How 5 Top New Jersey Chefs Stay Fit, Even Around All That Food

They're surrounded by tasty temptations daily. What are their secrets to prioritizing health and wellness?

Chef Ingrid Wright does yoga on a tabletop

A morning meditation practice helps Ingrid Wright, executive chef of Mercado Montclair, clear her mind before the day begins. Photo: Dave Moser; makeup: Charlie Hernandez

Dollars to doughnuts, getting in shape is one of the top New Year’s resolutions. Some of us put our heads (and our forks) down and make some headway. It’s hard, but we can get out of the kitchen. A chef cannot.

[RELATED: NJ Chefs Dish on Their New Year’s Resolutions]

“A restaurant kitchen is a dangerous place,” says David Goldstein, president of the Professional Chefs Association of South Jersey. “And I don’t mean the razor-sharp knives and 1,200-degree ovens. The greatest dangers chefs face are stress and mindless stress eating. The food is everywhere, just waiting for you.”

Goldstein should know. As an executive chef in Atlantic City, he worked 14-hour days, gained 95 pounds and got type 2 diabetes. “But I wasn’t going to let my job kill me,” Goldstein says. ”I lost the weight and earned a Registered Dietetic Assistant diploma from Rutgers. Now I help stressed-out chefs get healthy.”

Here’s how five fit Jersey chefs we know do it.

Ryan DePersio

Chef/partner • Battello, Jersey City | Kitchen Step, Jersey City and Newark Airport Terminal A | The Tilling House, Eatontown

Chef Ryan DePersio

Ryan DePersio’s pro tip: “Try to work out in the morning, and avoid eating or drinking past 8 pm.” Photo: Dave Moser

“I’m Italian on both sides and grew up around good food. Food was love. I was a chubby little kid. But I got into weight lifting in junior high and kept it up. I wanted to look good for the girls. I continued working out daily as a student at New York Restaurant School and then a cook for chefs like David Bouley and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. I had a young metabolism, and the gym kept me in good shape.

I opened Fascino in Montclair, which ran for 20 years, when I was 25. Being executive chef and owner was a huge responsibility and fitness challenge. There was so much food to taste. Plus I was starting a family. I almost literally felt a weight on my shoulders, and I couldn’t afford to lose control of my health and my restaurant.

So I developed the extreme discipline it takes to have only one tasting bite of something so delicious you want to gobble it all. As I opened other restaurants, I religiously stuck to one bite. Firm rules and set routines are pivotal. I work out the same time daily, and I nearly always eat dinner with my family in Wyckoff.

I have expert in-house help. My wife, Stephanie, is a fitness trainer and holistic nutritionist. We eat clean: unprocessed, fresh, seasonal. Grass-fed beef, wild-caught fish, minimal dairy, lots of organic fruits and vegetables, often juiced. We grill or roast instead of fry or sauté. Our two sons and daughter actually prefer healthy, fresh food to junk food. I’m so proud of that.

I’m in my forties, and maintaining muscle and weight is harder. I invested in a Peloton and I ran my third New York Marathon this past fall. I’m in this for the long haul.”

Tom Valenti

Executive chef • Jockey Hollow, Morristown

Tom Valenti, executive chef of Jockey Hollow in Morristown, does yard work at his Sussex County home

Tom Valenti’s pro tip: “Portion control is key. One bite of anything won’t hurt you. Feeling deprived is more dangerous.” Photo: Dave Moser

“I was an only child to a single mom and spent much of my time with my Italian grandparents. They got me a stepstool so I could watch Nonni [Grandma] cook. I equated feeding people with happiness, so of course I became a chef.

The ’80s and ’90s were thrilling times for Manhattan dining, and I was in sync. New York Times reviews of my restaurants seemed to always contain the word exuberant. I’d go out and carouse two or three nights a week with Bobby [Flay] and Mario [Batali] after our shifts. We’d gorge ourselves at late-night SoHo restaurants and in Chinatown. I was also fond of greasy delivery food. I never exercised and weighed 40 or 50 more pounds than I do now.

Type 2 diabetes slammed on the brakes. I moved from Manhattan to sleepy Sussex County about 15 years ago for a radically saner lifestyle. It was a turning point, mentally and physically. I’m at home in the country. I’m a morning person suited to a chef’s morning-intensive routine. I get active as soon as I wake up. Exercise is as strong a stimulant as coffee. I gather wood for my house, which was built in 1840 and has six fireplaces. I garden three seasons a year, like my Nonno [Grandpa]. Gardening is great cardio exercise. I joined a gym for variety and go several times a week for strength training and cardio.

At Jockey Hollow, I taste everything in one bite. At home, I rely on protein, fruits, vegetables. I drink only with company. I’m in my sixties now and feel young and vibrant.”

