“I was high as a kite in that picture,” chef Michael Lachowicz said, pointing to a photo tacked on the kitchen wall at his Restaurant Michael in Winnetka.
It was taken seven years ago, when he was about 200 pounds heavier. He’s hardly recognizable.
What the camera and viewer can’t tell by looking, what his customers didn’t know then, what isn’t apparent in the elegant French food he’s built his career on is that, as he says, he also was an addict, an absentee chef relying on, and often lying to, his staff to keep the restaurant going while he went on fast-food and pill benders chased by Scotch.
Lachowicz, 47, keeps that photo up as a reminder of a time and place he hopes never to revisit.
His story of hitting bottom and finding his way back up has been told before, most recently in People magazine’s Half Their Size issue in January. But Lachowicz says he doesn’t tire of telling it, maybe because it hasn’t yet ended.
“I’m not cured,” he said.
His new “Flavor Fit” menu sounds like a gimmick for North Shore socialites, but it’s his most personal yet, reflecting his healthier lifestyle absent the butter and guilt. The three-course, $63 menu is under 800 calories and 30 grams of fat. Available Fridays, it changes monthly.
“It’s a win-win. You get to [eat] responsibly, I get to have you as a guest,” he said.
Lachowicz’s Italian-Polish upbringing practically demanded a love of food. His grandfather and uncle, both named George, were chefs. (George Trois, his tasting-menu-only restaurant within Restaurant Michael, is an homage to them.)
Still, even at age 4 he recalls thinking of food as “a substance to keep myself from feeling the way I don’t want to feel.”
He didn’t touch alcohol until culinary school. Painkillers — Vicodin, Norco, morphine, in that order — came later.
“I had three doctors I was dope-fiending for scrips, and then I got a dealer. When that happened, that was it, all bets were off, because he delivered,” he said.
The pounds accumulated, not from eating foie gras and other fine foodstuffs, but cheap grease: Italian beef sandwiches, pizza, burgers.
“Ten [thousand] to 12,000 calories of day of garbage,” he said.
His addictions fed off each other. When he opened Restaurant Michael in 2005, he said, “I was far-progressed. Drinking made the drugs more potent because at a certain point, you don’t get high. You just get not sick.”
He was 432 pounds at his heaviest, unable to step onto a CTA bus.
That peak, in 2011, was also his low. His grandfather, with whom he was especially close, died in January. Then, on March 17, his dealer didn’t show.
“I panicked,” said Lachowicz. He was on the floor, scrounging for pills. Unable to get up, he could only reach his laptop. In that moment, afraid he’d die, he Googled “rehab.”
After a four-day detox, Lachowicz started a 28-day rehab program and partnered with a personal trainer, Nathan Masters. Masters remembers the chef’s “big, long ponytail” from their first meeting but even more, his attitude.
“He was interested in just cutting all the b.s. and getting right to work,” Masters said.
Ironically, because Lachowicz was so heavy, it didn’t take much for the pounds to start dropping.
“The body itself is acting as a weight,” Masters said. “Pretty much everything you do becomes intense exercise.”
Lachowicz’s early regimen consisted of walking, stairs and rolling and lifting medicine balls. Masters added weights and upped the sessions from two to four days a week. Lachowicz lost 140 pounds with Masters and 60 more on his own.
His diet was most crucial to losing weight, says Masters. They’d agreed he would eat 1,800 to 2,000 calories daily, and he stuck to it. He still does.
“The sheer lack of deviation of the man is really something I haven’t witnessed,” Masters says.
That focus, and fear of his addictions, keep him clean.
“The one I’m most afraid of today is food, because I don’t want to feel that way again, and when I feel that way, I feel obligated to not feel that way. And the best way I know how to not feel that way is to get high,” said Lachowicz, married since 2014.
He cooks and portions protein-heavy meals for the week in one day, using a scale to weigh ingredients (“160 calories worth of pistachios is 40 grams”).
A typical day consists of cottage cheese with cinnamon for breakfast, tuna salad packed with celery, onion and jalapenos for lunch, and for dinner, lean ground beef, sliced avocado, pico de gallo and corn tortillas or brown rice. “Spice substitutes for fat,” he said.
He snacks on small packs of nuts, seeds and jerky. Once every three weeks, he eats whatever he wants; it used to be once a week.
Five times a week, he exercises at a gym near the restaurant, doing a mix of weights and cardio circuits. He attends 12-step recovery group meetings as frequently.
On a recent Thursday, a tank top-sporting Lachowicz was in the kitchen, fresh off a workout. A group of banking executives was due in two hours for a private, seven-course dinner.
It was comfortably quiet as Lachowicz cut gnocchi dough while directing a young cook who looked barely older than he was in his first kitchen job at 17.
“I get to cook now. It’s f–ing awesome,” Lachowicz said. “Before, I had to go to the restaurant. Now I get to go. Just getting to focus on what’s in front of me, it’s wonderful.”
Janet Rausa Fuller is a local freelance writer.
RECIPE: Chef Michael Lachowicz’s Pickled Cantaloupe Salad
2 medium cantaloupe (or honeydew) melons
1 cup superfine sugar
3/4 cup rice wine vinegar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes or 1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and split
3 mint sprigs
3 cilantro sprigs
Peel and seed the melons and cut into chunks or scoop into balls. Spoon into glass jars or containers almost to the top. Combine the rest of the ingredients in a saucepan and simmer gently until the sugar and salt are dissolved. Cool the liquid to 110 degrees and pour over the melon. Cover tightly and refrigerate for 2 to 3 days.
Add the pickled melon to a salad of roasted beets, baby greens, thinly sliced red onions or scallions, and your favorite vinaigrette or blue cheese dressing. Or eat the melon with cured ham as a snack or as a simple dessert with sorbet.
Michael Lachowicz, Restaurant Michael