The chef who actually needs to put on weight

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Chefs usually have to watch what they eat to avoid becoming portly, but one of the country’s best-known cooks is currently experiencing the opposite problem: he is struggling to put on weight.

Tom Aikens needs to bulk out his wiry frame to ensure he finishes a 151-mile run in blistering temperatures through the Sahara desert in Morocco.

In April the Michelin-starred chef will take part in the Marathon des Sables, Marathon of the Sands, regarded as one of the world’s most arduous physical challenges.

He will run the equivalent of five and a half marathons in six days while carrying a packback of 12 to 14 kilos (26 to 30lbs) containing almost everything he needs to survive, including food, snacks, camping stove, skettle, sleeping bag and first aid kit. Organisers nightly put up tents for the 700 runners to huddle under as temperatures dip to freezing.

As part of his preparations, Aikens – whose previous experience was confined to a 10-mile jog – is running 60 miles a week between running his two restaurants in Chelsea, London, the bistro-style Tom’s Kitchen and the Tom Aikens in Chelsea.

Like most top chefs, his lifestyle could already be described as gruelling, starting work at 7am and finishing at 11pm after dinner. Now he also pounds the treadmill at the gym during the afternoon and goes on long runs on days off, having completed a 48-mile jaunt in Hertfordshire on Monday.

He aims to add two kilos to his 70-kilo (11 stone) body weight in order to ensure he has enough fat to burn in the desert, but is finding it difficult despite eating four meals a day and drinking high-calorie protein shakes.

Running between 13 and 50 miles in the desert, he expects to expend 6,000 and 9,000 calories a day. Surfaces are mostly uneven rock but 15-20 per cent is on especially hard-going sand dunes.

Arguably the only advantage he will have except for determination is the heat: his kitchen career should help him cope with temperatures of up to 120F.

Aikens, whose restaurant empire was rescued by investors after collapsing in 2008, consulted a doctor as to whether his 5-ft 9-inch body was strong enough for the event, having undergone a knee operation six years ago.

He hopes to raise between £10,000 and £12,000 for the Facing Africa charity, which combats Noma, a gangrenous infection which eats away faces in sub-Saharan Africa. Antibiotics can treat the virulent infection at the early stages but, once firmly rooted, there is no cure. Facing Africa funds facial reconstruction for reconstructive surgery for survivors, whose disfigurement leads to eating problems and social isolation.

Aikens said: “It’s pretty horiffic, particularly for children. Ninety per cent of the people who get the disease die. People need to be a bit more aware of it because I can’t believe we live in a world where people don’t know about this kind of disease.”

He is appealing for donations through a social networking sites and by writing hand-written letters to wealthy customers and celebrities. “You can only write and if they say yes, that’s great,” he said.

In undertaking what is billed as “The world’s toughest footrace”, Aikens, 39, is taking to an extreme a pursuit popular among his fellow chefs. Gordon Ramsay, Heston Blumenthal and Michel Roux Junior are all keen runners.

Aikens explained he ran partly because he believed that in an age of healthy eating he should keep himself trim. Chefs tended to be unusual individuals with large amounts of physical and nervous energy, he explained: “A lot of chefs are strange and weird because what we do is physically and mentally demanding. We’re hyper, hyper.”

Donations can be made via Tom Aikens’ Facebook page.

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