Take Five with Cheryl Forberg On Being the Nutritionist For “The Biggest Loser”
What you may not know is how she got that coveted job, or how superstar Chef Jeremiah Tower played a pivotal role in her making a dramatic career change, or how Darth Vader’s creator played a part along the way, too.
A few months ago, I had a chance to chat with Forberg about all of that and a whole lot more.
Q: You were a flight attendant in 1986 when Jeremiah Tower happened to be on your flight – and that experience totally changed your life?
A: Yes, it was a flight from New York to Nice. I was working economy and he was sitting in first class. I was crazy about Stars. I had his cookbook and cooked all the recipes. He was my idol.
I heard through the grapevine that he was on the flight. When I went up to meet him, he was sleeping, so I didn’t even get a chance to meet him. I had wanted to change careers for so long. It planted the seed. I couldn’t sleep that night. When I got back to New York, I went to a pay phone outside customs at the airport and called the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. And that was that. I quit my job to go to cooking school.
Q: Years later, you wrote him a thank-you note?
A: Over the years, I’ve been interviewed by so many people who ask why I became a chef. Every time, I tell that story. And each time I do, I think that I have to tell Jeremiah Tower since I never even really got to meet him. He wrote back that it was one of the nicest notes he’d ever received.
Q: After cooking school, you landed an impressive first restaurant job.
A: I was on the opening team of Postrio. That was before Wolfgang Puck had so many restaurants, so he was actually there. I trained with him on the sauté and sauces stations, before going to the pasta station, which was very, very busy, because we made everything in-house.
I learned a lot and he greatly influenced my style of cooking. But I had no aspiration to own my own restaurant. Instead, I started moonlighting for private clients in San Francisco who could afford a private chef.
Q: That led to you getting hired by someone quite famous?
A: I was referred by word of mouth to George Lucas. I was his private chef at his home for three and a half years. I cooked for him and his kids. I didn’t cook at Skywalker Ranch, but they raised vegetables there. My ‘interoffice mail’ every day from the ranch was a cooler. The gardener would send me things he’d just picked.
The kids were adventurous eaters, having traveled so much. We did a lot of homemade pasta because the kids loved to help roll it out.
Q: Did you ever cook for any Ewoks or Storm Troopers?
A: Not quite. But I did cook for Carrie Fisher. That night, George’s daughter helped set the table and she put her Princess Leia doll next to Carrie’s placemat.
Actually, I think part of the reason I got the job was because I had never seen ‘Star Wars.’
A: It’s true. When I got hired, I hadn’t seen the movie. I didn’t see it until a few years after I started working there. Maybe they realized I wasn’t some star-struck groupie, so I got the job. (laughs)
Q: Why did you leave?
A: This was during the time that he was writing the prequel to ‘Star Wars.’ When he was done, it was time to go to Tunisia to film. I decided to leave to finish up my nutrition degree. Then, I moved to Los Angeles.
I couldn’t find a job. I had a nutrition degree and a culinary degree. Nobody knew what to do with me, including myself. I didn’t know the opportunities that existed. I decided to dive into the clinical aspect of nutrition. I started working at Cedars Sinai Medical Center, doing research on women with breast cancer to see whether if women decreased the fat in their diet if that would decrease the incidence of the cancer recurring.
Q: And that somehow led to you getting hired for ‘The Biggest Loser’?
A: I was working with a dietician at UCLA, who knew the doctor for the show. It was a pilot and they were looking for a nutritionist. She introduced me, and it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time. That was 10 years ago and 16 seasons ago.
Q: Are you amazed at the show’s success?
A: I didn’t know enough about television to be nervous. We were definitely pioneers. We were the first weight-loss reality TV show. Every season, thousands of contestants apply for just a few spots on the show. People send in tapes and go to casting calls. The casting crew culls it down to a smaller number, who are flown out to Los Angeles for very comprehensive physical and psychological tests to ensure they’re able to work out and do all the things we do on the show.
