HYDE PARK, N.Y. — At the nation's top culinary school, indulgence is unavoidable. Students taste-test every sumptuous dish, be it hollandaise sauce, duck-liver pate or creme brulee.
Not surprisingly, keeping lean in a field fraught with cream and pastries is tricky. And increasingly, disciples of professional cooking are loath to have their bodies betray their business.
"I'm training for marathons, so it's kind of sad to see my belly larger than it used to be," complains Anthony Rabeni, who has attended the Culinary Institute of America since June. "In six weeks, I gained 15 pounds."
Fortunately for Rabeni, the school is taking to heart the physical and mental hazards inherent in professional cooking. Just 500 yards from the pastry kitchens, a $9.8 million recreation center now holds "butt and gut" classes. Stress management and fitness are required courses for students in the four-year program, whose tuition is as much as $15,400 a year.
The Culinary Institute is not alone in noticing the pitfalls of workplaces filled with souffles and wines. In Providence, R.I., Johnson & Wales also opened a recreation center in the past year on its culinary school campus.
"They used to say never trust a skinny chef," says Jeff Levine, a spokesman for the Culinary Institute. "That's just not true anymore."
The drive for workout facilities came from both students and faculty. Previously, the institute directed exercise-hungry students to the gym at Marist College, six miles away in Poughkeepsie.
In 1986, the school opened St. Andrew's Cafe, a restaurant and classroom featuring four-course meals containing fewer than than 1,200 calories.
Students then made clear they expected the highly regarded cooking school to do something for their health as well as the health of diners, says John Campbell, associate dean of student activities and recreation.
School president Ferdinand Metz, who plays tennis and hockey with students, also pushed for activities to counteract 8 a.m. wine tastings.
Now, on six days out of seven, Rabeni, who is 6 feet 1 inch tall and weighs 190 pounds, plays basketball or spends two hours sweating over weight machines. Standing in shorts and T-shirt, he was surrounded on a recent afternoon by 10 men and women waging the same battle on stationary bicycles, treadmills, and weight benches.
The 2-year-old recreation building, which offers a country club view from a hilltop next to the Hudson River, has a 25-yard swimming pool and racquetball courts. The gym is a healthy refuge on a campus where scents of butter and chocolate waft on the air.
Sherrie Tan, a student from the Philippines, said a tightening waistband sent her to the weight machines, but administrators say the tennis courts and spinning classes, with stationary bikes, help combat more than weight gain.
"The food industry has a history of drug and alcohol abuse," Campbell says. "We were just trying to show the healthy side of life."
Professional cooking also has a tradition of brutal working conditions — long hours in broiling heat — and hot-tempered co-workers.
Fritz Sonnenschmidt, the school's culinary dean, recalls being hung from a meat hook for improperly boning veal during one of his 14-hour days as an apprentice in 1949 Germany.
"Even today, when I make a mistake boning veal, I still look around," he says.
Sonnenschmidt says he saw co-workers develop arthritis that he suspects came from standing so long on concrete floors. These days, his nephew, who is also learning kitchen skills, may work no more than eight hours a day, studies with chefs who refrain from punishments as motivation and sometimes finds himself in carpeted kitchens.
Sonnenschmidt hopes the school can lead the charge for employees' health in the restaurant industry. But the late nights and pressure of kitchen work still make healthy habits tough to maintain.
"They emphasize performance in the kitchen," Dave Rosenthal, a student from West Palm Beach, Fla., says of his restaurant experience. "They really don't care what you look like."
Katherine Shepard, a chef-instructor who slimmed down 10 years ago when she began bicycling, says kitchen workers are learning they need to work off the delicacies that drew them to the job or risk their future.
"Younger chefs have taken it up to take care of themselves," she says. "Otherwise, by the time you hit 45, your legs are shot and your back is shot."
All this is not to say the Culinary Institute has undergone complete transformation. The school goes through 180 gallons of cream a week. Its Escoffier Room restaurant still prominently features foie gras among the appetizers. The fitness message is less about moderation and more about working off what the body takes in.
"Unfortunately, part of the job is we have to taste what students make," Shepard says. "The flip side is you put in a little extra time at the gym."