Chicago chef and restaurateur Jimmy Bannos knows all about the good life. For decades, he embraced the quintessential “work hard, play hard” chef lifestyle, overindulging in luxurious meals in New York and New Orleans with colleagues and friends. “If l was with three people,” says Bannos, “I would say, ‘Give me the whole left side of the menu, and then give me half of the other side of the menu.”
Each night out helped Bannos refine his palate and develop ideas for Chicago’s first notable Cajun restaurant, Heaven on Seven. But time caught up with him. When Bannos was diagnosed at 50 with Type 2 diabetes, he knew he needed to make some drastic changes. In the last several years, he has taken control of his health and weight, and now adheres to a more modern and mindful approach. Bannos, who helped popularize Cajun cuisine beyond New Orleans, reflects on recent life-saving changes and offers advice on avoiding the road to ruin. Spoiler alert: “It’s all about balance.”
Q. What has your approach to mental and physical health looked like throughout your career?
A. This is a rough business. You have to love it, otherwise you’ll get burnt out. I never was a burnt-out kind of guy. When I owned my own restaurant, I would work 14 to 18 hours a day. It was successful, and I wanted to keep it that way. But you have to have balance. My balance was putting my family first. That’s why Heaven on Seven wasn’t open for dinner. I’d be at home by 7 or 8 p.m. every night, right when my friends were going through dinner service. I tell the kids coming up today, “If you have to go to a play or go see your daughter’s dance recital, you need to make time to do that.” I feel that you have to have that balance. It can’t be all restaurant; it can’t be all play; it can’t always be all family, either. You need a little bit of everything.
Q. When did you decide to take your health more seriously?
A. I used to weigh 320 pounds. Diabetes runs rampant in my family. My dad passed away at 74. My brother passed away at 65 from a massive heart attack due to diabetes. After that, I started carefully watching what I ate. I started working out, too. I would swim 150 laps every day, and it started working. But I had carpal tunnel syndrome by the time I was 30. I had to get back surgery soon after that. Between ages 50 and 55, I was diagnosed with diabetes, tore a meniscus in both my knees and got two hip replacements. So I just said, “Okay, I’ve got to keep on losing weight.” I’m about 230 pounds right now, and I want to get down a little bit more, but I feel great. I’ve lost close to a hundred pounds.
Q. What advice would you give to avoid health issues that could have easily cut your life short?
A. You have to start working out or do something that you enjoy. How many times have you been in the kitchen, and then all of a sudden, you’re starving, so you grab a cheeseburger, or you make something that maybe you shouldn’t eat? That’s the problem that a lot of chefs have, but the younger generation watches what they eat. I’m consulting for a restaurant right now where one of the owners is experimenting with vegan options. We’re doing a Greek spin on some of the stuff. I figured it wouldn’t taste good, but it’s tremendous. You have to watch what you put in your mouth.
Q. Do restaurant owners have a responsibility to create a healthy culture, such as sponsor a gym membership for their employees?
A. If the restaurant can afford to do that, then I would say it’s almost like insurance. Anything that could help our industry, I’m for it.