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It was a dream job offer, a chance for Kathleen Daelemans to strut her stuff in the kitchen of a five-star Hawaii resort. But after she signed on as executive chef at the Grand Wailea Resort on Maui in August 1991, her new bosses announced a change of menu. They wanted her to cook spa food. "I asked, 'What is spa food?' " Daelemans says. "Clearly I didn't know—and I didn't eat it either."

Clearly. Daelemans, who stands 5'2", weighed 205 lbs. and wore a size 22. Faced with the prospect of expulsion from paradise, she set about relearning how to cook, creating dishes like ginger shrimp with black bean salad—low-fat meals that were still high in flavor. Daelemans also began eating what she cooked and within three months was down 30 lbs. In a year, after adding exercise to her routine, she dropped another 50 lbs. "I realized you don't have to go on these insane diets," says Daelemans, 39. "Losing weight is doable.
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Now a size 6 petite, Daelemans has taken her message to the masses as host of Cooking Thin, the Food Network's first show devoted to healthful eating. Renewed for a second season, the half-hour hit program, which airs Saturday mornings, has spawned a companion cook-book, Cooking Thin with Chef Kathleen, released April 1.

Daelemans, who has a regular segment in which she goes into the kitchens of real-life dieters, teaches portion control and low-fat eating. "As soon as I tasted her no-fat Piña Colada Cheesecake," says chef Keith Famie of Survivor fame, who now hosts his own Food Network show, "I knew she would be an inspiration to all of us who try to control our natural cravings." Red meat, Daelemans tells her viewers, is fine; just use the leanest cut available (flank steak instead of T-bone, for example). "Fried" chicken is actually dipped in yogurt and baked in the oven, and pizza is made with microwaved canned tomatoes instead of calorie-rich sauce—cooking tips that work, says Roberta Brecher, 60. The Porterdale, Ga., police officer was featured on two Cooking Thin episodes taped last May and has since lost 50 lbs. "For 30 years I've been fighting [to lose] weight," Brecher says. "Kathleen totally changed my life—I'm cooking more creatively and trying different foods."

The second of four children raised in West Bloomfield, Mich., by Paul Daelemans, 66, an aeronautical engineer, and her homemaker mom, Rita, 61, Daelemans saw herself as "the ugly duckling" as a young girl. Alternately starving and stuffing herself, she tried everything from pills to an all-pineapple diet in a futile effort to lose weight.

In 1986, after Daelemans dropped out of Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo, Calif., a friend offered her a job as a restaurant dishwasher. "I hated that work," she says, "but I really liked being in the kitchen." She liked it so much that she pursued a culinary career, working her way up to sous chef at San Francisco's chic Zuni Cafe by 1989.

Despite this success, Daelemans would climb into bed at night with a pint of ice cream—usually Ben & Jerry's Chubby Hubby—or a box of Girl Scout cookies. "I decided," she says, "I was always going to be overweight."

In 1999, though, after several years of healthy cooking and eating disproved that theory, Daelemans, who had moved back in with her parents to help care for her cancer-stricken grandmother, decided to share her newfound wisdom with others. She wrote to TV stations offering to consult on low-calorie recipes, and a local Detroit show gave her a weekly kitchen segment. When the Food Network called a year later, Daelemans was camera-ready.

These days Daelemans, who is single and shopping for her own home in suburban Detroit, complements her healthy eating habits with four-day-a-week workouts of spinning and weight training. After all, having spent years searching for a weight-loss answer, Daelemans says, "I'm not looking back."

Galina Espinoza
Lauren Comander in West Bloomfield

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  • Lauren Comander.