Leia Gaccione

Chef/owner South + Pine, Morristown

Leia Gaccione, chef/owner of South + Pine in Morristown, does yoga in her restaurant

Leia Gaccione’s pro tip: “Healthy is the goal. Stop comparing your body to superheroes or supermodels.” Photo: Dave Moser

“I wasn’t always in good shape. My single mom worked two or three jobs, so we ate mostly packaged or frozen food. At school, I was the last chosen for a gym team. In high school, we wanted to look like Kate Moss or Christina Aguilera—the standard of beauty at the time. I did what a lot of teen girls do. I starved myself into anorexia, which continued through my two years at New York Restaurant School.

When I started cooking professionally, I made peace with eating and built self-control. My weight yo-yoed, but I exercised and felt content, except about my smoking. I hated smelling like an ashtray and quit once and for all. But I gained 20 pounds. A restaurant coworker brought me to her CrossFit gym, which specializes in intervals: short bursts of cardio and weight training. I went back the next day and joined. I also started Weight Watchers. It’s slow, but it works.

A snowmobile crash shattered my pelvis and my world. But I healed well and opened South + Pine in 2015. Then my marriage ended. I was stressed out and often on the verge of panic. Once again, exercise saved me. Yoga became my gateway drug to fitness. Then Covid came, and on Zoom I discovered Fit Like Krys and its workouts and nutrition plans—no gluten, sugar, alcohol. I dropped 40 pounds and lost my taste for sweets and booze. It’s been over a year, and I feel I can do this forever. Now I work out at King Strength in Livingston every weekday. My satisfying diet focuses on fresh food like fish, green vegetables, whole grains. I’m super strict about portion control. I bring lunch and dinner to South + Pine, lighter versions of my menu: interesting salads, spiced chickpeas, a turkey burger or salmon chunk. I’ve achieved a food/life balance.”

Ingrid Wright

Executive chef • Mercado, Montclair

Ingrid Wright, executive chef of Mercado in Montclair

Ingrid Wright’s pro tip: “Don’t keep your food weaknesses around. Sadly, there’s no chocolate in my house.” Photo: Dave Moser; makeup: Charlie Hernandez

“I learned discipline working as a model in Paris, eventually going to culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu. I cooked in Paris and Shanghai and returned to New York, my hometown. I was working in high-end restaurant kitchens, teaching cooking, and raising my son as a single mom. The pressure would get to me. I’d slip up and eat mindlessly.

Then I got into meditation first thing in the morning before my stretches, crunches and planks. Meditating clears my mind and focuses me on my day. This mental strength has tightened my dietary discipline. I say to myself, ‘I don’t have to eat that, so I won’t.’ At work, I get my tasting done in one or two small spoonfuls.

I eat light at home, too. Breakfast is from my juicer, often with ginger, turmeric and/or cucumber. I cook mindfully, and it’s so tasty I don’t feel cheated. My circle of friends, all chefs, likes to gather for meals of fresh, delicious food. We all face the same challenges, and we’re kind of a support group. My border collie, Tamari, is a big support, too. I walk her daily in local parks, and it’s great for both of us. I also burn calories gardening. I grow tomatoes, berries, beets, zucchini, butternut squash, cucumbers, onions and hot peppers like Scotch bonnets.

I was born in Costa Rica, but my roots are Jamaican. Food that’s good for you doesn’t have to be boring.”

Joe Muldoon

Chef/owner Haddon Culinary, Collingswood

Joe Muldoon with his wife and two daughters at Haddon Culinary in Collingswood

Joe Muldoon’s pro tip: “Think of your local farmers’ market as a fitness partner.” Photo: Dave Moser

“I grew up in South Jersey cooking with my mom, a home ec teacher; I named my first restaurant, Roberta’s by Joe Muldoon, after her. I got a culinary degree from Johnson & Wales and headed to Atlantic City. I’d cook and eat in my kitchen at Bally’s steak house and then go out to chow down with my chef buddies. Then my metabolism changed around 30, and the food and drink went right to my gut. I was well on my way to being that roly-poly chef.

I got married in 2015, and Jennifer and I relocated to Camden County with our daughters, Gigi, now 4, and Mila, 7. I work long chef’s hours, but I refuse to shortchange my family or have a dad bod. My fitness time is also family time. We bike together; they cycle and I run beside them. In summer, we swim laps in our pool. I also do crunches and pushups daily.

Now I run Haddon Culinary, a three-meal-a-day scratch kitchen and gourmet-food market. Cooking can get frantic, and it’s too easy to grab food. But I’m committed to staying healthy for my family. I gravitate to proteins and greens. No sugar. Minimal bread, pasta, rice, potatoes. Zero beer. But my daughters are the secret sauce in my fitness recipe.”

KT Harrison, an NJM dining critic since 2007 and a weekly columnist for, needs all the fitness advice she can get.

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