicken that pretty much everybody loves, though it’s not exactly like fried chicken. But I can make burgers that you’ll be like ‘No way!’ And desserts. There are so many things I can make that are shockingly leaner, but some that are not quite good enough yet.”
There are whole industries out there, devoted to fattening us up, who will be mightily glad to hear that.
But what, we enquired, would Devin’s life have been like if she hadn’t woken up one day and decided to lose those 70 pounds? What if she’d kept it on, or even put more on like so many millions of Americans continue to do?
“It’s horrifying for me to think about,” says Devin. “I think I would probably weigh 400 pounds if I was still on that path because for me it was the same thing that so many people struggle with: ‘Okay, I’m going to start a diet on Monday’. The amount of diets you’ve been on before is inversely proportionate to how long you’ll stick to one. If I’ve been on one diet before, maybe I’ll make it for a month.
If I’ve been on 50, then chances are I’ll make it like three days. And because you know you’ve failed so many times – even, say, 30 times – you know you’re going to fail at some point, so you just do. Early in my career everybody was telling me that nobody cared or wanted help with food. I’ve been on TV consistently for 10 years and my first national live appearance was on Good Morning America on New Year’s Eve in 2004. That was the big one that was make or break. If I’d tanked, I’d probably be writing cookbooks in a closet right now!”
We put it to Devin that if she’d helped hundreds of millions of people and they’d each lost, say, 10 pounds, she’s single-handedly reduced America’s obesity problem by the equivalent weight of Mount Rushmore, Presidents’ – heads included.
For once, she has no answer, other than a gale of delightfully feminine laughter. But we both agree that anyone who disputes that estimate should show us their workings-out. And anyhow, it seems close enough.
So, apart from having a new restaurant on one of the most luxurious cruise ships afloat, backed by a cruise line that really cares about its passengers’ waistlines and health, what does Devin regard as a luxury in her own life?
“I’m really blessed,” she says. “I have an amazing house, not far from the beach. That’s my ultimate luxury. And when I come home from a trip, the greatest thing is the smell of the salt air when I walk in my house.
To be able to have my current house and experience that every time I come home makes me feel great. I’ve never been a fancy car person, to be honest. To me, luxury’s all about amazing travel experiences and having a home I’m proud of and love to come home to. So many women are into clothes and shoes and stuff, but I don’t care about that. I’m into jewellery!”
Which seems appropriate from a woman who looks like a million dollars.
And for someone who has achieved so much and transformed countless lives, Devin is remarkably modest.
She doesn’t boast about her possessions, her bank account or her phenomenal fame, but takes a quiet and understandable pride in her own transformation, and the effects her work has on other people.
“If you were to do a survey of all 15-year-olds’ medical histories, I would probably have been in the least healthy one per cent, especially back then. But fast-forward to now, and if you did the same study, I would probably be in the healthiest one per cent. For me to have the body image that I have… well, I’m not perfect.
I don’t walk around saying ‘Oh I’m gorgeous’ or anything, but I don’t feel bad about myself. I don’t go to the gym for hours on end. I play beach tennis at the weekend, which is my favourite thing in the whole world, and I run some and I do a class called Hoopnotica. It’s like a hula-hoop class – a super-elegant workout. I do fun things like that.”
“The coolest part about my career is sitting at dinner and getting an amazing e-mail from someone. One was from a woman who said I singlehandedly saved her marriage.
It brought me to tears as she went on to say that her husband had always been able to eat whatever he wanted, which was a huge frustration for her because she was cooking him one meal, the kids another meal, and herself a different meal again, and she secretly resented him all the while and didn’t realise how much until she got my book and all the family was finally able to eat the same thing.
She eats less these days, but now she cooks only one meal, so she’s doing one set of dishes, she has time to go to the gym, and she’s eating the same as her husband eats.”
That, it seems, is the recipe for a happy marriage – just one of Devin Alexander’s many recipes for making people thinner, healthier and happier.
And for those considering a luxury cruise, it must be a weight off their mind to know that, thanks to Royal Caribbean and Devin Alexander, they could actually come back lighter and healthier than they went.