I meet with the contestants. I do nutrition consultations. I talk to them about their typical eating habits, if they have a support system in place and what diets they have tried. When the cast is selected, I meet with the members and go over their calorie needs and share an eating plan that divides the calories up between protein and carbs. We try to give them as many tips as possible in the beginning because we want them to be able to use them when they go home if they are eliminated from the show early on. In some cases, they don’t cook at home at all; they just eat fast-food. I take them on a grocery store tour and share new ways to enjoy vegetables that are easy and flavorful. Most Americans don’t eat enough vegetables. I also show them how to journal their food every day. I look at everyone’s food journal every day to make sure they are getting enough protein and calories.
Q: What’s been the most gratifying part of the show for you?
A: Even though they do 99 percent of the work — and they work so hard to make these changes — if I had one tiny bit of influence, it just makes me feel so incredible to share in that experience. It’s one thing to see the physical change, but the most amazing change is from within, when they get their confidence back. They smile, they hold their head high and they feel great for the first time in a long time.
Q: Why do you think the show has captured people’s imagination?
A: People are so fascinated by dieting and losing weight. Even if they’re not ready to do it themselves, they get inspiration from the contestants. I get so much feedback through social media from viewers who want to learn more. We all want to improve our health. A lot people just don’t know how to go about it.
Q: As a country, are we eating better now? Or worse?
A: A lot of us would like to think we’re eating better. But there’s still a lot of processed food being sold.
Q: You have a new book coming out in January. What prompted you to write ‘A Small Guide to Losing Big’ (Flavor First)?
A: This book has been in my head for more than 10 years. It’s everything that I share in a nutrition consultation — from determining a calorie budget to menus to recipes to cooking and shopping tips. This isn’t just for people who are overweight. Optimally, it’s a way for the whole family to eat. It focuses on high -quality calories that promote energy and a stronger immune system.
Q: Everyone is always looking for that magic bullet to allow us to eat whatever we want yet still stay slim and healthy. What do you say to that?
A: If it were that easy, we wouldn’t have such a huge weight-loss problem in this country. It’s very important to maintain a fit lifestyle. As we get older, it helps bones stay stronger, helps us stay flexible, and keeps our mind alert. If you don’t like to run, it’s OK. Just find something you like doing and look forward to it. Whether it’s hula hooping or tap dancing. It doesn’t have to be lifting weights.
I don’t like to use the word ‘diet.’ Diet is temporary. This is always about a lifestyle change. People should just be patient and not expect to lose 5 pounds in one week. The slower it comes off, the greater the likelihood of keeping it off. One to two pounds a week is fine. Just be patient. Once you see changes, it becomes seductive and easier to keep doing it.
Q: Because you’re a nutritionist and former restaurant chef, are people afraid to eat around you or to invite you to dinner?
A: Oh, yes. One of my girlfriends asked if she was scrubbing her pan the right way. I’m not the food and cookware police. I just try to remind them that they’re a really good cook, too. Or when we go out, I sometimes have to tell people, ‘You don’t have to order a salad with dressing on side. Go for the steak if you want.’
I do have a cheeseburger now and then, too. (laughs) I don’t just eat celery sticks. I eat everything. I also exercise a lot. I know how to cook without using gallons of cream and butter. I know how to be moderate.
Q: What’s your ideal meal?
A: We call it ‘picking dinner.’ I go out into my garden and take whatever looks best that night, then make something fun with it. I do eat meat. I’m not vegan or vegetarian. I try to have a meatless day once or twice a week, but don’t always accomplish that.
Q: What food is your greatest weakness?
A: Chocolate. I do have a sweet tooth. If I’m trying to be healthy, I might just put some cocoa powder in my banana smoothie. Otherwise, I like having some really good dark chocolate. I usually try not to bake at home too much because it’s hard for me to just have one cookie or one brownie. So I’ll just go to a really good bakery and buy one. Because if it’s in the house, it’s fair game.