Thursday, May 26, 2011

Chef Jay’s Rags-to-Riches Story

Interview with Jay Littmann




We’ve all heard of people going from rags to riches. Hollywood is full of feel-good stories about the underdog overcoming all odds to succeed. How often, though, does it really happen? How many people do you know personally who have gone from absolute rock bottom to millionaire? How many people do you personally know who have gone from morbid obesity, dropping more than 200 pounds to get to 8 percent bodyfat? To slim the odds even further, how many people have you ever met who have done both?

After having inhabited this planet for 51 years, I now know one. His name is Jay Littmann, and he’s the owner and founder of Chef Jay’s Food Products. I always like to mention my favorite products whenever I can. In my January 2010 column I mentioned that I eat Tri-O-Plex cookies once or twice a day in the off-season (I sometimes sneak them into my contest diet). Jay e-mailed me to thank me for the plug. After exchanging just an e-mail note with him, I was dying to interview the man. I had the great pleasure of meeting Jay just a couple weeks later while I was in Los Angeles for the Fit Expo. Chef Jay has one heck of a story to tell.

DG: Man, I have to tell you, I love your cookies. A training partner got me hooked on them several years ago. I just might be single-handedly keeping you in business now.

Although your product is outstanding, what’s even more impressive is your life story, of which I just recently got a glimpse. You have a book coming out, How to Get From There to Here: One Man’s Triumph Over Addictions, Obesity, and Being Down and Out, which will be extremely inspirational. To start, could you provide some background?

JL: I’m from Boston, and I grew up the first born in a Jewish dysfunctional family. I have a spiritual advisor who tells me to get over it—everyone comes from a dysfunctional family.

DG: And if you don’t think your family was the least bit dysfunctional, you’re probably nuts, right? Did you play any sports or do any lifting when you were in high school?

JL: I did wrestle and play football one season, although I wasn’t very good.

DG: You’re sporting a pretty good set of guns in that sharp sleeveless chef’s jacket.

JL: You like the jacket, huh? I designed it myself. The guns are just from hard work.

DG: It shocked me to learn that you were once a homeless drug addict. How did you end up in that situation?

JL: Well, I was getting by being a bouncer in a bar. I wasn’t making much money, only working about five hours a night at about $8 an hour. I had a room upstairs over the bar, and most of the money I made went to pay rent. But I could drink for free while I worked, and I would hustle drugs on the side through the patrons of the bar. I hadn’t had a legal driving license for years, and the car I was driving I’d pulled out of the junkyard.

Well, my drug and alcohol use got to the point that I couldn’t even make it to my free-drinking bar job, and eventually I was fired. After that I simply ran out of money, and I decided I didn’t want to live like that anymore. I was able to get into a treatment center through a program that provides insurance to the unemployed. After that I took up residence in a Salvation Army shelter because I had no other place to go while I was waiting for a bed to open up in a halfway house.

DG: How did you fight your way out of that hole and back to a normal life?

JL: After I stayed in the halfway house for a couple of months, my parents agreed to let me live with them until I could get on my feet. At that point I had less than nothing. I had outstanding school loans that were in default, as well as other unpaid financial commitments. I hadn’t filed income tax returns for 11 years. I owed thousands of dollars in fines to get my driver’s license back, and I had other outstanding legal charges pending.

Basically, I just took one day at a time—sometimes a minute at a time. I went to my recovery meetings, and I believed that it would all work out if I kept myself clean and sober. I eventually got a job, saved a little money and got my license back. I went back to driving a cab, a job I’d held when I was using. I was able to get some funding from a state program that helped people in my situation go back to school. It didn’t pay for everything, but it helped. I got accepted to culinary school. I drove the cab all weekend and went to school all week.

DG: How did you get started baking nutritional cookies?

JL: After culinary school I wanted to move out west for the warmer climate. I stopped in Las Vegas on the way to California, since it was booming in 1995. I’d always wanted to be in business for myself, and when I realized the politics involved in becoming a top chef in a good Vegas hotel, I decided to buy a little hole-in-the-wall muffin shop. We were making a very primitive version of a health bar that we called Fiber Bars, but we were selling only a couple of dozen a week.

Then the protein-bar craze started to take off. I changed the name to Oat Bars, making the labels on my home ink-jet printer. I got the local health clubs to start selling them, and sales started to rise. I eventually got the sales manager of the Wild Oats chain to buy my first pallet, 5,000 bars. Then I created a new version with protein, and I named it Tri-O-Plex. Sales grew, and I now own a 22,000-square-foot state-of-the-art manufacturing plant complete with robotics. After I got the plant going, I branched out into cookies, brownies and a few less successful products, which I would like to forget.

DG: That‘s an amazing story, Jay, but the next mind-boggling revelation is that you recently lost more than 200 pounds and are down to 8 percent bodyfat. How did you accomplish that incredible feat?

JL: Basically, I knew I was going to die an early death if I didn’t do something about my weight. I had a newborn son and another five-year-old boy, and I wanted to be around to see them grow up. I’d been diagnosed with diabetes a few years back and had progressed from oral medication to insulin. My weight had ballooned to 416 pounds. I was also on cholesterol, stomach and blood pressure medication in addition to two kinds of insulin and four other oral diabetes pills. Basically, I cut down my portions and started to exercise a lot more, using a treadmill and weights.

I’ve always been a fan of fast cars—old muscle cars like the GTO and Chevelle—and I always wanted an exotic car but was never able to fit in one. When I found out there was a three-to-five-year wait for a new convertible Ferrari from the factory, I decided that’s the car I wanted. I taped a picture of that car on the treadmill and told myself that when I lost the weight, I would own one. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but that was irrelevant. You can always get what you want if you want it bad enough, are willing to do the legwork and put your faith in God.

Well, about eight months later I’d lost the majority of the weight, and I had my car.

DG: Holy cow! You lost nearly 200 pounds in only eight months? That’s absolutely astounding. How much weight training and cardio were you doing? Did you count calories and macronutrients, or was it just a matter of portion control and good food choices?

JL: I was doing cardio 30 minutes a day five times a week, and I was weight training 45 minutes in the afternoon five times a week. I just tried to keep my portions to under six to eight ounces three times a day and concentrated on protein. I ended up getting sick because I wasn’t eating enough to sustain me for the exercise I was doing. I increased it to eating every 2 1/2 hours and sometimes a snack in between.

DG: What effect have your weight loss and your continued exercise program had on your diabetes and cholesterol issues?

JL: I was able to completely get off all medication.

DG: Wow! The story just keeps getting better and better. So you’ve beaten homelessness and drug addiction, you have a thriving cookie business, a lean, mean, healthy body—at close to 50—and a book that I’m sure is going to be a best seller. What worlds are you out to conquer next?

JL: I want to devote my life to helping others. That’s the main reason I wrote the book. People can have amazing lives no matter where they are currently, and that’s the message I want to spread through writing and public speaking.

DG: Jay, it was such a pleasure interviewing you. I wish you much continued success with all of your endeavors. Before we close, how can people contact you to schedule book signings, speaking engagements and so on?

JL: They can contact me through my Web site, ChefJays.com, or through my Facebook page and Twitter or the office at (702) 873-7777. My book will be available through Barnes & Noble, Borders and on Amazon.com.

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